According to Shakespeare, "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them." Pity the modern athlete, then, who may have achieved greatness but had it taken from him.
Another NBA playoff run has left Karl Malone, Alonzo Mourning and John Stockton without a championship. Patrick Ewing may soon join them. The NHL postseason has spit out Ray Bourque. Now the media pundits and barroom sages will consign them all to that bleak corner—over there with Barry Bonds and Tony Gwynn and Dan Marino—reserved for players who have failed to win the Big One. The new logic dictates that all their achievements don't mean a thing if they ain't got that ring.
When did that become the law of the land? Was Ted Williams a loser because the sad-sack Red Sox never won a World Series with him? Wasn't it part of Ernie Banks's greatness that he loved the game so much he could hit 512 homers for a lousy outfit like the Cubs? Now we have the sorry spectacle of players like Roger Clemens jumping from team to team in search of a championship. Does anyone really think Clemens is somehow great only now, after winning a ring with the 1999 Yankees, a team that surely would have won without him? If anything, the rancorous way that Clemens left Boston and then Toronto, visions of rings dancing in his head, only detracted from his legacy.
If there's one person to blame for this front-running culture, it's Vince Lombardi, who promulgated the notion that winning isn't everything, it's the only thing. The results of that thinking have infected sports like a computer virus, the message worming its way through all levels of sport, even down to Little League. Along the way it destroyed something: the appreciation for great players.
Has there ever been a better power forward than Malone? Doubtful. Would the Heat have extended the Knicks to seven games in the conference semifinals if Mourning hadn't forced New York to double-team him? Not a chance. Is Bourque a lesser light, despite his 403 goals and five Norris Trophies, because he doesn't have his name inscribed on the Stanley Cup? Hardly. These are men who have achieved greatness, ring or no ring.