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SI's Favorite Athletes of the Century

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Posted: Thursday July 08, 1999 05:41 PM

Sports Illustrated

Click here for an action photo of each athlete.

1 Sandy Koufax
He was an aristocrat in spikes, with a gentleman's carriage and an assassin's arsenal -- his fastball and curve. His last six seasons are mythic: 129-47 with a 2.19 ERA. He threw 27 complete games with a painfully arthritic arm in 1966 and then quit. He slipped into a private life fundamentally no different from his days as a beloved public icon: unfailingly true to his ideals. He always put team before self, modesty before fame and God before the World Series.
2 Muhammad Ali
He was too many things to too many people to be pinned down for history. Was he an entertainer, a fighter of supernatural guile, a political activist, a martyr? "Here's what he really was," says George Foreman, who lost to him in one of boxing's most fabled fights. "He was brave. I'd hit him -- hit him hard -- and he'd just keep at me. Nobody'd ever done that before. He'd come ready to die! Now what are you going to do with a guy like that?"
3 Dick Butkus
His goal, the true Monster of the Midway once admitted, was to hit the ballcarrier so hard that his head came off. If the mayhem he wrought in nine NFL seasons did not include any beheadings, it wasn't for lack of effort. Butkus had range and brains, but the thing that made him an archetype -- the best middle linebacker in football history -- was his toughness, his Old Testament malevolence, his wet-your-pants intensity. "What I miss," he said softly a few years ago, "is the violence."
4 Babe Ruth
Like rock-and-roll and the Model T, Ruth was a seminal American invention. Be it his power at the plate, his popularity or his various appetites, the Babe was huge. Most amazing of all, Ruth was Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens -- he was a dominant pitcher before becoming the founding father of the home run. The modern game began in 1920 when he hit 54 home runs, surpassing his own record by 25. To equal that kind of jump, McGwire would have to hit 130 this year.
5 Michael Jordan
Picture the last NBA shot he took (against the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the 1998 Finals), and you have his essence. It practically broke the ankles of his defender, as so many of Jordan's moves did to so many defenders over his 12 1/2 seasons. It was dramatic, as was so much of his scoring in the clutch. And it won a championship, as he did six times for the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. It's not axiomatic, you know, that someone will always come along who's better.
6 Mickey Mantle
We liked the Commerce Comet because he could do it all. He could bunt for a hit or he could blast a baseball 565 feet. He could hit from both sides of the plate, run like a thoroughbred, play with pain and win the Triple Crown. Yet his passing was as memorable as his playing. Just before he died in 1995 from complications of liver cancer, Mantle made a very public penance for a life lived too hard with too many drinks. His last great play was to raise awareness for organ donation. It was then that we liked him best of all.
7 Arnold Palmer
The huge, tan forearms.
The lock of hair over the forehead.
The shirt half untucked, belt half unhitched.
The lit cigarette lying to the side.
The farm-boy grin.
The weeds up to the knees.
The finish, like a roundhouse right.
The women swooning.
The men sighing.
The King.
8 Johnny Unitas
An unknown in college, rejected by his hapless hometown Steelers, he became the intrepid leading man in that classic sports drama, The Greatest Game Ever Played. How could you not admire the man in hightops and horseshoes, standing fearless in the pocket, surveying the fields of fire, pumping, threading the needle? He threw touchdown passes in 47 straight games and virtually invented the two-minute drill. As all modern thoroughbred horses are descended from three Arabian stallions, all modern quarterbacks are the progeny of Johnny U.
9 Wayne Gretzky
He was the kid on the pond whom the older guys couldn't catch: elusive, imaginative, untiring. With a spin and a feint, he'd slide the prettiest pass you'd never seen onto the stick of a teammate you hadn't known was open. Or he'd bounce a shot in off the goalie. Or pass the puck off the net to himself. Night after night, for 20 seasons, the Great One never stopped playing like a kid.
10 Bill Russell
The antistat man, he defined his basketball by one measure only: winning. He was sui generis, changing the game with his almost mystical ability to block shots. Off the court, he refused to dispense autographs and was utterly forthright, unafraid to speak out against racial injustice. Above all: No athlete ever had such a positive influence on his teammates -- everybody was a better player when Bill Russell was on their side.
11 Sugar Ray Robinson
Little-known fact: Sugar Ray invented the entourage. When he fought his way across Europe in 1951, he brought along his wife, his manager, his secretary, his valet, his barber, his golf pro and two trainers. Duplicate trainers was the lone redundancy for the fighter who's been anointed the best pound-for-pound because, as the years have shown, there's never been another like him, either in sheer talent or glorious self-assurance.
12 Ted Williams
It is said, with only a touch of hyperbole, that Number Nine is the only person to have been the best in the world at three things. Ted's trifecta: casting a fly rod, flying a plane and hitting a baseball. He grew, in public, from the Kid to the Splendid Splinter to Teddy Ballgame and, astoundingly, has evolved yet further into the beloved old man of baseball. The last man to hit .400 and to argue 1.000.
13 Bo Jackson
He was a marvel straight out of Marvel Comics. Bo once ran along an outfield wall -- parallel to the ground -- after making a grab (Vroom!), threw a ball from the warning track to home on the fly to nail a runner (Whoosh!), hit one of the longest homers ever off Nolan Ryan (Pow!), pancaked Brian Bosworth (Wham!) and became the first NFL runner to break off two touchdowns of more than 90 yards (Zoom!). He also made one of the most courageous comebacks in baseball history, playing with an artificial hip. Naturally, Bo homered in his first game back (Gadzooks!).
14 Wilma Rudolph
No other great athlete lived a life of such extremes. She suffered from polio as a child and died too young of cancer, but in between, she was a captivating and conquering sprinter. We all fell in love with the prime Tigerbelle from Tennessee State at the '60 Olympics in Rome, where she was so scintillating that she made a young boxer named Cassius Clay an envious second banana.
15 Pancho Gonzalez
He coulda been the Marlon Brando of tennis, but the best years of his tennis life were spent in exile as a barnstorming pro, while pasty-faced amateurs with half his talent won the Grand Slams. Tall, dark and handsome, with a growl for a voice and a scowl for a hello, he was still winning tournaments when he was a grandfather. If earth was on the line in a tennis match, the man you'd want serving to save humankind was Ricardo Alonso Gonzalez.
16 Jackie Robinson
"He changed the game" is a testament used often in sports. All such tributes are trivial, though, when measured against what Robinson did. He had a quick bat, quicker feet and a fierce will, yet it was his courage in the face of racism that made him an unparalleled agent of change. He made it possible for baseball to be the pastime for all America.
17 Roberto Clemente
The slashing swing that could reach any pitch, the helmet-flying fury on the base paths, the jaw-dropping throws from that classic whirl-and-fire move in rightfield ... all Clemente signatures. Yet he is best defined by his grace off the field -- he perished in a New Year's Eve airplane crash in 1972 on a relief mission to Nicaragua. Gone too soon with exactly 3,000 hits and far too many lives touched to count.
18 Julius Erving
In the fading light that is the ABA, you can still see him swooping above everyone else. He was an Afroed sideshow before he was the main act, and when he finally made it to the NBA, he was as good as advertised. Yes, Jordan took Erving's aerial act to another level, but Dr. J was the first man who walked on the tightrope without a net.
19 Joe Louis
He was a dependably devastating presence in the ring who seemed capable of righting national and even international wrongs with his thunderous punches. At a time when few sports were integrated, Joe Louis made the color of his skin incidental to his performances, and brought Americans together.
20 Chris Evert
That Ice Maiden on the court was a fun, wise-cracking (even a little bawdy) lady off it. Chris Evert was the ultimate baseline winner. Billie Jean King may have won the battle of the sexes, but Evert won the hearts, getting the ultimate backhand compliment as millions of girls imitated her two-fisted ground strokes.

Issue date: July 12, 1999

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