Quick, which professional athlete, past or present, has enjoyed the best career, is the most revered, has owned their space more than any other?
Forget about Venus Williams, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and Billie Jean King. Rod Laver and Roger Federer, too. And should you choose another tennis player, you’re wrong.
Take Annika Sorenstam off the table. Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, as well. Choose any other golfer and you’re also wrong.
It’s a team sport question, so Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes are off the table, as is anybody else who made their living in the ring … though admittedly, removing the Nature Boy and the Dream off any list is difficult.
Don’t answer flippantly.
Think about it.
Think about what “best career” means. Think about reverence as a concept and what’s required to earn it and keep it.
“Most valuable player” means many things to many people, so what does it mean to have the best career and to be the most revered?
I’ve got mine.
Do you have yours?
I’ve got Bill Russell.
He’s not the best center in NBA history because that’s Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And if he’s not the best center, he’s not challenging Michael Jordan or LeBron James as the best player.
Some have called him the best “winner” in sports history, which is one way to look at it. But what I’m saying is nobody in any team sport has been as respected, revered or as successful as Russell.
He won 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons, and he did it all for the Celtics -- which means as much as the titles themselves because if he’d played three more seasons in Detroit after exiting Boston, he’d be no less successful, but his standing would be diminished.
It’s about winning titles, yes. But it’s entirely about not leaving, too. That’s the rarest air.
It’s air even Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player to ever live, doesn’t get to breathe because he was not just an Oiler, but also a King, Blue and Ranger.
Mario Lemieux, however, gets to breathe that air in Pittsburgh every second of every day. Not only did he deliver two Stanley Cups to his city, he’s the reason the Penguins never left town, purchasing the franchise out of bankruptcy while still a player.
Yeah, that happened.
He still owns the team.
Just this week, there was this touching video you might have seen, a postgame moment moment from the Superdome between Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Brees’ family. Brady even threw a pass to Brees’ son in the end zone.
Yet, watching it, I could only wonder who of the two is the greater icon, breathes the rarer air, is more beloved and more revered?
It’s Brees because once arriving in New Orleans, he never left. He might as well have been the mayor as well as the Saints quarterback.
Brady has the case for best quarterback to ever play, as does Joe Montana, yet Brees and Aaron Rodgers, John Elway, too, have something they don’t because they never left once they arrived, and those who don’t leave get to be the icons.
Heck, in Boston and New England, Brady might not be in the top five.
Larry Bird’s in front of him. Carl Yastrzemski’s in front of him. David Ortiz might be in front of him. Ted Williams, though he had a love-hate relationship with media and fans back in the day, is by now front of him. And Bobby Orr, though he finished his career a Blackhawk, is probably in front of him, too.
It’s a different way to look at sports, one that puts affection in front of championships, but isn’t that a more satisfying metric?
LeBron James is supposed to be getting a statue in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, and the thing about it is that’s exactly where it should be because it doesn’t belong in Cleveland, Miami or Los Angeles.
Jordan has one in Chicago because he’s Jordan, but it would mean still more had he never been a Wizard.
Then again, not everybody can be Magic Johnson, Derek Jeter, Cal Ripken, Tony Gwynn, Kirby Puckett, Kobe Bryant, Johnny Bench, Dirk Nowitzki, George Brett or Babe Ruth.
Ruth played 28 games for the Boston Braves as a 40-year-old. His last six home runs were not in pinstripes.
He should have stopped at 708. Six fewer long balls for a legacy less bruised.