Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen have 11 championship rings between them, and there there are those who say many of Jordan's wouldn't have been won had Pippen not come along to relieve some of the pressures of being the primary scoring option. And that may be true, but at the end of the day, there are any number of good-to-great players who could have acted in Pippen's role, but there's only one Michael Jordan. With the same instinctive qualities as Bird, Magic and Isiah Thomas before him, Jordan made his supporting cast believe in him, thus allowing him to take them all to the next level.
That quality is rare in professional sports, a field in which there are a lot of good players, quite a few great players, but only a handful of transcendent ones. Recent Super Bowl champion Tom Brady has it. Dan Marino did not. Although Marino put up colossal numbers during his storied 17-year career as quarterback, he failed to win his solitary Super Bowl appearance. Does this make Brady a better quarterback than Marino? Absolutely.
Karl Malone who just announced his plans to retire and abort his mission to Planet Champion is another player who didn't have "it." He'll go down in history just like Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing: guys who were great players but couldn't put it all together. The three of them lacked the killer instinct that Jordan possessed, a will to win that remains unparalleled in modern sport. He was notorious for being brutal with teammates during practice and shoot-arounds, but no one can deny that he got his team to follow his vision. Malone was a monster when it came to scoring and rebounding, yet despite playing with guys like John Stockton, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, he failed to win an NBA title. The argument can be made that if he hadn't gone down with an injury, he could have helped the Lakers beat the Pistons last year. The argument can also be made that for Malone to bolt from the Utah organization that had paid for and tolerated his ass for his entire career was a desperate punk move. Jordan and Pippen, 11 rings. Malone and Barkley, none.
What? Basketball and football are "team sports?" No doubt about it, but a superstar has the power to turn a good team into a great team. Joe Montana did it with the 49ers and won four Super Bowls. If you watch Brady lead his team to victory, it brings to mind Montana's sublimely subtle confidence. And though Marino stormed into regular season games with a vengeance, often vociferously challenging receivers who missed "catchable" passes, when it came to the postseason … well, there's a reason Marino's nickname isn't "Big Game Dan." Brady exudes confidence in the pocket during the playoffs, and he runs his coaches' game plan to perfection. Marino would get "happy feet" like Steve Martin, and bad things would happen for the Dolphins. Very bad things, of the season-ending variety.
This all makes me wonder if there's a hierarchy that exists among retired professional players. Do Bird, Magic and Jordan look down their noses at their buddy Sir Charles? With the amounts of cheap shots they took from Malone's elbows, I know they scoff at "the Mailman." Will Dan Marino's steakhouses always be considered "good, but not Morton's or Ruth's Chris"? It would only be natural for this upper echelon of athletes to harshly judge those who failed to obtain even a single championship ring during their (supposedly) storied careers. The spirit of competition thrives in superior athletes, on and away from their respective professional arenas. MJ and Tiger Woods have been rumored to risk a few grand under the table, but I can't for the life of me figure out why anyone would think they have a chance to beat either of those guys at anything. These "second-rung" players are all great players, to be sure, but they just don't (or didn't) have what it takes to acquire a championship. Is that elusive "it" something that can be learned or developed?
In professional golf, gurus like Dr. Bob Rotella work with golfers to help them unlock their hidden potential. Could the same principles apply to football or basketball? Probably not; golf is the ultimate individual sport. One can control the game by controlling oneself, whereas in team sports like basketball and football one has to embrace the team concept. Motivating one's team and leading them to greatness is a skill that blows away any individual accomplishment an athlete may perform. Given the prevailing attitudes in professional sports today, a champion has to break through many levels of egomania in order to instill the importance of playing like a team. That's just one of the reasons to marvel at the greatness of Tom Brady; like Montana and Jordan, he was born to lead.
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Speaking of champions, look for Tiger Woods to win at least two of this year's major tournaments. I am indeed the same "Bad Sport" who last year not-so-gently leaned on Tiger to figure out what was plaguing his game, but I have seen that (please forgive me) eye of the Tiger already in this new golf season. If Elin's hubby cleans up this year, he gets all the credit, and the media (yep, me too) will need to get off this guy's ass forever. All along he's said he's been working on his swing, and early glimpses of this year's model have been breathtaking. Tiger can resuscitate his legacy by tasting success in the Majors, but he'll need to get past recent first-time champion Phil Mickelson. Once a champion samples the fruits of his labor, he wants to do whatever he can to savor them again.