It was Shakespeare who once wrote that “some are born great, some achieve greatness, others have greatness thrust upon them.” Although the Bard was not much of a sportsman himself, such an assertion seems the perfect profile for men such as Michael Jordan and Diego Maradona. It is very easy to be wowed by the numbers the two put up in their careers, which might leave an incomplete understanding of their greatness. The natural inclination is to assume that if these gladiators were both the greatest at their respective callings, then their dominance was obviously a clear reflection of the stat sheet. Although this common assumption might hold some truth, one must be wary of trying to rationalize their greatness from some numbers on a spreadsheet, because if we only went by the numbers then they might not seem as fierce after all. What makes these men truly great is exactly the opposite of the very thing we thought made them great – the intangibles, the very things you’ll never find on the stat sheet.
For the idle basketball fan, the term NBA championship might appear synonymous with MJ. But try telling Bill Russell that – the same Bill Russell who, with 11 NBA Championships under his belt (nine of those coming consecutively), owns one short of twice the amount of titles MJ has. “Whatever,” the idle basketball fan insists, “at least MJ has scored the most points ever!” Sorry – wrong again, Kareem holds that distinction, thousands of points ahead of the closest second, who you might know as the Mailman. Well, he does hold the highest ever career scoring average with 31.1 points, though he’s played several seasons less than his arch rivals. And that rank probably will change after his latest stint.
So what makes MJ so great, since it’s suddenly not that obvious? It’s the things he did that you couldn’t see. It’s the seven to nine hour days he spent training in the summers; the running, the weightlifting, the 800 jump shots a day and more running. It’s that rare confidence of a freshman playing for the North Carolina Tar Heels who wanted the ball and canned a 16-foot jumper to ice the 1984 NCAA National Championship. It’s never being late for a single practice, its always practicing as if each day were his last. Its demanding that the entire team do sprints for the actions of one, it’s mastering that fine line between being an ‘up in your face teammate,’ and the consummate leader.
MJ has the uncanny and unmatched ability to get more out of people than they themselves had imagined – just ask Steve Kerr, Bill Cartwright, Jud Bueschler, Randy Brown, etc. For many years he even fooled us all into thinking Scottie Pippen was actually the second best player in the league!
Now, in his most recent heroics, Jordan has assumed a much greater challenge than the Knicks ever proved to be. Even though his season is over, Jordan has added one more feather to his hat. He has given a dormant franchise, the Washington Wizards, credibility again, showing he still is undoubtedly the best player in the game.
Many of you might not know who Maradona is, or you might know, but you definitely didn’t know that he is the one of two most significant figures ever to play the world’s most significant sport: futbo‘l. As with MJ, whenever there is any serious discussion among the futbo‘l fraternity about the greatest ever to play the game, the name Maradona punctuates any such discussion.
Maradona’s resume shines brighter than most who have ever laced up a boot, having led Argentina to a Youth World Cup victory in 1978 and then going on to single-handedly win a FIFA World Cup for Argentina in 1986. Meanwhile, Maradona has managed to dominate the Italian League – the top club futbo‘l league in the world – leading his club team Napoli F.C. to several years of glory.
But despite any hardware he might have amassed, like MJ, Maradona’s true greatness really came in a fashion that wasn’t entirely explained by the numbers. The average Joe might think futbo‘l is simply about kicking the ball into the net and the cry of the announcer as he yells at the top of his voice “goooooaaaaall!” And while it’s true that if anyone is going to give the guy this much props he must have had plenty of “goooooaaaaalls” to his credit. Yes, he did; he even scored what was probably the greatest goal ever (his legendary coast-to-coast goal against England in the 1986 World Cup where he broke practically the entire English national team) – but make no mistake, there are a bunch of ballers who scored many more goals than he did, most notably Pelo, whose name you all probably recognize.
However, to truly appreciate Maradona’s greatness you would have to somehow begin to understand that in 1978, at 18 years old, he wasn’t merely his country’s greatest futbo‘l player; rather, Maradona became symbol of hope for Argentina and one of that country’s greatest economic resources. You would also need to know that by 1985 Maradona Mania had generated millions of pesos for the Argentinean economy, as he helped open his country’s economy to a European market. You would also have to know that, in World Cup 1986, with an entire nation’s well-being on his shoulder, Maradona led his country to its third-ever World Cup title, and was crowned the king of futbo‘l by the pundits.
Like Jordan, Maradona had the uncanny ability to bring out the absolute best from the players around him. Indeed, Maradona turned a bunch of no-names in World Cup 1990 into a second consecutive trip to the finals. Maradona rarely played a game with only the weight of the final score on his shoulders; rather, Maradona played his heart out with the social and economic well-being of his country riding on every “goooooaaaall” his team scored.
Both Jordan and Maradona are great athletes at the top of their sports who, throughout their careers, produced mercurial numbers and have achieved countless awards and accolades.
However, it was the uncanny ability of both to excel at the intangibles that has put them both atop the greatest athletes of our generation. Both players elevated those around them and inspired millions with their eloquence and devotion to the games they played.