Who's the Greatest of All?

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DANIEL OKRENTIs Michael Jordan the greatest ever? Not just the greatest basketball player but the greatest athlete: a figure who not only dominates his sport but also changes the way it's played, who dominates that sport not only in his own time but also across time? Where does Jordan stand relative to Babe Ruth, say, or Muhammad Ali?Let's knock down the basketball straw man first. If someone plays defense like Bill Russell, passes like Isiah Thomas, scores like Julius Erving and rises to the occasion like Larry Bird, it's hard to argue against him. The clincher comes in the context of his team. When Jordan's around, the Bulls win championships. When he's off flailing at minor-league curve balls, they don't.Now, the serious competition. Ruth nearly invented the home run, and remains second only to Hank Aaron in career homers. His teams won more than their share--more even than Jordan's share--of championships. As an offensive force, Ruth utterly dominated his era (in 1921, only two American League teams hit as many home runs as Ruth did all by himself), and that was an era in which baseball had a near monopoly on the best professional athletes. The capstone to the Ruth argument is the five-season stretch during which he was among baseball's best pitchers before switching full time to the outfield. He was Mark McGwire, Tony Gwynn and Greg Maddux all rolled into one.But Ruth's accomplishments are diminished by one brutal fact: he didn't play against black athletes. One-tenth of the population, and surely a far larger proportion of those motivated to succeed in athletics, never had a chance to test Ruth. I hate to admit it, but it may be that the Babe was more George Mikan than Michael Jordan.PAGE 1  |  
Ali? Among those in individual sports, his record is without peer, as was his combination of talents: size, speed, power, guile and the colossal heart that vanquished the great Joe Frazier. But Ali suffers from the converse of the Ruth argument: by the time Ali came along, the best athletes had been siphoned off by team sports. Ali was a giant, but most of his opponents were relative dwarfs.Jim Brown? Just nine seasons, offense only. Jim Thorpe? More legend than accomplishment. Jack Nicklaus? Sorry, but golfers, like tennis players and decathletes, don't have to suffer flying elbows, inside sliders or other lethal moving objects. Ice hockey has until recently attracted only athletes from colder regions. There has simply never been an athletic accomplishment on the scale of Jordan's in the U.S. But that national qualifier is critical. If you're looking for the best in the world, you would have to pick someone who dominated a sport played by more than 200 million people, most from countries where no other game matters enough to draw down the talent pool; an athlete who at 17 led his team to the first of his unprecedented three world championships, who in a sport accustomed to the 1-0 shutout scored an astonishing 1,281 goals. For my money, if you have to pick the one best athlete of all time, it's Brazil's nonpareil Pele, the Michael Jordan of soccer.Daniel Okrent is Time Inc.'s editor of new media and a student of sports history  |  2