All three bring a certain optical-illusion quality to their athleticism. In person, Magic may have a YMCA shot, herky-jerky and one-handed, but it still has gone in 53% of the time in his career. He has always taken those mincing steps, as though his legs were not quite hinged in the middle, yet he can outjuke a wolf to a sirloin. He seems to dribble with the flat of his hand, as though holding a two-by-four, but if you were told you had to cross a minefield behind a dribbling NBA player, whom else would you choose?
Montana stands only 6'2", and when Clark met him for the first time, he said, "Who is this, the punter?" O.K., so he doesn't have the wrist of Marino, the arm of Elway, the feet of Cunningham. But he has the accuracy of Price Waterhouse, and as 49er broadcaster Wayne Walker once said, he's "cooler than the other side of the pillow."
Gretzky has the look of a bag boy at the local A & P or perhaps the guy working socks and underwear at J.C. Penney. He is a shade over 5'11" and 170 pounds—he entered the league at 161—and yet this is a player who once could have won the scoring race with his assists alone.
Of the three, Magic is probably the least natural athlete. Gretzky was terrific at lacrosse and was so good at baseball that the Toronto Blue Jays offered him a tryout. At age nine, he was nationally known as a hockey prodigy. At 10, he was the subject of a 30-minute national TV special. Once, he won a peewee game by scoring three goals in the last 45 seconds. "No wonder some parents didn't like me," he says.
Montana probably could have been a professional at any sport. (He was offered a basketball scholarship to North Carolina State.) As a child he pitched three perfect Little League games. Montana can dunk two-hands backward. In high school, he high-jumped 6'9".
Earvin Johnson, however, was not very good at anything but basketball. He was a tight end in football but gave up that pursuit without reservation—or any argument from the coach. He knows he's no Michael Jordan. "I don't jump very high, but I jump high enough," says Magic. "I don't shoot very well, but I shoot well enough. I just like to win."
Of all his thrills, he rates Game 6 of his first title over Philadelphia the thrilliest. With Kareem on his couch in Bel Air icing an ankle, the rookie got 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists—all duly recorded on a tape he keeps near his VCR. "I'm almost wearing it out," he says.
For Gretzky, the finest moment was ending the New York Islanders' bid for their fifth consecutive Stanley Cup in '84 and winning his first. That's a tough choice, though, because Gretzky has a semi full of good stuff to sift through. How about beating the Soviets in the Greatest Hockey Game Ever Played, 6-5 in Game 3 of the Canada Cup in '87? Or how about splattering Phil Esposito's alltime one-season goal record by 16? What about turning the lowly Kings team into a sellout machine inside of nine months?
For Montana, it is not the first title he most cherishes ("We were just a bunch of kids") but the last. He had his back operated on in 1986 and had been given the vaudeville hook in favor of supple-backed Steve Young in '87, then won his job back. Yet he felt as if he were sitting at his own retirement roast. And it wasn't funny. "They kept saying I'm too old, I'm over the hill and all that," he remembers. "But other quarterbacks that came out the same years as I did, they weren't saying a thing about. It made you angry."
With the 92-yard drive in the closing minutes to beat the Bengals, Montana worked out a lot of anger. At the same time, he seemed to move up a floor in the department store of history, past Unforgettables and on to Unsurpassables. Dan Fouts has said, " Montana redefined greatness at the quarterback position." Ram coach John Robinson says Montana is "unparalleled in my experience in this game."