Gretzky created with a stick and puck artworks of preposterous cleverness. He is the master of the pass that bounces off the side of the net to grateful teammates. True, he was not the first to set up behind the net; Bobby Clarke, for one, has done that. Of course, people had hips before Elvis, too. Watching Gretzky behind the net, with two defensemen afraid to come get him and one goalie trying desperately to see out the back of his vertebrae was one of the sports ticklers of this decade.
There were times when Gretzky seemed like a stowaway aboard Mork's ship. In one impossible evening against St. Louis goaltender Mike Liut, Gretzky started by scoring off a face-off, a rare feat in its own right. Then he scored again by flipping a puck from behind the net, over the goal, off Liut's innocent back and into the net. And then he scored again from the face-off. If Liut had been found hanging the next morning from some duct pipe, Gretzky would have faced murder one.
Gretzky changed hockey so much that fighting may someday be a relic, like helmetless players and the Atlanta Flames. What 10-year-old on blades doesn't know that stickhandling, not stick mangling, will get you nine MVP awards and the Flamingo Kid's girlfriend? Gretzky's incomparable slipperiness changed the NHL from smash-face to speed and grace. "People say players in the NHL won't hit me," says Gretzky. "They all want to hit me. But they have to catch me first."
Montana may not have invented anything in the '80s, but he did make the 49ers' attack the model of the "in" offense of the decade: the control passing game, in which receivers are kept on a leash until some cornerback starts getting smart and suddenly finds himself chasing the business end of a 75-yard bomb. And what Montana reinvented was the impossible, get-serious, did-you-hear-what-happened-after-we-left comeback. Down by 22 in the fourth quarter and sick with the flu, he brought Notre Dame back for a win over Houston in the 1979 Cotton Bowl. Down 35-7 at halftime to New Orleans in 1980, Montana brought the Niners back to win. Down 21-10 in the fourth quarter against Philadelphia this year, Montana threw four touchdowns to win. And there are only a couple of dozen others.
What Unitas was to the '60s and Staubach to the '70s, Montana is to the '80s. All this from a third-round draft choice, 82nd overall, who wasn't even sure if he would make the team. "I remember that Dwight Clark and I would avoid making plans for the future because we weren't sure we'd still be around," he says.
Maybe this is what made them good and maybe it isn't, but these are three of the worst losers you'll ever meet. On road trips, magic and coach pat riley have been known to bet a dollar on whose piece of luggage will come down the chute first. "If he loses," Riley has said, "he actually gets teed off." In summer pickup games, Magic is known to call ticky-tacky fouls, so much so that some people dread playing with him.
When Gretzky's L.A. Kings lost to the Edmonton Oilers the other night at the Forum, Gretzky dressed quickly and left without greeting the locker room guests. One was Bruce Springsteen. "I just didn't feel much like chatting after we'd lost." And Gretzky is a Springsteen fan.
Or maybe this is it: All three come from similar money, which is to say, not much. They were reared in working-class neighborhoods, all in the Great Lakes region: Gretzky from Brantford, Ont., an hour from Toronto, Johnson from Lansing, Mich., less than two hours from Detroit, and Montana from Monongahela, Pa., half an hour from Pittsburgh. A very big net in 1969 might have hauled in all three.
Gretzky's father is a teletype repairman, Montana's was a telephone equipment installer and Magic's was a line worker at an Oldsmobile plant. Though there was plenty to eat, there wasn't plenty of else. Magic, because his father couldn't afford to buy him a bike, had to walk. So wherever he went—"to the grocery store, to the movies"—he dribbled. Montana learned what winning meant in his steel-toed town. "Back there," he once said, "people competed for everything." Gretzky's parents spent their fortune on skates, tournament entry fees and gas. "My dad would buy me two sticks for $1.99 down at Avery's, and they'd last me three months," he says.
Is it more than merely a coincidence? "Maybe we just didn't have any distractions," Magic says. "No beach. Not a lot of expensive stuff around—toys. Just our sports."