AUSTIN, Texas — Over the past two weeks, the Greatest of All Time conversation has heated up, and the way things have been over the past few days, we’ll take any heat we can get.
Let’s get back to iced tea over iced streets and pipes.
But I digress.
When Tom Brady led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the Super Bowl win, he was once again proclaimed the G.O.A.T. by many in this business, and when a man owns seven Super Bowl rings, he has to be strongly considered for that top spot.
Brady is the greatest winner of the modern era of sports, and with all due respect to Bill Russell, who won 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics, I believe Brady’s feat to be more impressive given the era in which he's competing.
With that said, a G.O.A.T. who had to rely on teammates to get to that place in history isn’t as impressive as someone who had to do it on his or her own.
It’s why I place Brady at No. 4 on my list of Greatest of All Time. He is easily the most decorated professional football player ever, but was he ever considered the best quarterback? If anything, he played at a time when many (me included) would have taken Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers as the best at their position. Even though Brady proved he could win a title without Bill Belichick — the greatest head coach of all time — he did have him for six of those championships, and that’s something that can’t be overlooked.
A quarterback gets most of the credit when a team wins and some of the blame when it loses, but football is the ultimate team game, so the G.O.A.T. debate can be a bit skewed due to the overromanticized quarterback position.
An athlete in an individual sport who dominates over a long period of time deserves more consideration, and that’s why I can’t put Brady, Russell or even Michael Jordan in my top spot.
Any G.O.A.T. list should begin with Muhammad Ali. He's tops. The line starts behind him.
He called himself "The Greatest" as a loudmouthed kid from Louisville, Ky., by the name of Cassius Clay, then went about proving it over the next decade and a half.
Before the government cruelly took away Ali's livelihood when he refused induction into the Army because of his conscientious objection to the Vietnam War, Ali was nearly untouchable in the ring. He did float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.
Still, Ali’s wins in the ring — he was the first man to win the heavyweight title three times — and his status as a civil rights hero and beacon of international love in his later years (his win over George Foreman in Zaire made him a global icon) set him apart from the rest.
No. 2? It has to be Serena Williams.
Along with sister Venus, Williams is arguably the most amazing rags-to-riches success story in the history of American sports. She owned women’s tennis for most of two decades despite having to overcome a life-threatening illness, numerous injuries and advancing years in a sport known for a short shelf life.
Her 23 major titles are one away from Margaret Court, but they're much more impressive because Court won most of hers before the Open era.
Williams tearfully bowed out of the Australian Open after losing in straight sets to the new Serena, a Japanese phenom by the name of Naomi Osaka. It’s possible she will shut it down after this season or sooner and become a full-time mom to Olympia, but she’s still a real threat to win another major.
Williams, at 39, can still beat 99% of the women in professional tennis, but Osaka presents an impenetrable wall because she does everything Serena does with the advantage of youth. She moves as well, hits as hard and has the same steely resolve that has made Williams the greatest tennis player ever.
At 23, Osaka is poised to dominate this sport for the next decade, if she decides to stick around, a real choice because she’s already the highest-paid female athlete on the planet.
As for Williams, she's my G.O.A.T. because she took on all comers and outlasted generational talents who won majors such as Justine Henin, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati and, yes, even her big sister. She also gets the edge over Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic because they're all still tussling among themselves for G.O.A.T. status on the men's side.
No. 3? His Royal Airness.
Unlike Brady, Jordan was the unquestioned best player in his prime. After his Chicago Bulls vanquished the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons in the early 1990s, Jordan ascended to the top of the sport's hierarchy, not only as the greatest to ever play — there are others such as Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and LeBron James nipping at his heels — but also as the greatest pitchman ever.
Jordan won 10 scoring titles and took what aerial acrobats Connie Hawkins, Julius Erving and David Thompson had done above the rim to another stratosphere. Once he he took the throne, he owned the sport. He left for a short spell to play baseball, but after he returned to form, three more titles followed.
Unlike Ali, who followed the immortal Jackie Robinson's lead and paved the way for the modern-era Black athlete, Jordan didn’t really have go through anything to get to the top — aside from a few well-placed elbows from Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn — but his dominance of his league and his 6-0 record in the NBA Finals with six Finals MVPs puts him ahead of TB-12, who lost three Super Bowls to teams led by the other Manning brother and the second-greatest QB to come out of Westlake High, Nick Foles.
We’ve already discussed Brady at No. 4, so let’s finish up this list.
First, the legends who didn't make it: Joe Montana, Jim Brown, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Pele, Richard Petty and multisport stars Jim Thorpe and Babe Didrikson Zaharias.
I'm going with Wayne Gretzky, who was and still is hockey.
The nine-time MVP pushed his sport well past Edmonton and the Northeast part of America into the South, where kids in Texas and Southern California were forced to turn an eye toward to the hockey highlights each night on SportsCenter to see what he was up to.
Gretzky was the hockey version of Michael Jordan from the time he entered the old WHA as a 17-year-old to the day he retired two decades later as a 10-time scoring champion with NHL career records in goals (894), points (2,857), assists (1,963) and whatever else you want to look up.
He rewrote the hockey record books and made the sport much cooler outside of Canada.
So there you have it. Surely there are names I didn't mention that you will want to remind me about, and that's the great fun of sports. Conversations like these are always great for the water cooler, though words like “water” and “cooler” aren’t as popular in this part of the country.
I’ll chill for now. There’s lots of that going around lately.
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