Szwaja's Sports Blog

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Today I had a conversation with my favorite sports banter partner, my dad. We were discussing our favorite athletes of all time. We were spitting out names that showed our generational gap. He had Butkus on his list. I've seen tape of Butkus, but I can put him on my list because I never experienced him live and in the moment. To me, a favorite athlete should be one you gained the most entertainment from, one who you'll never forget. So, here are my top 10 favorite athletes of all time. They might not be the best athletes by definition, but they were and have been my favorite sports entertainers.

10. Pato Margetic: Who? You ask. Pato "Magic Man" Margetic was exactly that, magical with a soccer ball. I spent many a winter nights in the Rosemont Horizon, now the Allstate Arena, watching Chicago Power indoor soccer matches. Magic Man could put any pass right on the money, and the ball stuck to his feet like Greg Kinnear on Matt Damon. He could score from any angle. And when he had the ball on his feet, his long hair made him seem all the more graceful.

9. Mia Hamm: Mia is the only woman to appear on my list and rightfully so. She did more for soccer, not just for women's soccer, than anyone could have imagined. I was at the game when she set the record for international goals scored ... for men and women ... including Pele. Mia would have been higher on this list had she played against some better competition, but that's no fault of her own. The competition wasn't out there. She was so much better than everyone else. Years from now they'll all wish they could have been there to see Mia play, and I can smile knowing I was there.

8. John Paxson: Watching Jim Thome hit a baseball is a beautiful thing. So is watching Illya Kovalchuk skate. So is a Phil Mickelson flop shot. But, in my mind, nothing can touch watching John Paxson shoot a basketball. Catch. Perfect mechanics. Release. Rip the nylon. Over and over we saw that at the beginning of the Bulls dynasty. When Paxson missed, you were almost surprised. And who can forget the game-winning in Phoenix? That was just awesome.

7. Jeremy Roenick: JR was one of those rare hockey players who could do it all. And by do it all I mean rip a 30-foot slap shot past a world-class goalie. Then hip check an All Star winger into the boards in the neutral zone. Then drop the gloves with the other team's goon for good measure. He was a skilled hockey stud, but he was also a tough son of a gun. And that made him so fun to watch.

6. Brian Urlacher: Someday Mr. Urlacher might be higher on my list, but truth is, he hasn't played long enough to be higher. Still, it's not hard to watch a linebacker with his speed go sideline to sideline and tear down running backs like they're fraying pieces of wallpaper on a wall. Most overrated player in the NFL? No way, people. Teams continue to run the sweep against the Bears, and they continue to fail because of Urlacher's speed. When will they learn? Probably not until they're casting his face for a bust in Canton.

5. Frank Thomas: No matter what I was doing, if Frank was up, I had to stop and watch. I couldn't focus on anything else, because Frank punished so many baseballs in his day. He didn't hit them, he punished them. The Big Hurt never had a home run swing, he had a power swing that yielded a lot of home runs. Never in my day do I expect to see another player instill fear in opposing pitchers like Frank did in the glory days of 1993 and 1994, his back-to-back MVP seasons. The Hurt deserves a trip to Cooperstown, there's no doubt in my mind on that one.

4. Ryne Sandberg: I loved Ryno simply because he seemed like one of us regular people dominating our nation's game. He wasn't into flare. He wasn't into showing up his opponent. He wasn't into self-adoration. And I think there's been a little too much of all that in my generation. It always seemed like Ryno gave the Cubs a big hit when they needed one. And there was seldom a ball hit to the right side of the infield that Ryno couldn't get to. He loved and respected the game, as anyone who heard his HOF induction speech knows.

3. Tiger Woods: Being the best is never enough for Tiger, which sometimes brings out his arrogance, but that drive is unmatched in pro golf. The look in Tiger's eyes before a big shot, it's a look I try to emulate when I play golf. It's going to be really fun watching Tiger chase Jack's majors record, because he's not going to stop until the record, and many more wins beyond that, are his. I firmly believe he's going to keep getting better, which is pretty scary, because he's already the best ever.

2. Andre Agassi: Some of you might be a bit surprised, but Andre has always been up there in my book. Part of it has to do with longevity. He's playing in his 20th US Open this week, that's my entire sports-watching lifetime. In a time when men's tennis has basically become a series of "who has the best serve" matches, Andre has won without the dominant serve. He doesn't hit big serves, he's made a career out of returning big serves. One of the few "tennis" players left in the game, watching Andre beat the big guns has been so fun, and I'll miss it when he hangs up his racket.

1. Michael Jordan: What can I say? He's the best athlete ever. The thing that made Jordan so special was that he never stopped believing he could be better. He wasn't satisfied with being the best ever, so he just kept practicing and got even better. He dominated with his skywalking dunks. He dominated with that deadly turnaround. He dominated as a point guard. He dominated with his defense. He dominated a big man's game as a medium-sized basketballer. Never again will a 6'6'' guard dominate the game like MJ did. I feel sorry for the sports fans of the future, because they'll hear and read about Michael, but they'll never understand how special he really was. They won't be able to imagine players like MJ in the future.


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