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Archive for Thursday, August 24, 2006

Commentary: ‘Best ever’ often applied too loosely

August 24, 2006

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My junior year in college there were two basketball courts outside my window where many afternoons "Big" Dan Kreft, a 7-footer who played on the varsity, would run the pavement.

Big Dan wasn't very good when it came to Big Ten basketball, but against a bunch of five-foot-nothing grade schoolers he looked like Bill Russell, swatting away shot after shot, dunking at will and generally making a mockery of the game.

No one would ever mistake Big Dan, an Ivan Drago look-alike, for Tiger Woods, but what Kreft did to those teenagers is essentially what Tiger did to the field in the PGA Championship. He made the best golfers in the world look like the JV, something that's become a disturbing trend for his - and I use this term loosely - competition, which is why it's tempting to immediately want to anoint Woods as the best golfer ever.

But here's the thing about "best evers," there aren't too many of them. There are a lot of all-time greats, but to qualify as a best ever you have to absolutely stand alone in your craft - unapproached, untouched and unarguably No. 1.

An almost foolproof way to determine who (or what) qualifies as a "best ever" is to apply something I call the "bar test" in which we ask ourselves the following question: Can you open a bar celebrating said person's craft without including said person's jersey, picture or likeness on the wall? If the answer is no, then you're a best ever.

It's a tough test to pass, as it should be. Take the Beatles, for example. While they're certainly in the conversation of greatest bands of all time, I've been in plenty of rock bars where they were nowhere to be found. Conversely, I've never been in a reggae club that didn't have Bob Marley's face plastered on a wall. Keeping score, that's the Beatles: All-time great. Bob Marley: Best ever.

"The Natural" is a fantastic film, but could you open a baseball-themed bar without it? Sure, just slap a "Bull Durham" poster on the wall and call the place Nuke LaLoosh's. No golf-themed bar, however, would be complete without a reference to "Caddyshack."

The Natural: All-time great. Caddyshack: Best ever.

Reaching best-ever status when it comes to sports is nearly impossible. For as great as one might be, there's almost always an argument to be made for another.

Jerry Rice scored 208 touchdowns, 33 more than the next guy, but Otto Graham took the Cleveland Browns to 10 championship games in 10 seasons and won seven of those. And still there are cases to be made for a host of others - Montana, Payton, Brown, Sanders, Butkus, Taylor, Grange. Football's list goes on and on with all-time greats whose pictures are in a lot of sports bars, just not all of them.

Which brings us back to Tiger Woods. For more than three decades, Jack Nicklaus has been the ruler of this house.

Conventional wisdom follows that Nicklaus won his 18 majors against stiffer competition (Palmer, Player, Trevino and Watson) than Woods has faced.

But consider this: If Woods were in Nicklaus' shoes, would Palmer be Palmer, Player Player, Trevino Trevino and Watson Watson? Is it possible that, in the face of Woods, these legends of the '60s and '70s would be nothing more than Mickelson, Els, Singh and Goosen - players who challenge only when Woods falters?

On a lark, I went and had lunch at a bar called Looper's. On one wall is a picture of Nicklaus. A Caddyshack poster is prominently displayed on another. I searched for an image of Tiger, but couldn't find one.

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