August 18. 2008
Sometimes people have a really hard time with the obvious. For
example, ask anyone who the greatest college basketballl player ever is
and there's a good chance you'll get any number of answers. The
correct answer is Pete Maravich. He holds the career scoring
by more than 400 points, despite playing only three years. That's
because when he was playing the NCAA did not allow freshmen to play on
varsity team. Toss in the 741 points he scored on the freshman
and no one comes within a thousand points of him. He ranks first,
fourth and fifth for most points in a season. Few players score a
thousand points in a season; he averaged that for his career. The
next closest three-year player was the great Oscar Robertson and his
total was 700 fewer than Pistol Pete's. He has three of the 10
scoring games in history and scored 50 points or more a record 28
He averaged 44.2 points per game for his career, which is almost
points per game more than the #2 guy and he did this when there was no
point shot. All of Maravich's games were charted and had the
college three-pointer been in play, Maravich would have popped an
of 13 threes per game, pushing his scoring average to 57 points per
for his career if he played today.
The kicker is that shooting wasn't even the best part of his game -
ball-handling and passing were. Watch video of any of his games
and you are likely to see as many between the legs or behind the back
or no look passes as
you would see in an NBA All-Star game. If the Pistol didn't
the moves, he most certainly perfected them. His career assist
don't look all that impressive, averaging 5.4 per game for his career
a peak of 6.0 his senior season. But remember that in order to
an assist, the guy you pass the ball to has to score; if he can't
you don't get an assist. Even coaching legend John Wooden called
Maravich the greatest ballhandler he had ever seen.
He had the talent to be a one-man team but he didn't play like one.
His freshman team at LSU lost only one game while the varsity
team went 3-20. Once he was eligible, he put the program on his
back and by his senior year the varsity went 20-8, losing in the final
four of the NIT tournament to eventual champion Marquette. Back
then only conference champions got into the NCAA tourney and Kentucky
was about as automatic as UCLA to win it's conference every year.
Imagine how entertaining it would have
been had they used today's format for the NCAA tournament, with
Maravich's LSU team as a play-in facing those UCLA teams at the height
of their dynasty. The two teams did meet in the regular season in
1970 and the Bruins held Maravich to only 38 points and 14-of-42
shooting at Pauley Pavilion on
their way to a 133-84 blow-out. However, that game was the
in six days on a cross-country road trip and two days after a game in
Oregon State sent him to the free throw line 31 times. On a
court with almost a week between games, who knows what might have
Oh, and he did all this on arthritic knees.
Interesting college basketball trivia: Who is the only coach
in the history of University of Kansas men’s basketball to own a
losing record? James Naismith, the inventor of basketball. He
at the University of Kansas from 1898 to 1907 ending his basketball
coaching career there with a record of 55 wins and 60 losses.
Anyway, with Michael Phelps winning 8 gold medals in this Olympics, the
media has gone into overdrive making the obvious claim that he is the
Olympian ever. But is this really that obvious? Is Michael
the greatest Olympian?
What he has done is, no question, incredible. But just because he
more medals in one games or more gold medals overall doesn't
make him the greatest ever. I know that sounds strange, but hear
out. I'll concede he is the greatest swimmer ever but not because
medal count. When Mark Spitz won his seven medals in Munich,
were no 50-meter events. Spitz was the world record holder in
the 100 meter freestyle and the 100 meter butterfly so it's reasonable
assume that he could have at least been competitive in the 50 meter
In fact, it has not been uncommon for the the same racer to win
in both. American Matt Biondi did it in 1998 when the event was
and the "Russian Rocket" Alexander Popov did it in 1992 and 1996.
Spitz conceivably could have won 9 golds in Munich had he been given
opportunity. No, what seperates Phelps from Spitz is that Phelps
gold in medley races where he has to swim all four competitive strokes.
was great in the free and the fly, but there really isn't any evidence
he could have been competitive enough in backstoke and breaststroke to
those combine swims.
But back to opportunity... swimmers have more opportunities to win
medals that any other sportsmen at the games. For example, if you
are the best at 100 meter freestyle, not only can you win gold in that
race, but you
can also win gold swimming that same stroke at the same distance in
4x100 freestyle relay and the freestyle leg of the 4x100 medley,
especially if you are an American. The US men have won the
freestyle relay 8 of
the 10 times it's been raced, and the medley 12 of the 13 times it's
run. American women have been nearly as successful in those
winning the freestyle relay 13 times and the medley 8 times. In
other competition can you do one very specific thing and win three gold
it. Additionally, every stroke at the 100m distance has an
opportunity to win a second
gold through a relay race, and with freestyle the opportunity exists to
double gold at the 200m distance, too. This is how Phelps won 3
his 8 medals, meaning that he contributed only 25% of the effort needed
win those medals.
The best a sprinter can do is win 2 gold with a single event and even
then his/her opportunities are limited. There is a 4x100 relay
a 4x400 relay but no 4x200 relay. So all those crossover
sprinters like Tyson Gay and Usain Bolt and most famously Michael
Johnson in 1996 can
only win three medals at their chosen disciplines. This is what
Jesse Owens effort at the 1936 games so monumental: he added long jump,
a completely different discipline, to his medal regimen. Only
Lewis was able to duplicate his feat but even that was pharmaceutically
A gymnast can win only team gold and an event gold. One
can't be a specialist at just one apparatus and expect to win
individual all-around gold.
This is why many of those listed with the most olympic medals
- five of the top 15 - are swimmers. One of the biggest stories
at these games, Dara Torres, has 12 olympic medals, 4 of each color.
She has no individual golds and only one individual silver,
although that silver was just .01 seconds from gold. The rest of
her medals were all won in relays. There's no debate she is an
inspiring story and a fantastic swimmer. I mean, she won her
first gold before Michael Phelps was even born. This is her fifth
Olympics but conceivably this could have been her seventh as she made
her first team in 1984. Even in this day and age of
specialization and longevity in sports, that is amazing.
But just because she has 12 medals, does that make her a greater
Olympian than Nadia Comenici, who finished her career with a mere 5,
but dominated the 1976 games becoming the first person to score a
perfect 10 in olympic competition and lighting the wildfire of
popularity for women's gymnastics to what has become today? Or
discus thrower Al Oerter, who is one of only three men in history to
win gold in four consecutive Olympics in the same individual event?
The other two were Carl Lewis in the long jump and Paul Elvstrom
in sailing. Or Edwin Moses, who won two 400 meter hurdles golds
in 1976 and 1984, got stiffed in 1980 because of the boycott but did
not lose a single race from 1977 until 1987, covering 122 races
and 107 finals. Even after this running career, he became a
reformer for both olympic eligibility and drug testing. So does
Torres' medal count make her a greater Olympian than him? I don't
to take anything away from Torres because her achievements border on
but the notion that medal count is the sole determiner of the greatness
an Olympian is downright stupid.
Speaking of stupid, anyone else notice the judging in gymnastics?
As much as possible, sports should be objective. You race
the fastest, you jump the highest, you throw the thing the farthest,
you lift the most weight, you beat the other guy to a pulp. The
more a judge inolves
himself in determining the outcome, the less you are playing a sport.
is why ice skating, in my humble opinion, is not a sport. But I
gymanstics a pass most of the time because some of the things they do
not only spectacular to watch but unbelievably challenging physically.
flexibility and strength that are on display is mind-boggling.
the judging in these Olympics have almost made me throw up, and I'm not
person who really ever gets nauseated. I have never been on an
park ride that made me queasy. I've eaten raw sea urchin
texture is like a sandy sponge that has been soaked in egg whites and
tastes like salty farts) and still held onto my cookies. I don't
up at the sight of blood, open wounds no matter how grisly or other
throwing up and I've seen them all up close. But watching the
judges consistently overrate the Chinese gymnasts nearly made me hurl.
In the women's all around final, there shouldn't have been any drama as
to who would win the gold or the silver. And the Russian girl who
finished fourth got completely jobbed out of bronze. The girl who
did win the bronze
nearly fell off the balance beam on 5 seperate occcasions, paused long
to have one of her moves downgraded yet still finished with a similar
to that of Shawn Johnson who executed a nearly flawless routine.
In the vault, another Chinese completely failed to land her jump,
her butt, yet she was scored nearly as high as eventual gold winner
Nastia Liukin who absolutely nailed her vault. The judges'
throughout the individual events as Chinese gymnasts continued to
their way into medal contention. This time a Chinese landed on
knees but was given a competitive score because "her starting score was
high". Call me crazy but if you don't land on your feet, you didn't do
vault. OK, so here is the strategy for the Americans in the next
tell the judges each competitor will do a quintuple backflip with a
twist while simultaneously solving a Rubix Cube, starting score of
57.3. No matter
what they do in the actual vault, they will win gold "because their
scores will be so high".
And the whole "Chinese win the tie" thing in the uneven bars was
sickening, particularly because the Chinese competitor who was given
gold medal (notice I didn't say "won" it or was "awarded" it because
would suggest there was merit to her performance) was not old enough to
legally entered into the competition. Last year she was was cited
be 13 years old and in three years' previous competitions her birthdate
was listed as 1994, but the Chinese government stepped in before this
commenced, stiffled all talk about her actual age and issued her a
stating she was 16 so she could compete.
But it's not just in gymnastics that the Chinese are getting obscenely
favorable rulings. I watched a welterweight boxing match where
the Chinese competitor threw four low blows in one round yet did not
get penalized. In fact, one of those times I think he was awarded
a point. That said, it's not just the Chinese who have
benefitted from inexplicably atrocious judging in boxing. In the
third round of a light flyweight bout between a Cuban and a Brazilian,
the Brazilian landed a hook flush on the side of the Cuban's face yet
the Cuban was awarded the point. "Yeah, Teddy, the kid has got a
good left jab
and a solid overhand right, but you really gotta watch out for his ears
- they are devastating." In a middleweight match to
determine who would move
on to the medal
rounds, a boxer from Thailand held his Khazakh opponent for the
entire fight. He received a 2-point penalty in the second round
for holding yet he continued to do so for the rest of the fight and did
not get any susbesquent penalties despite four more cautions for
holding... "I'm going to penalize you this once but if you do it
again I'm going to give you a stern talking to and tell your mother,"
says the referee. Because of this, the Thai
fighter was able to advance and will face the winner of the steel cage
match between the Undertaker and Ray Mysterio for the title.
As amazing and
inspiring as the Olympics can be and many times are - the 4x100 men's
relay with Jason Lezak coming back to edge out world record holder
Bernard in the final leg for gold will rank up there with Michael
running the 200m in 19.32 seconds as one of the most amazing sports
ever seen - they are also all too often a display of the most petty,
and deceitful attributes of humanity.
Oh, yes, back to the greatest Olympian discussion... I don't know
if Michael Phelps is the greatest ever. He's certainly got a
strong stake in the discussion.
But I don't think it's a slam dunk for him. Paavo Nurmi won
golds (12 medals overall, six individual golds) in distance running
over three Olympiads and won either gold or silver in every event in
which he ever competed. And there's Laryssa
Latynina who won 9 gold medals, 18 overall competing in three
Olympiads, and then
after her career was a coach on the Soviet women's gymnastics dynasty
Olympic champions Olga Korbut (four gold, two silver) and Nellie Kim
(five gold, one silver).
I'm sure there are others but my vote would go to Eric Heiden. He
won all five gold in the speed
skating events - the 500m, 1000m, 1500m, 5000m and 10,000m - in the
Olympiad. That would be like Usain Bolt winning the 100m dash,
the 200m, 400m, 1500m and 5000m runs. Or Michael Phelps winning
50m, 100m, 200m, 400m and 1500m freestyle swims. Say what you
about Phelps' achievements but it is vastly more difficult to train for
range of distances than it is to train for different strokes. In
beyond a certain scope most athletes don't even try. Sprinters
their bodies so that they can maximize their burst while long distance
train for endurance. To be the best in the world at both requires
a physiology that is truly unique. But Heiden didn't stop there.
After the Olympics he
became a world class bicyclist and founder of a bicycling team that
one day include Lance Armstrong as a member. He was also the
USPRO road bicycling champion, a title that Armstrong would also win in
After that he became a successful orthopedic surgeon and eventually
doctor for the US Olympic speed skating team in 2002 and 2006. If
isn't the Olympian ideal - winning gold, then achieveing great things
the sport and then helping others to maximize their potential as well -
than I don't
know what is. It remains to be seen if Phelps will have that same
of impact - he might very well - but for now I'm sure he's content
the face of these games and the greatest swimmer we've ever seen.
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