Ever hear your father or grandfather speak in a reverential tone about an athlete from their generation and wish that you could have seen that guy play in his prime? Ever hear a ballplayer you really admire talk about the players he idolized when he was a child, with the same sparkle you have in your eye when talking about Jordan’s shot over Bryon Russell or Barry Sanders juking three guys before breaking a touchdown run? There are countless great athletes that I wish I could have seen play in their prime, but I narrowed it down to a list of the top ten.
Let me know which ballplayers you wish you could have seen play.
10) Julius Erving
I’m talking about the mid 70’s Dr. J, the virtuoso with the sick afro, soaring through the air with that red, white and blue ball and winning ABA championships with the New York Nets. Doc transformed the game by taking it above the rim, where he was a master of improvisation. I wish I were in the crowd when he first took off from the foul-line in 1976.
9) Ted Williams
It’s said that there’s nothing more difficult in sports than hitting a baseball and Teddy Ballgame did it better than anybody. I know the joy of watching great hitters like Don Mattingly, Wade Boggs and Alex Rodriguez approach their craft on a regular basis and I can only imagine what it would have been like to see Williams work a count.
8) Walt Frazier
He’s the namesake of this blog, my former neighbor and I own his jersey; you had to know he was making the list. Clyde was as cool on the court as he was off it. He didn’t receive one technical during his entire thirteen-year-career and was unflappable in the clutch. Watching Clyde would come with the added bonus of seeing the other Hall-of-Famers he shared the ball with, especially in his later years with the Knicks when he and Earl “the Pearl” worked their magic in the same backcourt.
7) Satchel Paige
Satch was one of the most dominant pitchers of any color to ever toe the rubber and perhaps the game’s greatest showman. He was known to intentionally walk the bases loaded and then strike out the side, or tell his fielders to either sit down in the field or go to the dugout while he made a batter swing and miss.
6) Pete Maravich
Speaking of showmen, Pistol Pete was a wizard on the court. Magic Johnson said he learned his signature no-look passes from the Pistol and the great John Havlicek recently said Maravich was the greatest ballhandler of all-time. Oh and by the way, he averaged a mind-blowing 44.2 points per game over his four years at LSU.
5) Bill Russell
If I could watch any basketball player for one game I’d probably choose Wilt, but over a season or career I’d pick the greatest winner in team sports. It would be a pleasure for a basketball junkie like me to watch Russell lead his team into battle and control game after game from the defensive end of the floor.
4) Jim Brown
By all accounts, Brown was the greatest running back and possibly the greatest football player of all-time. His devastating combination of speed and power put the fear of god into opposing linebackers and he averaged a staggering 5.2 yards per carry for his career. Brown retired at the height of his powers, so fans never saw him at anything less than his best.
3) Mickey Mantle
Of the four greatest Yankees Ruth was the most awe-inspiring, Gehrig the most admired, DiMaggio the most revered and Mantle the most loved. The Mick was a product of his time, before cable or the internet, and no athlete will ever capture people’s imagination or conjure up such emotion in fans again. Every baseball fan my age whose father is a Yankee fan has heard countless tales about his blazing speed and tape measure home runs.
2) Babe Ruth
No athlete ever dominated his sport like the Babe did. One season he hit more home runs than every other team in the American League and he still ranks number one all-time in OPS. The Bambino’s larger than life personality added to the show. You never knew when he was going to go into the stands and grab a couple of hot dogs during the game.
1) Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali was a warrior in the ring and a poet who had mastered the art of trash talking. He divided the nation with his principles, yet captivated the world through the courage and ingenuity he displayed against pugilists like Joe Frazier and George Foreman. Those battles with Frazier were some of the greatest fights ever and I would have killed to be in attendance for any one of them. Fittingly, yesterday was the 40th anniversary of their legendary first bout.
Sandy Koufax, Oscar Robertson, Pele, Joe DiMaggio, Bjorn Borg, Willie Mays, Wilt Chamberlain, Jesse Owens