When great turns into G.O.A.T. - NBC Sports

When great turns into G.O.A.T.
There's no way of knowing who was the best that ever lived ... but it's fun trying to find out
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May 24, 2013, 8:00 pm

When I was young, the majority opinion - at least among the kids at my school - was that the devil played the fiddle better than Johnny did in the song "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." Obviously, that would have messed up the general narrative of that song, but it was a good lesson in subjectivity. It's all a matter of opinion. There isn't a best ever. Not really. Not even in a song.

But it leads to a fun question: When does someone cross that line in the mind of the public and actually become the best ever?

It's a particularly interesting question these days, because there are several players across the sports world making their bid. The most obvious of these is Tiger Woods, who is probably making the most audacious and unabashed charge for sports superiority since Muhammad Ali and Ted Williams.

"I must be the greatest!" Ali shouted ringside after Liston refused to answer the bell, confirming what he had always known to be true.

You will remember that Williams once said, "All I want out of life is to that when I walk down the street folks will say, There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived."

"Few men try for best ever," the great Richard Ben Cramer once wrote, "and Ted Williams is one of those."

You will remember that the young Tiger Woods would keep a poster on his wall of Jack Nicklaus' greatest feats and the ages when Nicklaus accomplished them just so he would know what he had to do and when he had to do it.

These are the most presumptuous of athletes. But "best ever" isn't something you just accomplish, like setting a world record in the 100-meter dash or scoring more touchdowns than anyone ever. You must somehow convince the masses. Ted Williams still holds the record for highest on-base percentage ever (.482), he's second all-time in slugging percentage (.634) and he did this even though he fought in two wars. Still, if you ask people to name the "greatest hitter ever" - or the more general "greatest baseball player ever" -- seven out of 10 will say Babe Ruth.

What would it take to surpass Babe Ruth in the public's mind as the greatest baseball player ever? It's hard to come up with a scenario. Ruth was not only the most dominant hitter, he was first a dominant pitcher. He not only mastered the home-run swing, he practically invented it - he famously hit more home runs than entire teams. It was 80 years before any man other than Ruth slugged .800 in a season, and few believe Barry Bonds did it without chemical help.

Then again, Ruth played in a segregated era, before night games, before air travel, before the slider was in vogue, before the use of closers. He used preposterously heavy bats - as heavy as 46 ounces - and famously lived a life of hot dogs, beer and wild women. Could he have survived in modern times? Could he have thrived in the Twitter world? There is simply no way to compare modern players to the legend.

So when it comes to the greatest baseball player of all time, Ted Williams . Stan Musial . Satchel Paige . Willie Mays . Mickey Mantle . Hank Aaron . Mike Schmidt . Greg Maddux . Pedro Martinez . Barry Bonds . Albert Pujols . they may have their arguments as best ever but they will only garner a small (if vocal) minority. The mind struggles to think of a way, any way, for a player to ever pass Ruth as the greatest baseball player of all time.

But baseball is a sport that reveres and mythologizes its history. Other sports are different. Football is too diverse to have a single player be the greatest ever. A Twitter poll revealed a lot of support for Jim Brown, Jerry Rice, Walter Payton, Joe Montana, Lawrence Taylor and Barry Sanders as the greatest football player ever . but there is no way to choose one over the others because they were all so different. How could you even construct an argument that Jerry Rice was better at being a touchdown-scoring wide receiver than Lawrence Taylor was at being a quarterback-seeking linebacker? Tom Brady and Peyton Manning make their cases for best quarterbacks ever, and that's a more practical football argument.

In hockey, only the most combative of hockey fans make a case for anyone except Wayne Gretzky as the greatest of all time. Heck, they called him The Great One. There are compelling technical arguments for Bobby Orr or Mario Lemieux, arguments a few intense hockey fans will make passionately, but Gretzky's titanic numbers seem to quash all debate. Gretzky scored 93 more goals than any player ever, he dished out a ridiculous 700 more assists than any player ever, he has the top two goal-scoring seasons, the top EIGHT assist seasons, he has almost 1,000 more points than the second-place Mark Messier.

Arguing against Gretzky as the greatest hockey player is like arguing against the Beatles as the greatest rock band ever - you might be right, but you'll never win.

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That leaves three sports (four if you want to include soccer and the incomparable Lionel Messi) where current players make their case. Obviously, that begins with Tiger Woods' advance on Mount Nicklaus. Everyone - including Nicklaus - seems to agree that Woods has played golf the last 15 or so years better than anyone who ever lived. No one was ever as good as Woods in 2000 and '01, when he won four consecutive major championships.

But, most people will tell you, that's a different category: The best PEAK golfer ever is already Tiger Woods. Almost no one would argue that (though there might be some golf fans who push for Ben Hogan in 1951 or Bobby Jones in 1930). The question is greatest golfer ever - it's a lifetime achievement - and right now Jack Nicklaus has 18 major championships, while Tiger Woods has 14 major championships, so the question is open-ended.

Nicklaus has said he thinks Woods will break his record but adds, "He's got to go out and do it." Many golf fans seem to agree. Woods may have played golf better than anyone ever, but (and he knows this better than anyone) he can't own the title free and clear until he passes Jack.

Which brings us to LeBron James. The question of greatest basketball player ever has probably sparked more arguments in America through the years than any other sport. Maybe it's because pro basketball is so new - the NBA did not exist until 1949 (it was the BAA for three years before that) and did not pierce the American consciousness until a few years after that.

Before Wilt Chamberlain played his first college basketball game at Kansas, the Saturday Evening Post wrote a story calling him the greatest basketball player ever. But throughout an unprecedented statistical career (Chamberlain's numbers, like Wayne Gretzky's, boggle the mind) Chamberlain could not beat Bill Russell's Celtics, and so Russell vs. Chamberlain, the ultimate team player vs. the ultimate individual, has been argued with Talmudic fury through the years.

And then there was Jordan. I'm not entirely sure when Michael Jordan broke through and became widely acknowledged as the best basketball player ever - I'm going to say it was sometime from 1995-98, after his attempt to play baseball, when he returned to the Bulls and led them to three more championships.

Jordan was the best scorer in the league year after year. He was also named Defensive Player of the Year and made the all-defensive team nine times. He was a brilliant passer and an excellent rebounder. He was even better in the playoffs, and no one was ever more feared or admired in the closing seconds of games.

And, perhaps most of all, Jordan somehow seemed mythical in a time where everything was on television. That's a hard trick to pull off. Part of what made Wilt Chamberlain so fantastical was that you couldn't often see him play - his 100-point game was played in Hershey, Pa., only a few thousand people saw it, and best anyone can tell no video of it survives. So, as big as it was, it was even bigger in imagination. Babe Ruth and Jesse Owens and Jim Brown are only viewed now through crackling black-and-white footage. It adds to their mystery.

But with Jordan, everything he did was on camera, and it was all replayed again and again - the shot over Craig Ehlo, the right-to-left-handed layup, the push-off and jumper against Utah - until it should have lost all its wonder. But Jordan was so magical, that he never did lose his wonder. At first, he could fly; think of that timeless Nike symbol of him in mid-air, legs apart, ball over his head. Then, when he became a bit more earthbound, he dominated with his mind and his nerve. He became the best ever by acclimation, and those of us who grew up with him could never imagine anyone ever being better.

Well, now, you have LeBron James. I have spent the last three years rooting desperately against LeBron James - being a Clevelander and all - and so I can say this with some degree of conviction: I don't think Jordan or anyone else has played basketball as well as LeBron James plays it now. This comes from the same miserable conviction that leads me to believe that no quarterback was ever scarier in the final two minutes than John Elway, who ruined my childhood with his comebacks against the Cleveland Browns. I believe that it is the people who root AGAINST an athlete who see that athlete more clearly.

James this season did something that boggles the mind - he finished fifth in the league in field-goal percentage (.565) despite attempting more than 250 three-pointers. That just doesn't happen. Your field-goal percentage leaders are guys like DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee - you know, guys who are seven feet tall and dunk a lot. Jordan never came close to shooting 57 percent from the field. Nobody who plays like LeBron James ever did.

Sure, it goes without saying that James' field goal percentage was the highest in NBA history for a player who shot that many 3-pointers. But then you throw in the eight rebounds a game, the seven assists a game, the dominance on both ends of the floor. Then you consider that he can play every position and guard every kind of player, no matter how big or small. You consider that he's two inches taller than Jordan and outweighs him by 50 pounds. You consider that if the Heat win the championship this year then James will actually be right on pace with Jordan for championships by age (Jordan won his second at 28).

And no, LeBron James is not the greatest player ever, not now. It's not even a good argument yet .

But you wonder if he will be . and how the argument will shift over the next few years.

Finally, the French Open is about to begin . and the best tennis player ever argument seems to shift daily. On the women's side, Serena Williams has been so mercurial that it has been hard for her to make the case as best ever, even though at her peak (back to the peak argument) she's probably played tennis better than any woman ever.

Williams has won 15 Grand Slam titles, behind only Steffi Graf (22), Martina Navratilova (18) and Chris Evert (18). But she also lost in the first round of the French Open last year. She has had a wild career filled with injuries, inconsistencies, glory, depression and brilliance. She's 31 now, but still the player everyone watches first. Her legacy is an open question.

Then, on the men's side, Roger Federer seems the consensus choice as the best ever. It isn't just that his 17 Grand Slam titles is a record, or that he reached the semifinal in 23 consecutive Grand Slam events (winning 16 of them) or that he has reached the final of each Grand Slam a mind-blowing five times (obviously another record).

It is also in the way he plays, a breathtaking blend of power and finesse and speed and angles. Pete Sampras, who made his argument for best ever, won with a great serve, a strong forehand and an iron constitution - he won Wimbledon seven times and the U.S. Open five more. But he never even reached the final of the French Open and only once reached the semifinal. On the right surface, on the right day, Sampras at his best certainly could have beaten Federer at his best. But in a best of seven, on courts around the world, no, Federer was just the better player.

But how can Federer be the best player ever when there's a player who dominated him? Federer played Rafael Nadal in 10 Grand Slam finals. Nadal won eight of them. They have played 30 times. Nadal has won 20 of them. Most of Nadal's success has come on clay, where Nadal rules, but even on outdoor hard courts, Nadal has won six of eight, and Nadal even beat Federer at Wimbledon in what many believe is the best match ever played.

Federer fans - and I am one - will quickly point out that Federer is five years older than Nadal. They were not at their peak together. Federer was 25 years old and already established as one of the greatest ever, if not the greatest ever, when their rivalry began. But facts are facts. Nadal has won 11 Grand Slams, has won each of the four, and if he can recover from his injuries he's still young enough to pass Federer on the all-time list and make his case as best ever.

Then . there's Novak Djokovic, who is actually the No. 1 player in the world and who, since the beginning of 2011, has dominated Nadal (winning eight out of 11) AND Federer (winning seven out of 10).

This might be the last French Open where all three will be somewhat close to the height of their powers. Federer is 31 and clearly running out of time. Nadal is coming off a serious injury and trying to regain what was his. Djokovic is trying to win his first French Open and complete the career Grand Slam . and put himself in position to possibly be the first man to win an actual Grand Slam - all four championships in one year - since Rod Laver.

This is when sports are most fun - when the players do not only compete for a title but for history and for the fans to remember them as the best who ever played the game. I remember a few years ago when sprinter Maurice Greene got a tattoo that reads GOAT - for "Greatest of All Time." He has been the world record holder in the 100-meter sprint, he was defending Olympic champion, he had run more than sub-10 second 100-meter dashes than anyone ever. He had his case.

"Who else?" he asked when we looked at his GOAT tattoo. Well, of course, now Usain Bolt has the world record and won back-to-back Olympics golds in both the 100- and 200-meter dash and is widely acknowledged as the greatest sprinter of all time. Greene still has the tattoo. That, at least, is permanent.

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on Twitter @JPosnanski. Click here to subscribe to Joe's stories.

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Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski