January 22, 2009

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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 dlong@hippopress.com. 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.


1/15/2009 Spring cleaning of the sports mind a little early

1/8/2009 Will hall have Rice on the menu come July
1/1/2009 Predictions and wants for the year ahead
12/25/2008 A look in the rear view mirror at 2008
12/18/2008 The Pats' playoff run and new Yankees contracts make big news
12/11/2008 Random thoughts and associations
12/4/2008 Pats should consider options when it comes to Cassel and Brady
11/27/2008 Putting the thanks in Thanksgiving
11/20/2008 News of the week has people talking
11/13/2008 Cassel's in the clouds compared to early expectations11/6/2008 Mail bag delivers some interesting questiont10/30/2008"Yankees Suck" - like mentality fuels political discontent10/23/2008 No ray of hope as season closes in Tampa Bay
10/16/2008 Going to the nines a thing of the past
10/9/2008 C-eeing some interesting stories unfold this week
10/2/2008 "How come?" is the main question of the day
9/25/2008 Observations on baseball in 2008
9/18/2008 If I were a QB, a DB, a stat geek or a soccer mom ...
9/11/2008 After disaster Brady's bunch won't pass on season
9/4/2008 Pats start off with high expectation and some concerns
8/28/2008 A race to the finish to take all month long
8/21/2008 National news items of interest for local folks
8/14/2008 A little of this and that from the good side of sports pile
8/7/2008 Manny happy returns from the Evil Empire
7/31/2008 Manny being Manny - the sequel Part XXXII
7/24/2008 Open the mail bag for some Red Sox questions
7/17/2008 Hall-worthy or not the latest question on Schilling
7/10/2008 Baseball season has actually started
7/03/2008 UL editorial in denial — stop the presses
6/26/2008 Boston turnaround makes NBA green with envy
6/19/2008 Letters from the NBA finals
6/12/2008 A Father's Day letter to dad
6/5/2008 Twenty-one and six are the lucky numbers for the Cs
5/29/2008 Sometimes a bat is just a bat
5/22/2008 Some questions for folks right up there in the front row
5/15/2008 Numbers don't add up to supposed Fenway
5/8/2008 Cavalier attitude nearly derails first meeting with LeBron
5/1/2008 I'm so old,I remember ...
4/24/2008 Sox Line-ups, Celtics and ESPN investigations are in the mail bag
4/17/2008 Show me the way to that All-Star Game
4/10/2008 For C'ing a great time ahead as playoffs arrive this spring
4/3/2008 Bill James and the stats for 2008 — Take Two
3/27/2008 Drowning in the NCAA office pool
3/20/2008 Whether forecast is right or not is the question
3/13/2008 Comment sparks wonder over just what I did
3/6/2008 New hires, new trades in pro sports
2/28/2008 Celtics issues far from black and white in the early days
2/21/2008 Congressional ineptitude muscles in on steroid hearings
2/14/2008 Basketball rounds into form under the cover of Pats football
2/7/2008 A giant win leaves Patriots fans feeling blue
1/31/2008 Foxboro lads earn pats on the back, and old Celtics mystique makes sense
1/24/2008 Mail bag asks about Rice, the hall and wild-eyed liberals
1/17/2008 Peyton manning the fort back home as Pats take on Chargers
1/10/2008 Grumpy old Dolphins are lost at sea on this one
1/3/2008 The primary concern is getting a clear picture
12/27/2007 The annual sports awards close out 2007
12/20/2007 Holiday gifts for the deserving and not so deserving
12/13/2007 Jets land in Foxboro as pat go number 14
12/06/2007 To include or not to include Ellsbury — that is the questione
11/29/2007 Yanked from the sports pages in the Big Apple
11/22/2007 Here's what I'm thankful for at Thanksgiving
11/15/2007 Waiting game leads to a series of random thoughts
11/8/2007 OK — it's week nine and I'm ready to talk
11/1/2007 Finally a little shut-eye for a sleep deprived nation
10/25/2007 A rocky mountain high for Red Sox Nation
10/18/2007 Time to go to the mailbag
10/112007 Who'd more popular, Patriots or Red Sox
10/4/2007 IA weekend chock full of nuts, chokes and great moments
9/27/2007 I hate to say I told you so...
9/20/2007 Media and fan bias shades the severity of sports crime
9/13/2007 All round baseball week starts with a look at leaders
9/6/2007 It's Superbowl or bust for Pats in 2007
8/30/2007 The race is on as baseball enters September
8/23/2007 Spine vs. lack of spine theme for school board debate
8/16/2007 Time for thoughts from the summer mailbag
8/9/2007 Will this three make it big in Boston?
8/2/2007 Trading places all in a day's work for Boston GMs
7/26/2007 Getting out of a slump; an ameteur golfer can feel Sox' pain
7/19/2007 Does second chance guarantee a great outcome?
7/12/2007 Masse still a honeymooner in local baseball culture
7/5/2007 Brown Monster a big Fisher Cat hit
6/28/2007 Rambling along with some random thoughts
6/21/2007 The future is now for the C's come Thursday night
6/14/2007 Homers create bonds among fans for generations
6/07/2007 Sox win by losing two of three this weekend
5/31/2007 Lutz of things to think about
5/24/2007 Down 2-0 M’s for playoff payoff
5/17/2007 Baseballs' conventional wisdom is for the birds
5/10/2007 The Rocket lands in Gotham during Monarchs' playoff break
5/3/2007 Raiders say "No Moss" in fight with talented wideout
4/26/2007 A little history on the ancient Sox and Yanks rivalry
4/19/2007 Lessons to be learned from Robinson, Monarchs and I-Man
4/12/2007 A few questions for the sports gods
4/5/2007 Stanton his case on a variety of current topics
3/29/2007 Sox spring back into action on Monday
3/22/2007 A guide for having fun on NCAA hockey weekend
3/15/2007 The madness of March kicks off on Thursday
3/8/2007 Jumping through hoops after an odd season
3/1/2007 A trip to the mail bag for Hippo Sports
2/22/2007 Six degrees of Muhammed Ali
2/15/2007 Monarchs rule as streak reaches 12
2/8/2007 Talking a good game ahead on all-sports WGAM
2/1/2007 Manning the Super Bowl watch more difficult in '07
1/25/2007 Winning and what else matters in college coaching
1/18/2007 ESPN polls are fanning the flames of national lunacy
1/11/2007 Patriots marching to MIami promised land
1/4/2007 Predictions for 2007
12/28/2006 REcognizing the best on the national front
12/21/2006 Present under the tree for all
12/14/2006 Mailbag open for busines at a time filled with questions
12/07/2006 Lions and Gators and Bears, oh my
11/30/2006 Does Fenway frankness roll to the negative side?
11/23/2006 Turkeys and thanks as the big day arrives
11/16/2006 Green-around-the-gills Celts looking to earn some respect
11/9/2006 Blame game reaches new local low
11/2/2006 A week of highs and lows in sport
10/26/2006 Curses! The U is foiled again
10/19/2006 Time for a trip to the sports mailbag
10/12/2006 U turns Granite Stare around on football
10/05/2006 James' gang riding into town to face the Celtics
09/28/2006 Words to describe a lost Red Sox season
09/21/2006 Football Friday can't stack up to Saturday
09/14/2006 A lesson to be learned in remembering a somber day
09/07/2006 Usual pat choice to win AFC East questioned
08/31/2006 Whining won't yank AL East away from NY
08/24/2006 Spring forward or fall behind for Sox
08/17/2006 Trash talking abounds in the Empire over Sox and Pats
08/10/2006 Monarchs call press conference to crown new leader
08/03/2006 Deadly Fenway duo leave mark on history
07/27/2006 Word of the wise gets lost in sports translation
07/20/2006 Looking beyond the Big Three
07/13/2006 Cream rises to the top of baseball talk at the Dot
07/06/2006 Greetings and salutations toThe Nation at mid-year
06/29/2006 Being dealt is a consequence of the trade
06/22/2006 A year later, Boudreau's cup runneth over
06/15/2006 See dogs and cats battle for a different fan experience
06/08/2006 Not Bad Anymore league makes a comeback
06/01/2006 Luck goes Sox way with Lowell in Massachusetts
05/25/2006 Pitching in to help the Sox trade a few places
05/18/2006 Going to school by cutting Red Sox payroll
05/11/2006 Columnist blows his mind; here are the results
05/04/2006 Yanks stormed Manchester 37 years ago this week
04/27/2006 Regular crowd nowhere to be found come playoff time
04/20/2006 Questions and answers from the mailbag
04/13/2006 Local sports teams spring into action
04/06/2006 Predictable Red Sox season lies ahead
03/30/2006 Analyzing this and that as Pats roster shrinks
03/23/2006 A week of following the bouncing balls
03/16/2006 The beginning of four days of basketball bliss
03/09/2006 Many miss the central point of the story
03/02/2006 Better late than never to jump through local hoops
02/23/2006 Celtic green means raw, not envy as it once did
02/16/2003 An issue that is all black and white
02/09/2006 Nomar curses from the UL's Sullivan
02/02/2006 Super memories from 40 years of watching the big game
01/26/2006 A certain uniformity to the inquiries in the mailbag
01/19/2006 Sudden end to Pats' season leave just one thing to do
01/12/2006 Pats on the back for the football team
01/05/2006 Predictions for Manchester Sports 2031
A lesson for Leo the Lip and nice guys everywhere

Chop House opening is Berra of good news
Event-filled weekend missed en route to evil empire
Hero’s death lays to rest misuse of the word
Saint Theo ascends to new heights in The Nation
Santa sack filled to the brim with sports
Patriots march through injuries toward threepeat
Sports talk should be on the air
Stars shine brightest when winning is in the mix
The Demonization of Johnny Damon
Thirty-seven topics and so little space
Too many holes in Sox for repeat
Trip to the injured list makes it a long weekend for local scribe
Turkeys and giving thanks take center stage this week
Yanked from the edge of your seat