December 24, 2010

The greatest sportsperson ever

I picked up today's copy of the the Times of India newspaper this morning, panned my eyes down to mid-way on the front page, and saw the words: "Is Sachin Tendulkar the greatest sportsperson ever?" The article was aiming to set off a debate and a poll to decide the best athletes amongst each sports best, the greatest of the greatest. The inclusion of God himself, aka, Sachin, was itself of certain debate, since many cricket purists believe he's second best to cricketing legend Don Bradman, but in my eyes, that debate had been put to rest decades ago. Sachin and Bradman are to cricket what Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain are to basketball: Bradman and Chamberlain hold the craziest records (Bradman's 99.94 test average, Chamberlain's unearthly averages of 50.4 ppg and 25.7 rpg in the '61-62 season). But both these greats played in a different era of the sport, and experts in both fields will agree that in terms of true talent, Sachin and Jordan are still the Greatest of All Times (G.O.A.T.) in their respective sports.

A few minutes after putting the newspaper down, I happened to pick up my gold edition copy of SLAM magazine's awesome Jordan Issue, a heady volume of all things MJ, from interviews, rare photographs, greatest dunks, his years at North Carolina, his championship stories from Chicago, his influence on the international game, and many, many Air Jordan shoes!

The Jordan reminders got me thinking deeper about this issue: this is an argument that I (and I'm sure, many of you), have had several times before, so kudos to TOI for making it sort of official. One player has been chosen from each major sport that is relevant to Indians (Sorry Baseball, Babe Ruth), and Tennis gets two sportsmen, male and female. Jordan is obviously basketball's representative, but I was a little disappointed that the article barely mentioned His Airness.

Once again, this is the list from TOI:

Cricket: Sachin Tendulkar
Basketball: Michael Jordan
F1: Michael Schumacher
Cycling: Lance Armstrong
Track & Field: Carl Lewis
Tennis Men: Roger Federer
Tennis Women: Martina Navrativola
Hockey: Dhyan Chand
Boxing: Mohammed Ali
Football: Pele
Gymnastics: Nadia Comaneci
Golf: Tiger Woods

Already, this list is controversial, to say the least. Is Roger Federer even the greatest tennis player of his era, now that Nadal has his number? Maradona (and some Zidane fans) may have a thing or two to say about Pele's selection. And forgive me, gymnastic fans, but I have no idea who the hell Nadia Comaneci is. I'm sure she was talented.

Anyways, despite my basketball addiction now, like every other Indian child, I grew up a Sachin Tendulkar fanatic. I liked him much more than I liked cricket, and I know that I will probably lose half my interest in the sport once God retires. After his 50th test century in South Africa a few days ago, his legend gets greater and greater. It was true poetic justice that Sachin was the first man to get to 200 in an ODI. And he owns more cricket records to his name than records that exist in other sports.

But despite everything, I don't think he's the greatest of this list. For Indians, yes, no doubt, but definitely not worldwide. This is why Michael Jordan is special. MJ has not only done the same record-wise for the NBA that Tendulkar did for cricket, but he has won the biggest prize over and over again with a more lethal precision and perfection than anyone else in any sport. In a competitive league of stars, Jordan shone brightest, winning 6 of 8 championships in the 90s, only losing the two years in the middle to pre-mature retirement.

But like Sachin, his influence on his sport, and the world of sports in general, actually extends BEYOND the sport. Jordan is bigger than basketball. You will still meet people around the world who haven't heard of basketball but know the name Michael Jordan. Jordan's coach Phil Jackson once famously said that he could be nowhere in the world, hiking up a mountain in Bhutan, and see a monk in a Chicago Bulls hat. This was much BEFORE NBA became famous internationally. Jordan made sneakers famous too - he made it possible for stars to have signature shoes, and shoes to be sold on brand name of the stars alone.

Sachin, too, has had that kind of effect on Indians. In a country separated by language, region, caste, economic status, religion and oh-so-many other things, Sachin is the one unifying factor, the strongest one to represent all India since Gandhi, and I don't believe that's an exaggeration at all. He is the only one in India beyond criticism, because for 21 years he has done more for the image of a successful Indian than any other.

Other athletes like Pele, Mohammed Ali and Tiger Woods have had similar 'beyond-sport' influences on the world. Ali, especially is a favourite to be revered as the best of the best in this list.

But call it my basketball bias. Call it the fact that I just respect sportsmen who dominate team-oriented sports more than others. And cricket, I'm sorry to say, is an individual's game masked behind a team concept.

This is why my vote for the G.O.A.T. will stay with Michael Jordan. Hail to His Airness!

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