LONGSHOTS: The elusive quality of greatness is the topic of the day
by Dave Long
I’ve been thinking about how to spot greatness this week.
And I don’t mean the watered-down version of today, where everyone from Manny Ramirez to Johann Santana is called a superstar — even though Manny doesn’t hustle or bring to mind Dwight Evans in the field, while Santana ain’t won bubkus. They’re very good players, but, by the way I define it, they are stars, not superstars, which to me are the best of the best.
I’ll concede my definition is a bit murky. It developed growing up with baseball during a time when seven percent of those voting for the Hall of Fame incredibly didn’t think Ted Williams belonged — so its roots come from a stingier, some would say insane, time. There basically were just three superstars then — Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Sandy Koufax. That left Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn (who won 363 games) and Frank Robinson (who hit 586 homers), among others for the next level down in the “star” category. Brooks Robinson and Roberto Clemente were considered great fielders, but other parts of their games didn’t let them enter the really elite level. In basketball there were five greats: Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and of course Wilt. Football: Dick Butkus and Jimmy Brown made the cut, Gale Sayers for a short time and Johnny Unitas and a few other guys in a sport where greatness is much harder to quantify.
Today some people call Stephon Marbury great! Can you imagine calling a guy who’s made every team he’s ever been on worse after he arrived “Starbury”? But that’s the culture of now — which, in the words of General Orloff in the Bond flick For Your Eyes Only, I categorically reject. He actually said “deny,” but I’m pretty sure you get the idea I think anyone who utters the words “great” and “Marbury” in the same sentence is insane! It’s kind of like Charles Krauthammer saying this week in the Washington Post the Bush legacy is on the rise already. I don’t want to kick The Prez (which, as I’m writing this on Monday Bush still technically is) on the way out of town, but I’ll ask: how?
Greatness begins and ends with winning. That’s why Wilt had such a hard time getting true respect despite astonishing individual feats like scoring 100 points in a game and more unbelievably getting 55 rebounds in a game. It didn’t fully come his way until the 76ers finally knocked off the Celtics in 1967 and his Lakers won 33 straight, a league-record 69 games and the NBA title four years later.
Sometimes it’s easy to spot, like with the currently rampaging Lebron James. You could tell when ESPN put his high school games on TV he was going to challenge Russell, Michael, Bird and Magic for their lofty spots in the NBA’s Mount Olympus. And he is. Others will tell you they knew it right away, like with Michael Jordan. But if so, how come two guys were picked before him in the 1984 draft? Trust me, while you knew Jordan was going to be very good, no one saw coming what he turned into. And if they say they did, don’t believe them.
There have been some others who you knew had the goods and lived up to it. Everyone who saw Lew Alcindor play at Power Memorial in NYC knew someday he’d turn into what Kareem Abdul Jabbar became. Of course, as Alcindor he led UCLA to three straight titles in becoming the greatest college player of them all. Ken Griffey Jr. had Hall of Fame written all over him at 18. Ditto for Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr and John Elway — though he took longer to get there as lower-rated guys like Dan Marino and Joe Montana shot past him on the achievement list. He didn’t really catch up until toward the end of his career. But if I have one game to win, I’m taking him over both guys, which is saying something considering how good Joe cool was in the clutch.
And then there are guys who seemed like a lock and didn’t quite make it. Jose Canseco won an MVP and hit 462 steroid-tainted homers, but left about 300 more on the table in the largest waste of baseball talent I’ve seen. Red Auerbach wanted the good but eventually disappointing 7’4” Ralph Sampson real bad when he had the top pick in 1980. But he wouldn’t come out early, so in plan B he flipped it and the #10 pick for Robert Parish and Kevin McHale — pheeew!!!! Eric Lindros was going to be the next Lemieux, as hockey’s last can’t-miss guy before Sidney Crosby (who’s living up to the notices) came along. Instead he finished 99th on the all-time goal-scoring list during an injury-plagued career, 522 behind Wayne Gretsky’s 894 having never played on a Stanley Cup winner.
I’ve been thinking about identifying greatness this week for two reasons. The first was Scott Pioli leaving to become GM of the Chiefs. I think judging talent is the hardest thing in sports and why Pioli is the single biggest Patriots loss in the Belichick era. Greatness and/or real talent sometimes comes from places you just don’t see, like Tom Brady at 199. Four quarterbacks were taken before Montana in ’79, Julius Irving was a so-so mid-major prospect coming to UMass before blossoming into the Doctor, and Barry Bonds, while a first round pick, won an astonishing seven MVP awards, steroids or no steroids. And Pioli’s knack for finding buried players has been vital to the 21st-century Patriots.
I’m also wondering about greatness as Barack Obama becomes our 44th president. Like Brady he came out of nowhere to take his world by storm. While I’ve seen a lot of greats in sports, I haven’t seen many in politics. But, more than anyone I’ve seen since Martin Luther King Jr., he has a real chance to meet my definition for being great. To do it he must restore optimism as Reagan did, open doors and mend international fences like Nixon, redirect the focus to those who need help most as LBJ did, while breaking down the walls of (politically partisan) intolerance (on both sides) and leading through trying times like the great Dr. King.
Only time will tell if I’m right. But while I’m still getting e-mails from nitwits certain he’ll fail, mostly because he’s not from what I call their political tribe, I know many scouts and pundits knew Dustin Pedroia couldn’t play, Dr. J was just a jumper with no jumper, Brady couldn’t do it and that back in the day Abe Lincoln was a one-term congressional failure, and look how they turned out. I think the nitwits will be wrong this time too and am betting Barack Obama delivers the goods to become a true superstar as president — which we’ll all be the better for.
Good luck, Mr. President.
Dave Long can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He hosts the Absolute Sports Experience at Billy’s Sports Bar in Manchester each Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon that is broadcast live on WGAM – The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM Nashua.