"Lazzari's Sports Roundup" - - - - 3-27-10
As promised--Part II of a select group of twelve former athletes who've truly fascinated me over the years. *Reminder: Part I included "Pistol" Pete Maravich, Joe Namath, Barry Sanders, Wayne Gretzky, Bjorn Borg, and George Brett.
~Walter Payton--"Sweetness--#34. Thirteen years in the NFL and missed ONE game (during his rookie year)--mind-boggling when you realize the guy WELCOMED physical contact and exploded into would-be tacklers. Nine-time Pro-Bowler with ten 1,200+ yard seasons--sometimes running behind a mediocre offensive line. Blew my mind when he rushed for a record 275 yards in a game back in '77--just TWO days after having been bed-ridden with the flu. Yes, one of those special athletes who became stronger as the game progressed. Possessed a work ethic like few others; training regimen included repeated sprinting up steep hills--along with a grueling weight-training schedule. Also caught close to 500 passes--125 TD's in all. A rare liver disease took him from us at age 45--which devastated me like no other athlete's death previously. Why? Simply because we'll never see another Walter Payton.
~Julius Erving--"Dr. J." Single-handedly put the ABA on the map in the early-to-mid 70's while never averaging LESS than 27 ppg for the Squires and Nets; the Afro, the red/white/blue basketball, the stars/stripes on his uniform--the DOCTOR was unmistakable. Averaged 22 ppg in 11 seasons with Philly in the NBA. What Maravich did for basketball BELOW the rim, Erving did for the league ABOVE it; his slam-dunks during contests (from the free-throw line) were legendary. Hang-time, behind-the-board reverse layups, you name it; it was always something more breathtaking than the night before. Along with Maravich, named to the NBA's 50th Anniversary All-Time Team; if these two guys ever played for the same team (which almost happened in '72 for the Hawks), it would have been 'Globetrotters South.' Had his number retired by TWO franchises; much like "The Pistol," WAY ahead of his time.
~Roberto Duran--103 wins--70 by knockout. "Manos de Piedra"--a brawler who could BOX--and whose defense was vastly underrated. Won titles in four weight classes; I never saw such FIERCENESS in the ring when this guy fought--was simply BORN to fight. The "No Mas" incident in New Orleans will forever haunt him/taint his legacy (perhaps more than it SHOULD), but still probably the greatest lightweight of all-time. Won junior middleweight/middleweight crowns (vs. Davey Moore, Iran Barkley) WELL past his prime; should have retired from boxing BEFORE the Barkley fight. Fought in FIVE different decades (insane) and would balloon up in weight in-between fights (cost him dearly during Leonard II). Bottom line? When in shape and in his prime, NO ONE was more exciting in the ring; the man was unbeatable and FEARED.
~Pete Rose--"Charlie Hustle" lived up to his nickname; I yell "HUSTLE" to the kids I currently coach at the middle school level and STILL think of Rose. Appeared in 17 All-Star games at FIVE different positions; will that ever be repeated? But then there's THE #: 4,256--as in HITS. Yes, the true catalyst of the famed "Big Red Machine" who played an amazing 24 seasons; had a 44-game hitting streak in '78. But the fascinating part? The way he PLAYED the game--just ask Ray Fosse and Bud Harrelson. Sprinting to first after WALKING and sliding headfirst were trademarks; played with reckless abandon which set a tone among his teammates. Fathom this: considering the way he approached/played the game, he appeared in 148 or more games in 19 of his 24 seasons (you read that correctly). Ineligible for Hall of Fame consideration (at least right now) due to gambling--but unforgettable if you ever saw him play. Yeah--gutsy.
~Secretariat--yes, a spectacular athlete--albeit the equine type. When I saw this superstar run each quarter-mile faster than the one BEFORE it while winning the '73 Kentucky Derby (record time), I knew a "freak" was in our midst; barring injury, something special would happen. Then came a last-to-first run at the ensuing Preakness; again, something even MORE special was to come--but HOW special? THIS: a 31-length victory at the Belmont in a record time that still stands today. Without doubt, the greatest of the Triple Crown champions; "Big Red", they called him--as was his heart, literally (revealed to weigh close to 22 pounds). The fact that he still holds records at the Derby and Belmont--37 years later--is the fascinating part. Honored on a 33-cent postage stamp--yeah, an American hero. I know that when jockey Ron Turcotte rode him, he just held on and smiled; I cried when the horse was euthanized in 1989, but smile now when I think of this special champion.
~Michael Jordan--O.K.--we'll end with a 'no-brainer'. But it wasn't all about the six championships that made him fascinating--or the fact that he averaged 30 ppg for his career. What made MJ special was the COMPLETE nature of his game; how this man could score THAT much and ALSO be a 9-time NBA All-Defensive First team player is beyond impressive. Also was an 84% free-throw shooter--which sometimes goes under the radar screen. Led by example and played 3-4 inches taller than his 6'6" frame. Records, accolades are too numerous to mention here; simply popularized the game of basketball around the globe and single-handedly changed the way the NBA markets the game. Willed his teams NOT to lose—yes, the "go-to" man; Phil Jackson should bow to a picture of him daily.