Best of a Lifetime
When you’ve been a sports writer for as long as I have, people always come up to you and ask the same questions.
Who’s the best baseball player you’ve ever seen? Who was the best quarterback? What about point guard or running back? Well, now that I have the time and the space, I can finally provide a few of those answers.
If nothing else, I know I’m about to stir a lot of arguments. But hey, that’s the fun of it. So here goes:
Best Baseball Player — Willie Mays. He could run, he could hit, he could cover center field and half of left and right field at the same time. He could hit for power and was maybe the most instinctive base runner ever. What else is there? Best of all, nobody, except maybe Pete Rose, exuded more joy playing the game.
Best Pitcher — Sandy Koufax. When he had his best stuff, which was almost always, he was basically unhittable. Put it this way: Watching him pitch wasn’t just fun, it was mesmerizing. That’s how good he was.
Best Quarterback — Johnny Unitas and Joe Montana. Sorry, I can’t separate them. Every time I try, I can’t do it. The eras were different, but they were both so dominant, especially in big games, it’s impossible to pick one over the other.
Best Running Back — Jim Brown. I know, I’m sounding old, but go back and look at the film of this guy. He had a fullback’s power and a tailback’s speed, and he could run all day. Lots of great running backs before and since, but nobody controlled a game like he did.
Best Defensive Football Player — Dick Butkus. I know everyone on the East Coast wants to say Lawrence Taylor. But this guy was a monster for the Bears, and he competed hard on every single play. As a ferocious middle linebacker, he was much more of a consistent force than LT. Fact is, I’m not even sure Taylor was the best pass rusher ever. Deacon Jones still gets my vote in that category.
Best Basketball Player — Michael Jordan. Big surprise, huh? A dominant offensive player, he was also a great defensive player. And there was no one like him at the end of games. I know some people will argue Magic Johnson, but Michael shot better and defended better. The only player I’d rate close to Jordan is Bill Russell.
Best Winner — Speaking of Russell, he stands alone in this category. Nobody in any sport understood how to win better than he did. Wilt Chamberlain had far more physical skills, but Wilt never got it the way Russell did. Wilt was always into stats. Russell was only into Ws. I laugh when people say Russell couldn’t play in this era. Are you kidding me? He was the best defensive center ever. Ask Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. When Russell was playing center, even they couldn’t drive into the paint.
Most Underrated Basketball Player — Oscar Robertson. No question. People have completely forgotten how gifted he was. He AVERAGED a triple double for his career. Think about that. The Big O had only one deficiency — he came along before SportsCenter.
Best Baseball Defender — Ozzie Smith. I was lucky enough to cover him when he was just breaking in as an acrobatic shortstop with San Diego. And yes, I was there when he made that unbelievable play on Jeff Burroughs, diving one way, reaching back barehanded to snare the ball with his bare hand, then scrambling up to throw him out. Still the single greatest defensive play I’ve ever seen.
Best Outfield Arm — Roberto Clemente. And no, it isn’t even close. This is how good an arm he had: We used to come to Dodger Stadium early for batting and fielding practice, just to watch Clemente throw. Seriously. He was phenomenal.
Best Point Guard — You have to pick Magic, even over Robertson, because he was such a freak at 6-foot-9. He also had that knack for making everyone around him better, something not all point guards can do. Yes, I love John Stockton and Steve Nash, too, but last time I looked, neither was 6-foot-9.
Best Hockey Player — I admit it, I’m not much of a hockey guy. But I did see Wayne Gretzky. Enough said.
Best Jockey — Bill Shoemaker. The guy was a magician. All you have to say is Olden Times, your basic sprinter, being coaxed to go wire-to-wire in the 13/4-mile San Juan Capistrano at Santa Anita. Greatest ride I’ve ever seen. Maybe the greatest anyone has ever seen.
Best Horse — Swaps. All I know is, as a kid, I saw him break world records without breaking a sweat. Seriously, he shattered records with his jockey never even raising his whip. Simply breathtaking.
Best Coach (in any sport) — John Wooden. Come on, is any explanation really necessary?
— Steve Bisheff