Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Top 25 Impact Athletes of the Last 25 Years (part 2)

Here are the top 10 impact athletes of the past quarter-century.  This is a continuation of last week's entry.  Enjoy...and feel free to debate!

10. Alexander Ovechkin (2005 – present), Washington Capitals – Ovechkin has brought something to the rink that was lacking for at least a decade - a bonafide, aggressive scoring machine. He has scored 45+ goals in each of the first five seasons in the NHL. When Ovie gets the puck, the opponents are almost always in retreat mode. He creates space each time his skates touch the ice for himself and teammates with his speed, attitude, and physicality. Ovechkin's style of play is by no means a precise one. He uses his severely curved stick to rip blazing shots at goaltenders from any and all angles. Ovie hasn't met a shot that he didn't like. He's not the two-way player that Sidney Crosby is. But, he dominates play nearly every time he comes over the boards. It is a rare occasion that a defender is able to take Ovechkin out of "his game." Unlike many other scoring forwards, Ovie is willing to throw his weight around. This has led to a number of questionable hits. He hasn't experienced the ultimate team success yet in the playoffs. His Capitals team is perennially in the running for the Presidents Trophy. They haven't been able to put together a true team effort in the postseason to win the Cup, but they will always be a threat. If the Caps goalies can shine in May and June, look for Ovie to be a Cup champion sooner rather than later. The way that he can take over a game is unparalleled. 
9. Roger Federer (1998 – present), Men’s Tennis – Federer has carried the torch of men's tennis after the departure of such iconic figures as Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. There has never been a more complete player ever to hit the tennis courts. His baseline play is superb, including a devastating forehand and a unique one-handed backhand. Federer's serve is not specifically designed to regularly deliver aces, but it is challenging for opponents to get a jump on it due to the very mechanical consistency of his toss. Although Roger does not approach the net often during his matches, his volley is among the game's best. His record supports the assessment as an all-time great - an astounding 16 career Grand Slam singles titles (six Wimbledon, five US Open, four Australian Open, and one French Open title), and he's only 29 years old. He held the #1 ranking for a record 237 consecutive weeks from 2004-2008. Federer certainly has a few great years left before he will no longer be able to maintain his era of excellence. It took Roger a few years on the pro tour to develop his overall game before he was an elite player. He became a professional in 1998, but didn't win his first major until defeating Mark Philippousis at Wimbledon in 2003. Over the past eight years, Federer has averaged two Grand Slams (out of four) each year. His championship run has occurred while having a share of worthy adversaries trying to dethrone him. Currently, Federer is entrenched in a great rivalry with Rafael Nadal. The two have had some epic matches in their careers, none greater than the 2008 Wimbledon Final, which Nadal won at dusk after nearly five hours. That match ended Roger's run of five consecutive Wimbledon championships. Federer has increased the level of the overall game by challenging his opponents to match him. Nadal is next in line and may someday overtake Federer as the game's best, but it’s still Roger’s crown.

Federer delivering a serve

8. LeBron James (2003 – present), Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat – King James is currently the world's most dominating basketball player. He was the coveted prize of the 2003 NBA Draft Lottery, one that happened to present his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers the opportunitiy to draft him with the #1 overall selection. James was a man amongst boys in high school. Every player who was drafted directly from high school before James experienced some growing pains before "making it" as a pro, even Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett. LeBron was the exception. He immediately sparked a downtrodden Cavaliers franchise into one of the most rabid fanbases in all of sports. Everyone wanted to see what the kid could do. What he could do was simply spectacular. As a physical specimen, James is part acrobat, but primarily a freight train. When LeBron James gets a head of steam driving to the basket, he is unstoppable. He has made the NBA even more of a one-on-one game with his attacking style, leaving officials no other option but to call a slew of fouls. While LeBron has become a significantly better perimeter shooter than early in his career, he is still more skilled at taking defenders off the dribble. He is especially indefensible on the fast break because of his ability to both finish and dish to teammates. I think it is a fair comparison to draw between him and Alexander Ovechkin - both aggressive, strong-willed, offensively oriented players with great regular season success but no postseason victories on the resume. James was supposed to be the next Michael Jordan, but Jordan never abruptly left his team via free agency via a one-hour television special. Jordan won early in his career, LeBron hasn't (yet). Now that James has bolted for South Beach, he has a sidekick or two in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The problem is that Wade isn't a sidekick...he's an alpha male just like LeBron. Jordan's sidekicks were Scottie Pippen and (to a lesser extent) Dennis Rodman. They knew their place in the pecking order. As a result of poor team chemistry and coaching, the 2010 Miami Heat have begun the season slowly with a 10-8 record. No one can question James' superb talent. Everyone may question whether he will ever obtain the team accolades he desires...or will the one-on-one NBA game that James furthered ultimately be his undoing. After all, it's difficult to have two superstars vying to be #1.
7. Michael Phelps (2001 – present), United States swimmer – This is the most phenomenal athlete I've ever seen, period. His wingspan is 6'7", which allows his arms to act as paddles while having size 14 feet acting as flippers - a unique body structure for an elite swimmer, let alone an average guy. I personally think he has gills. He has set a whopping 39 world records (29 individual, 10 relay) throughout his swimming career. In one of the more glamorized sports of the Olympics, Michael Phelps holds the distinction of being the most medaled athlete of all-time (14 gold, 2 bronze medals). The previous record was nine medals. All the world's eyes were on Phelps in the 2008 Beijing Olympics as he attempted to surpass Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in a single Olympics. One of the heart-stopping moments occurred in the 4 x 100 meter freestyle relay as the French team opened a wide lead on the Americans. Phelps began to rein in the French lead with his leg before Jason Lezak swam the anchor to surpass Frenchman Alain Bernard by 0.08 seconds for the most exciting relay in swimming history. Earlier, Bernard said, "The Americans? We're going to smash them. That's what we came here for," Look who's smashed now. The closest call of Phelps' Olympics wasn't even the relay. It came in the 100 meter butterfly when Milorad Čavić of Serbia got off to a half-body length lead that Phelps gradually closed over the past 25 meters. As Čavić glided into the wall with an apparent victory, Phelps employed a (usually ill-advised) quick half-stroke that propelled him to the wall just ahead of Čavić. The underwater photos were analyzed to determine that Phelps won by a mere 0.01 second. The other six gold medals proved "easier" for Phelps, so he was able to achieve his goal of eight golds. What an amazing series of performances in one week in August 2008! He forever changed the sport of swimming and the Olympic Games. Michael Phelps is the bar to which all other Olympian greats will be compared. Oh, and he's not done. Phelps will compete in the 2012 London Olympics before possibly retiring. He could reach 20 gold medals?!
Phelps swimming for gold in Beijing (Getty Images)

6. Barry Bonds (1986 – 2007), Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants – Bonds entered the league with the Pittsburgh Pirates as a prodigy - son of former baseball great, Bobby Bonds. He quickly established himself as a fantastic all-around "five tool" player - solid hitter for average and power, could steal bases with his great speed, tremendous outfield arm, and fielded his position of left field extremely well. Early in his career, Bonds' outstanding everyday play yielded success for the Pirates, earning three consecutive trips to the postseason and two MVP awards. Free agency came calling in 1992 and Bonds broke the hearts of Pittsburghers by signing with the San Francisco Giants. His two MVPs with the Pirates would pale in comparison to what he achieved in the City by the Bay. His game "transformed" after several successful seasons between 1993-2000 (averaging 40 HR, 106 RBI per season). Bonds became the single season Home Run King in 2001 with 73 home runs. I'll boldly state that this number will never be duplicated as the last three individuals who exceeded 60 HRs in a season are shrouded in performance-enhancing drug controversies (Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa). Bonds never hit 50 home runs in any other season, but he managed 73 dingers in only 476 at bats. So, the historical numbers are suspicious. Then there's Bonds' evident physical growth. Barry went through such a massive body change that he bulged from 185 pounds at the outset of his career to 228 pounds by the end. His hat size is rumored to have increased by 5/8 of a size and his feet grew 2 1/2 sizes, too - that doesn't normally happen with grown adults, does it? It's also interesting that his stolen bases tapered off drastically with the added weight. Let's get back to baseball - Barry was the most feared hitter for over a decade, by far. He was pitched around more often than any other batter, enduring 688 intentional walks and 2558 career walks (both all-time records). Bonds' longevity allowed him to break Hank Aaron's career homer mark of 755 in 2007 by notching 762 shortly before leaving the game. He officially retired in 2009 after no Major League team was interested in his services. Bonds has repeatedly denied steroid use, so it will be interesting to see what Hall of Fame voters do in 2012 with arguably the greatest player of his generation (and one of the top 3-4 players of all-time). McGwire has been left out in the cold, but will Bonds? The merit of skill is certainly deserving - 14 All-Star selections, 8 Gold Gloves, and 7 MVPs. The debate will soon begin.
It's really frightening to see the size difference after 20 years of baseball...among other things

5. Peyton Manning (1998 – present), Indianapolis Colts – No other player prepares for football quite like Manning does. His ability to read defenses, process information, set up blocking schemes, and change plays is simply the best...and that's all pre-snap. After he gets the ball from center Jeff Saturday, he uses his eyes to throw off defenses and moves around just enough in the pocket to create the best throwing lane for himself. Then, to top it off, he is physically gifted enough to make passes into very tight spots to receivers who sometimes aren't even open - this can be at the line of scrimmage, 40-50 yards downfield, or anywhere in between. Manning's exhaustive film study allows him to assimilate details of a team's defensive schemes, so he is rarely surprised when on the field - he's seen it all before...on film. Manning is the reason we hear commentators utter words like "cerebral." The NFL has become more of a passing league because people want to see the touchdown passes. After all, that's why defensive backs have been handicapped with how limited their contact on receivers are allowed to be, based on rule changes implemented several years ago. The one knock on his career is his postseason record - he has only enjoyed one Super Bowl victory along with a number of disappointments in trying to represent the AFC. Barring injury, Manning someday will own all of the prominent passing records in the NFL. He has been an elite quarterback since he entered the league, and there's no sign of him slowing down any time soon.
4. Shaquille O'Neal (1992 – present), Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Boston Celtics - There hasn't been a dominant center like Shaq since Wilt Chamberlain.  He entered the league as an unrefined yet athletic center.  No one could handle him then, and for the better part of his career, he was still impossible to defend.  At 7'1" and roughly 325 pounds, O'Neal has been an intimidating force that no single defender could handle.  The individual who had the most success guarding O'Neal was Vlade Divac, who Shaq claimed cheated and flopped.  But, Divac never really stopped O'Neal, he only slowed him down a little bit.  He quickly developed an arsenal of post moves - he could drop step, pivot, take a quick dribble towards the basket, or lower his shoulder to make enough space to release his half hook shot.  With O'Neal's game rounding into form, teams began to employ the "Hack a Shaq" strategy.  This required the opponent's big men to use their fouls to put O'Neal on the free throw line due to Shaq's ineptitude as a foul shooter (usually hovering around the 50% mark).  The most successful days in Shaq's career were spent with the Los Angeles Lakers.  He relished the spotlight and won three NBA championships from 2000 - 2002 alongside Kobe Bryant under the guidance of Phil Jackson.  After the years of success, everyone's egos seemed to inflate.  The court wasn't big enough for both Shaq and Kobe.  In 2004, Shaq's dedication to the sport was being questioned, as he showed up overweight and out of shape.  So, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak pulled off a blockbuster trade to deal O'Neal to the Miami Heat for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant, and a first round draft pick.  Surprisingly, this trade ended up being beneficial to both teams.  O'Neal and Dwyane Wade experienced the immediate success of an NBA Championship in 2006 with the Miami Heat while the Lakers won titles in 2009 and 2010 with Kobe being the primary weapon along with Odom and Pau Gasol being adequate role players.  Shaq's skills have diminished since his days in Miami and he has bounced around from team to team, searching for championship success.  He is currently the oldest player in the league with the Boston Celtics filling the need of a solid rebounder and post presence.  O'Neal has made 15 All-Star teams, won two scoring titles, one MVP award, and is in the top ten for points scored, field goals, and blocks.  The mountain of a man will wind up his career among the all-time greats, but his physical presence on the basketball court may never be equaled.
Earl Boykins wonders if the weather really is different for Shaquille O'Neal.

3. Lance Armstrong (1992 – 2005, 2009 – 2011), United States cyclist – Lance Armstrong received status of "legend" when he returned from his battle with testicular cancer and won the Tour de France in 1999...then he finished the next six consecutive Tours wearing the maillot jaune (yellow jersey) as well. What title do you give that - epic, immortal? How about "the best." Armstrong started his career as a highly regarded cyclist in 1992. He won a World Cycling Champion title and his first Tour de France stage victory in 1993. But, he hadn't put it all together for an entire Tour. In 1996, he was forced to bow out of the Tour de France due to illness during the seventh stage. Later that year, he had disappointing finishes in the time trial and road race at the Atlanta Olympics. Two short months after the Olympics, Armstrong was diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer. A tumor had also metastasized to his lungs and brain. The outlook was bleak - his doctor gave Armstrong a 40% chance of survival. Forget cycling, this guy's life could be over. Lance endured two months of chemotherapy, as well as testicular and brain surgery. To the amazement of nearly everyone, the cancer went into remission within a year's time and Armstrong was chomping at bit to get back on the bike. So, he began training in January 1998, placing fourth in the Vuelta a España. A year later, his unbelievable streak of seven Tour de France wins (exceeding the previous record of five, most recently achieved by Spaniard Miguel Indurain) began. Armstrong was lethal in time trials and outstanding on the steep Alpine slopes. He and Jan Ullrich enjoyed a friendly, but competitive rivalry that always ended with Armstrong on top of the podium. In 2005, it appeared that Armstrong was riding off into the sunset when he retired following the Tour. He "took time off" to train for marathons, running both the New York City and Boston events in impressive sub 3-hour times. Lance called it "without a doubt the hardest physical thing I have ever done." But, as many elite athletes do, Lance returned to the sport of cycling in 2009 and 2010. It is obvious that time has caught up with Armstrong as he finished third in 2009 and was forgettable in 2010 Tours. He intends to retire from international racing following next year's Tour Down Under in Australia. Due to Armstrong's recovery from cancer treatment, many riders have cast doubt upon Armstrong's achievements. They wonder how he could be so strong after a bout with a debilitating disease. Former teammeate Floyd Landis claims that Armstrong tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in 2002, and that there was a cover-up in place between team and race officials. As the doping and PED suspicion swirls, Lance has defended himself by saying that he is "the most tested athlete in the world," pointing to the frequent blood tests that he has taken. Following his cancer remission, Armstrong established the Lance Armstrong Foundation in 1997. To date, the foundation has raised over $325 million for cancer research with proceeds coming from corporate sponsorships, yellow Livestrong bracelets, and footwear. Armstrong has been an inspiration to cancer patients everywhere by what he has achieved on the bike. Off the bike, he continues to give patients hope with the Livestrong foundation today.
2. Mia Hamm (1991 – 2004), United States soccer – In a sport that rarely got national recognition, but is considered the "world's game," Mia Hamm made Americans aware of her sport during her reign as the world's best soccer player. All told, she played 275 games on the United States team, scoring 158 goals. That mark is an international record for any individual player, male or female. She was chosen by Pelé as one of FIFA's 125 best living players - only two women earned that distinction: Hamm and fellow American, Michelle Akers. When she was enrolled at the University of North Carolina, the womens' soccer team won the National Championship each year, only losing once in the 95 matches that she played. She averaged better than one goal per game as a Tar Heel. At age 19, Mia was the youngest member on America's first World Cup winner in 1991. The country, though, still had not embraced soccer. However, in 1999, Mia Hamm had become much more of a household name. The United States hosted the World Cup tournament and provided the host country a thrilling, shootout victory over China before a packed Rose Bowl crowd. This was the highest attendance for a women's sporting event ever. The sport of soccer has exploded at many levels in the U.S., but the predominant faction was youngsters - both girls and boys. In the past decade, kids flocked to the sport because of the success achieved by the United States team, thanks in large part to the efforts of Mia Hamm. She also led the way for Olympic gold medal-winning teams in 1996 and 2004, with a silver in 2000. As the 2004 Olympics closed, Hamm was selected by her fellow American Olympians of being Team USA's Closing Ceremony flagbearer. This may have had something to do with her announcing her retirement from the sport following the Games. So, she had a very appropriate sendoff to her career - carrying the flag at one last event...when, in reality, she carried it for her sport for thirteen years.
1. Tiger Woods (1996 – present), Men’s Golf – I don't know of any other athlete who has singularly created interest in his sport like Tiger Woods has. Woods was groomed to be a golfer since infancy. Most people have seen clips of him as a 2-year old pummeling a golf ball on the Mike Douglas show. Tiger broke 80 on a full 18 holes of golf at age 8. Tiger's father had a vision for him - and that was to become the world's greatest golfer. Well, he has achieved that. Woods has the most complete shot repertoire of anyone that the game has ever seen. He can drive the ball a mile, plus his shot-making inventiveness is second to none. Before Tiger hit the tour, who would think to use a fairway wood with a full swing to produce a flop shot of less than 15 yards from deep rough? None that I can recall. He is streaky when it comes to his short game, but the way he reads greens is exceptional. But, it's the bigger than life persona of Tiger Woods that puts him atop this list. He has changed golf from a middle-aged white man's game to being a sport for everyone - old, young, men, women, any race, you get the picture. The viewership of PGA events has grown exponentially since Woods became a professional. Networks pray that Woods plays in tournaments that they televise because people tune in just to see Tiger. The number of people who hit the links has increased as well due to the "Tiger effect." Heck, even golf movies have made a resurgence in popularity. Nothing can touch "Caddyshack," but "Tin Cup," "Happy Gilmore," and "The Legend of Bagger Vance" were all creatively done, successful movies in the Tiger Woods era. Woods' career has suffered setbacks in the past few years - the ACL tear he suffered at the 2008 US Open (that he won), as well as his scandalous personal life being unveiled to the world after Tiger's one-car crash last November. All of his mistresses then came forward with details of his affairs, effectively ending his marriage...and changing the way he played golf in 2010. Now single, Woods claims to have returned to his core values. Will we see the focus and intimidation that he brought to golf courses as recently as two years ago? Tiger has not yet overtaken Jack Nicklaus as the all-time winningest Major champion (Woods has 14, Nicklaus has 18), but he has half a career to win five more majors. I wouldn't count him out.

Will the 2008 US Open be Tiger's last Major Championship celebration?

Here are the best of the rest that I couldn't pass up at least giving a status of 'honorable mention.' These men and women would round out the Top 100 impact athletes who debuted in the past quarter-century:
1986: Greg Maddux, Andre Agassi, Brett Hull
1987: Rod Woodson, Cris Carter, Randy Johnson, Reggie Miller, Scottie Pippen, Aleksandr Karelin
1988: Pete Sampras, Joe Sakic, Thurman Thomas, Romario
1989: Ken Griffey, Jr., Derrick Thomas, David Robinson
1990: Emmitt Smith, Jaromir Jagr, Shannon Sharpe, Dominik Hasek
1991: Nicklas Lidstrom, Michael Johnson, Bjorn Daehlie
1992: Annika Sorenstam, Teemu Selanne, Oscar De La Hoya, Phil Mickelson
1993: Manny Ramirez, Will Shields, Michael Strahan
1994: Marshall Faulk, Venus Williams, Larry Allen, Jason Kidd, Kevin Mawae
1995: Derek Jeter, Serena Williams, Warren Sapp, Kevin Garnett
1996: Steve Nash, Jonathan Ogden, Terrell Owens, Allen Iverson
1997: Tim Duncan, Marion Jones, Lisa Leslie
1998: Dirk Nowitzki, Roy Halladay, Charles Woodson
2000: Tom Brady
2001: LaDainian Tomlinson, Rafael Nadal, Drew Brees, Michael Vick
2002: Apolo Anton Ohno
2003: Troy Polamalu, Carmelo Anthony, Antonio Gates, Dwyane Wade
2004: Usain Bolt, Dwight Howard, Larry Fitzgerald, Diana Tauarasi
2005: Chris Paul, Aaron Rodgers
2006: Shaun White, Nick Mangold
2007: Adrian Peterson, Darrelle Revis, Calvin Johnson
2008: Steven Stamkos, Chris Johnson, Derrick Rose
2009: Clay Matthews, Jr.
2010: Blake Griffin

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