At the top of their games, the finest athletes' best instinct is never to look back, though the impulse is strong and requests are frequent. Once a performer has transcended the competition, or seemed to at least, he or she begins to play in the past as well as the present, and yesterday is a slippery field with a sliding context. The future can be affected. If they never get any better, they are the only ones who will be disappointed. If they stop to acknowledge the position, they stop. Maybe they become satisfied. The position is acknowledged.
After all, contemporary acclaim is wonderful. Peggy Lee, the jazz singer, once fielded the question "Who is the best jazz singer?" as cleanly as Brooks Robinson reaching over third base: "Do you mean besides Ella?" Such is the esteem in which Wayne Gretzky and Larry Bird are held now. By common agreement, each is the best in his sport, and something more than that. They are changing the elements if not the definition of a star. In Gretzky's and Bird's gloved and bare hands, hockey and basketball appear to improve even as games, seem to become not only more appealing but less incomprehensible. And when what they are doing loses its mystery, how they are doing it becomes the wonder. As Bobby Jones said of Jack Nicklaus, they play a game with which we are not familiar, but would like to be.
Nicklaus has wended his way around the world not only digging divots but scraping new golf tracts out of mountainsides. Presumably he is motivated by something other than a passion for landscaping. Considering his accomplishments, no athlete has avoided arrogance better than Nicklaus, who has slipped as a golfer, even then maybe only as a putter, but is still not quite back to mortal at 45. "I had the confidence to try to be the best ever --you have to," he says. "But I never thought in terms of being it. I don't think even 20 years from now, looking back at the record, I'll ever say it." So he is carving the record in mountains. He is moved by history.
The racquet gouges that the world's No. 1 tennis player, John McEnroe, slashes furiously into Wimbledon's crabgrass scarcely qualify yet as this ! kind of mark. But he has just turned 26 and has not exactly been silenced, or even quieted. Maybe he will grow into a greater mantle. Of all the athletes in their prime, Martina Navratilova should have the nearest understanding of where Gretzky and Bird are situated. For the past three years, her grip on women's tennis has made Margaret Court, Billie Jean King and Chris Evert Lloyd protective of their memories. It would be appropriate to say that Martina has played the competition off its feet, except that she is the only powerful woman tennis player who really leaves her feet, a smasher with an underrated delicateness. The Czech defector does not insist that she is the greatest, as Muhammad Ali would say, of all time, though she believes so. "America gave me the opportunity to play the best tennis any woman ever played, which I think I have done the past few years. Excuse me if that sounds like bragging."