Who'll Go Down in History

As much of a sports nut as I am, I follow less and less and so am less and less informed, even about my favorite sports and teams, let alone other wildly popular sports and teams.  (Can someone explain to me how Euro 2012 works?)  But since I grew up reading old sports books, and think a lot about the very long-term future, I thought I'd pose this thought exercise: who is playing now that will we be telling our grandkids about?

Embedded in this conversation is, I think, at least two strains of thought.  First, whose legacies will pass the test of time, that their names will remain iconic two generations from now.  Second, whose play was so memorable that we can not only acknowledge that they were great but call to mind specific moments when their greatness was imprinted on our minds (which means, of course, that championships matter).

I am speaking from ignorance when answering this myself, but this is my short list (in no particular order):

(1) LeBron James - When all is said and done, he might not get those 7 championships he so cockily predicted two years ago when he took his talents to South Beach.  But he'll likely get one or more (his first maybe as early as a week from now), he's already had countless Pantheon-level games, and for all of his controversy we forget just how unique he is - an incredible physical specimen who has an underrated intelligence about and respect for the game and (despite his notable late-game yips) enough of a chip on his shoulder that he can and will will himself to many more great performances in the future.

(2) Derek Jeter, (3) Mariano Rivera - I despise the Yankees but tip my cap to #2 and #42.  Jeter may not be as clutch as we make him out to be, but he'll end up with around 3,500 hits and lots of rings, and he embodies a certain archetype that we'll continue to call on when we talk about this era of baseball.  Meanwhile, Rivera gets only three outs at a time, but they are among the most pressure-packed of them all, and his postseason success is unparalleled. 

(4) Roger Federer, (5) Rafael Nadal, (6) Novak Djokovic - It's been a very long time since I've been a tennis fan, and I don't follow at all now, but boy are we spoiled watching this triumvirate battle it out.  I think when all is said and done, these guys will easily outpace, in records and legacy, the last great players before them (Sampras, Agassi) and will all enter into the G.O.A.T. conversation.  We're going to be talking about all three of these guys for a long, long time, and people 50 years from now are going to go ape thinking about how we were able to watch them play each other live.

(7) Tom Brady, (8) Peyton Manning - Like the Federer/Nadal/Djokovic triumvirate above, these two stud QBs' legacies are enhanced by their many mano-a-manos.  Football doesn't lend itself as easily to memorable lead men (careers too short, helmets obscure being able to see faces, it's too much of a team sport), and it's very possible football will not only not exist but be vilified within a few decades.  But Brady and Manning seem to have been cast by Hollywood, and I'm guessing they still have a few good years left.

(9) Tiger Woods - I don't think he's going to get more than one more major, so the second half of his career will have been pretty underwhelming.  But the first half of his career was so transcendent.  So many special moments, so many gritty wins, so much significance about his success.  His tragic downfall, while signaling the beginning of the end of his career, will also be another piece in the story that separates him from the field.

(10) Usain Bolt - In Beijing, while everyone was oohing and aahing about Michael Phelps (and rightly so), all Bolt did was win the three most important events in track and field (100, 200, 4x100), breaking Olympic and world records in all three in the process, and even celebrating a good 20 meters before the finish line of his 100 meter race.  He's got pizzazz, bravado, and one more Olympics to cement his legacy.

(11) Lionel Messi - I don't watch soccer but I like watching soccer highlights, and there are plenty of Messi highlights.  Not only has he been prolific, but he has stamped his unique style on the game.  Quite simply, the little man seems to be a man among boys; in the sport that the most people in the world play, he is the very best by a lot.

(12) Manny Pacquiao - Don't know a thing about boxing, but I sense that if I left him off my list, he'd be the first person people brought up as a snub.  I get the feeling he's going down in history, and that he's still got a lot of history to write, inside and outside of the ring.

Not that we won't be talking about others.  But my bold prediction is that these 12 will be head and shoulders above everyone else.  Of course, I've missed a bunch of others based on ignorance and differing perceptions of greatness and memorability.  Would love to hear your list.

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