Sweetness And Light
1:32 am
Wed May 15, 2013

No. 1s: The Latest Greatest Of All Time

Originally published on Wed May 15, 2013 4:19 am

The Great Gatsby is on the screen again, re-opening the perennial debate about whether or not it is the great American novel. Or was that Huckleberry Finn? Or are we still waiting for the great American novel? Is the title vacant, like most recent Tour de France championships? In the arts, the argument over the great American novel is a rather unusual great fuss about the greatest. In most disciplines there simply doesn't seem to be a passion to constantly assess who's No. 1. Except, except ...

Except in sport.

In fact, it is imperative not only to decide who is the greatest, but also to regularly find the latest greatest in sport. All this comes to mind now because there's a groundswell to ordain LeBron James as the greatest basketball player ever. Poor Michael Jordan, he barely had time for a quick cup of coffee at the top of the historical tree.

Unlike in art or music or drama, this manic determination in sport to promote someone new is prompted by the fact that whereas we can't statistically compare, say, Beethoven and Mozart, sports provide simple bench marks. Usain Bolt runs the 100-meter faster than did that old slowpoke Carl Lewis, and much faster than the turtle-like Jesse Owens, ergo not only is Bolt thereby demonstratively the greatest, it means that his 21st century contemporaries in team sport –– similarly bigger and stronger and faster –– must likewise be better in their games than all who came before.

Indeed, to many fans –– especially the younger ones –– there's a prejudice in sport that might be called past-ism. It's laughable to these modern critics that anyone from yore can be taken seriously in comparison to today's modern marvels. Numbers prove everything! Jim Brown and Bobby Orr and Rod Laver and Jerry West and Oscar Robertson would be merely serviceable role players in the company of today's advanced human specimens.

The great irony, though, is that with the possible exception of music, nothing makes us more nostalgic than sport. We adore the sporting past. Why, Mr. Fitzgerald could've been talking strictly about sport when he famously concluded: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

But, paradoxically, as much as we gloriously revel in what was past in sport, we always make sure then to ceaselessly denigrate those golden days as a mere quaint, lesser thing than what nature's superior athletic paragons give us today.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Commentator Frank Deford is concerned about something else altogether. He wonders if sports fans are too obsessed with naming an athlete the greatest.

FRANK DEFORD, BYLINE: "The Great Gatsby" is on the screen again, re-opening the perennial debate about whether or not it is the great American Novel. Or was that "Huckleberry Finn?" Or are we still waiting for the great American novel? Is the title vacant, like most recent Tour de France championships? However, in the arts, the argument over the great American novel is a rather unusual great fuss about the greatest. In most disciplines there simply doesn't seem to be a passion to constantly assess who's No. 1.

Except, except, in sport. In fact, it is imperative not only to decide who is the greatest, but to regularly find the latest greatest in sport. All this comes to mind now because there's a groundswell to ordain LeBron James as the greatest basketball player ever. Poor Michael Jordan, he barely had time for a quick cup of coffee at the top of the historical tree.

Unlike in art or music or drama, this manic determination in sport to promote someone new is prompted by the fact that - whereas we can't statistically compare, say, Beethoven and Mozart - sport provides simple bench marks. Usain Bolt runs the 100-meters faster than did that old slowpoke, Carl Lewis, and much faster than the turtle-like Jesse Owens. Ergo not only is Bolt demonstratively the greatest, it also means that his 21st century contemporaries in team sport - similarly bigger and stronger and faster - must likewise be better in their games than all who came before.

Numbers prove everything. Jim Brown and Bobby Orr and Rod Laver and Jerry West and Oscar Robertson would be merely serviceable role players in the company of today's advanced human specimens.

The great irony though, is that with the possible exception of music, nothing makes us more nostalgic than sport. We adore the sporting past. Why, Mr. Fitzgerald could've been talking strictly about sport when he famously concluded: So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

But paradoxically, as much as we gloriously revel in what was past in sport, we always make sure then to ceaselessly denigrate those golden days as a mere quaint, lesser thing than what nature's superior athletic paragons give us today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Frank Deford is the greatest commentator who joins us each Wednesday from WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut. His latest book, "Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter," is now out in paperback.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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