A lot of people in sports have been called "the greatest" at what they do -- or did. After a while, it gets hard to sort them out.
In football, Jim Brown was the greatest running back. Then a guy named Gale Sayers came along and, if his career hadn't been cut short by a knee injury, or medical science was then what it is now -- maybe he would have been the greatest. Later, there was another Chicago Bear named Walter Payton who was considered the greatest. If Barry Sanders hadn't got sick and tired of the Detroit Lions' losing ways and took a premature retirement -- maybe HE would have been the greatest. Now some dude named Adrian is on the scene tearing it up, and maybe in a few years HE'LL be the greatest. Beats me.
Babe Ruth was the greatest home run hitter. Then Roger Maris hit his 61 in '61 to eclipse the Babe's single-season record of 60.. But Maris had 8 more games to get that last home run. Nobody much mentions Maris anymore, so he couldn't have been THAT great. Career-wise, for decades Ruth's 714 home run record looked untouchable. But a guy named Hank Aaron was pounding out 35-40 dingers every year, played for a long time, and finally shattered the Babe's record by putting up 755. Maybe HE was the greatest. Of course, Barry Bonds eventually surpassed them both with 762. But Bonds was associated with the steroid thing. Maybe he took them and maybe he didn't. And if he did, maybe he could have broke the record anyway even if he didn't. If that sounds confusing -- not to worry. Yours truly has been lost for years, but let's press on anyway. At any rate, I dare say nobody calls Bonds the greatest.
Joe Louis was considered the greatest heavyweight champ, having held the title for 12 years. Years later some guy named Cassius Clay came along, won the title, changed his name to Muhammed Ali, and started saying HE was the greatest. A lot of people still believe him. But he got whupped in his prime by the likes of Leon Spinks. That doesn't sound so great. Nobody talks much about Rocky Marciano either anymore, but HE was the only one to go undefeated during his entire heavyweight professional career. Shouldn't that count for something?
Gordie Howe was the greatest hockey player -- until that skinny kid named Wayne Gretzky came along and shattered all his scoring records. Who's the greatest? Take your pick.
Jesse Owens was the greatest track star back in the 30s. Fast forward a few decades and Carl Lewis was considered the greatest. These days, a Jamaican named Usain Bolt would blow by either one of them like they were in slow motion. After all, it's still just a man running a 100 meter dash on his own two legs. Maybe HE'S the greatest.
Jack Nicklaus was the greatest golfer. Then Tiger Woods took the game by storm and was winning seemingly everything. Surely he would eclipse Jack's records, particularly the number of "major" tournament victories. Tiger was the greatest. But in the last few years, Tiger has slowed down and maybe he won't pass that record after all. To boot, that pesky young Irish lad, one Rory McIlroy, is ranked #1 in the world at the tender young age of 23. So far, given his age and experience, he's equalled or surpassed a lot of things Jack and Tiger did at the same point in their careers. Some project HIM to be the greatest.
Once upon a time, many thought Oscar Robertson was the greatest basketball player. Some guy named Michael Jordan showed up years later, and now HE'S considered the greatest. But hold on, there's another dude named Lebron James that might be even better than Jordan. Could HE be the greatest? Is there another kid in a gym somewhere that will come along one day and make us all forget about Jordan and James, so HE can be the greatest? Who knows?
Lance Armstrong was undoubtedly the greatest cyclist of all time. But then, well, you know the rest.
Rod Laver was the greatest tennis player. Then guys like Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg made a lot of people forget about what Laver ever did. Go forward another generation and names like Pete Sampras and Roger Federer come to mind as the greatest. Who was indeed the greatest? Beats me -- it might turn out to be that Serbian guy Novak Djokovic that's been steam-rolling the tennis world for the last few years, and continues to do so.
All in all, it just seems like "the greatest" is a phrase that gets used way too often (this article notwithstanding of course, nyuk, nyuk). However, there should only be ONE that is the greatest of them all -- at least among us mere mortals.
Indeed there was, and it has absolutely nothing to do with sports. Further, though I've referred only to male athletes above as examples, it was not meant to overlook the fairer sex. Certainly, the ladies have put forth their own versions of the "greatest". For that matter, yours truly considers "the greatest of all time" to be a woman.
Unlike Cassius Clay/Muhammed Ali , she never saw the need to proclaim herself as the "greatest". Nor did the media over-hype her every move, as they are so prone to do today with their hero of the day/week/month/year, whatever.
Quite the contrary. She, along with so many of us over the years, came to know her status as the all-time #1 because of her husband. He was the one that shouted it out repeatedly to her, and I dare say we all came to believe him.
That woman's name was Audrey Meadows (1922-1996). Even the "Great One" himself (Jackie Gleason/Ralph Kramden) told us over and over......
Alice, you're the greatest.
Names in sports come and go, but there will never be another Alice. May she rest in peace on the moon. After all, isn't that where Ralph ("one of these days -- pow -- zoom") kept promising to send her?
I rest my case.