"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.
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.
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.
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.
That Ice Maiden on the court was a fun, wisecracking (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.