Century's Best
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Who is the Century’s Best?

Putting your finger on one name is tricky business

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Posted: Tuesday March 30, 1999 12:27 PM

 

By Leigh Montville, Sports Illustrated

They wait for a final mimeographed sheet to be posted on a final locker room wall. Who will make the cut? Who will not? The best athletes of the past 100 years at last have the same anxieties that have troubled every other athlete of our time, every person who ever has thrown, kicked or swatted a ball. "Is the name up yet?" someone, say, Michael Jordan, might ask. "Nothing," someone, say, Muhammad Ali, might reply.

One name will be on this final list. One person. The Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century. Everyone else will be sent home -- sorry, thanks for your time -- released from this final one-man team. All the cuts have led to this final cut.

Talk about tough decisions. Who can tell, say, Babe Ruth that "It was close, but we decided to go in another direction"? Who can break the news to, say, Bobby Orr? Or Wayne Gretzky, for that matter? To Ty Cobb? To Jack Nicklaus? To Jim Brown? To Joe Louis? To Jim Thorpe? To Joe Montana? To Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Wilt? To Willie Shoemaker? To Martina Navratilova? One name. One person. How do you measure knockouts against home runs, slap shots against jump shots, 12-foot putts against 100-yard kickoff returns? How does a Masters championship count against a Wimbledon crown, an NBA title against a World Series win? Does longevity count or simply the golden moment? Does character count? Social impact? Where do you start?

A hundred years ago, there probably wouldn't have been much debate. Greatest athlete of the 19th Century? John L. Sullivan, heavyweight champion, 1885 to '92. He could lick any man in the house, couldn't he? The framework of modern sport was still being constructed. The two major leagues of baseball were in the planning stages. Football was mostly a college game, played by those titans at Harvard and Yale and Princeton. Basketball was a gleam in Dr. James Naismith's unique eye. Hockey mostly was played by those wacky Canadians, mostly on frozen ponds. There were no Olympics.

The Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century will come from the phantasmagoric world of fun and entertainment that we have created for ourselves during this past 100 years, this world of grand stadiums and arenas, of television replays and endorsements, of drama and excellence. He -- or she -- will be the hero of heroes, the survivor of all the teams, all the games, from the smallest one-on-one backyard basketball confrontation between father and son to the largest, noisiest Olympic final beamed to every outpost of civilization. Every name will be eliminated except one. The absolute best. "Have they made the pick yet?" someone, say, Pele, might ask. "Nothing," someone, say, Carl Lewis, might reply.

This is going to be interesting.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Leigh Montville appears regularly on CNN/Sports Illustrated and CNNSI.com.

 
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