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FROM MY SEAT: Another Seven Wonders (of Sports, That Is)

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Earlier this month — on July 7th, 2007, of course — the new Seven Wonders of the World were announced. (I can personally vouch for the credentials of the Great Wall of China and Peru’s Machu Picchu.) This got me thinking about the “wonders” who have left us slack-jawed from the world of sports. I can’t claim insight for marvels that occurred before 1969, but here are the Seven Sports Wonders of my lifetime.

  • Muhammad Ali — As if whipping the likes of Sonny Liston, George Foreman, and Joe Frazier (twice!) wasn’t enough, Ali survived as a pariah of the Vietnam era to become second only to Elvis Presley as the most recognized face and personality on the planet. From his Olympic gold medal in 1960 to his stirring lighting of the Olympic torch in 1996 and right up to his current struggle with Parkinson’s Disease, Ali — warts and all — is the American Dream.

  • Wayne Gretzky — This may be my favorite statistic in all of sports. We tabulate individual points in hockey by adding a player’s goals and assists together. The Great One happens to have more assists (1,963) than the second most-prolific POINTS producer in National Hockey League history (Mark Messier with 1,887). Baseball’s career home run record will be broken another five times before any hockey player matches Gretzky’s career total of 894 goals. His single-season records for goals (92), assists (163, in a different season than the goal record) and points (215) are also beyond reach. Gretzky was somehow MVP in only nine of his 20 seasons (two more than Barry Bonds has won in baseball and three more than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won in the NBA). His Edmonton Oilers won four Stanley Cups between 1984 and 1988. The most unfair label in sports today — sorry, Sidney Crosby — is “the next Gretzky.”

  • < b>Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — The NCAA outlawed dunking to try and control the 7’ 2” force that was Lew Alcindor, and UCLA still won the national championship all three years Alcindor was eligible to play varsity basketball. Drafted by Milwaukee in 1969, Kareem won two scoring titles,] three MVP trophies, and led the Bucks to their only championship (1971) before being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1975. If the NCAA thought dunking was an unfair advantage for Kareem, what did the NBA consider his patented skyhook, the most unblockable shot in the history of the sport? He earned MVP honors three more times in L.A., and teamed with Magic Johnson to win five championships for the “showtime” Lakers of the 1980s. His 38,387 points are the most in NBA history.

  • Nolan Ryan — Much is made of Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, the most unbreakable record in all of baseball. The Ryan Express at least belongs in the conversation for his career strikeout (5,714) and no-hitter (7) marks. Critics point to the fact that while Ryan won 324 games over his 27-year(!) career, he also lost 292 and never won a Cy Young Award. You might as well fault Secretariat for not taking flight across the finish line of the 1973 Belmont. His single-season record for strikeouts (383 in 1973) Is one of the oldest marks in the book. Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson are second and third in career strikeouts, and still more than 1,000 behind a man who received 98 percent of the vote when he became eligible for the Hall of Fame. On top of all the numbers, Ryan beat the snot out of a player half his age (Robin Ventura) who had the temerity to charge the mound during Ryan’s twilight years in Texas.

  • Carl Lewis — He was a modern-day Jesse Owens, but with the style and panache of Michael Jackson in his prime. The star of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics ‹ where he won gold medals in the 100, 200, 4x100 relay, and long jump ‹ Lewis pulled off the impossible by making track and field a popular spectator sport in the 1980s. What places Lewis in this club, though, is the gold medal he won in 1996, at the Atlanta Games. At the ancient (for long-jumping) age of 35, Lewis won his fourth consecutive Olympic long-jump gold. Once again, a record that will never be touched.

  • Lawrence Taylor — Fear is not discussed casually in the world of football. Men who make their living in the NFL are generally very big, very strong, and when between the lines, very mean. But entire teams ‹ players, coaches, and training staffs ‹ were afraid of Lawrence Taylor. Check out the salaries of offensive tackles (particularly left tackles, who protect a right-handed quarterback’s blind side) before LT suited up for the New York Giants in 1981 and compare the figures with what they make today. Taylor was athletic, to a degree you have to wonder what kind of tight end he might have been. Mostly, though, Taylor was fearsome. Marino, Rice, and Elway may have had the numbers. Montana, Bradshaw, and Aikman had more rings. But in a game decided by “crazed dogs,” LT was an unleashed leader of the pack.

  • Michael Jordan — Outside the fashion industry, the closest thing to a living, breathing brand-name alive. The phenomenon started when Jordan casually hit a short jumper to win the 1982 NCAA championship for North Carolina. He scored 63 points in a playoff game at Boston Garden in only his second NBA season. He went on to win six championships, five MVP trophies, and 10 scoring titles. Jordan was the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, for crying out loud, in 1987-88. I’ve broken out in goosebumps the first time I saw two people. The first was Mikhail Baryshnikov. The second was Michael Jordan.

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