MASTERS OF THE '80S

THE THREE MOST ACCOMPLISHED ATHLETES OF THE DECADE HAVE MUCH IN COMMON, ESPECIALLY A WILL TO WIN
December 18, 1989

What the three greatest athletes of the 1980s needed more of was not money or soft-drink ads or wallpaper in their image or songs in their honor. They had all that. What they really needed was more garages.

What with their various playoff MVP and All-Star MVP and Player of the Year awards this decade, Magic Johnson, Wayne Gretzky and Joe Montana won 17 cars, Jeeps, trucks and other fuel-injected mementos, almost none of which they kept. Yugo should sell that many cars.

They also won five NBA titles, four Stanley Cups, three Super Bowls, 11 MVP awards, two unfairly beautiful wives, countless free sweat suits, enough rings to start a jewelry store and most of the hearts of North America.

They made VCR ownership a law. Play back the rookie Magic performing at center in Game 6 to beat Philadelphia. Rewind to Montana's fingernail-biting spiral to fingernail-catching Dwight Clark to beat Dallas in the NFC Championship Game. Fast-forward to Gretzky's game-tying goal against his former teammates in Edmonton to break Gordie Howe's alltime point record—26 years of work undone in 10.

But what they did the best was the simplest. They won. Isn't that what the Reagan '80s were about, the bottom line? The number of presidential naps didn't bother us; the number on our bank statements did.

Y.A. Tittle once said, "They love you in the beginning, hate you in the middle and love you at the end." But Y.A. was way off here. These fellows won in the beginning (Montana and Magic won titles in their first years as starters), in the middle (only a puck kicked in by one of his own men stopped Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers from winning five straight Stanley Cups in the mid-'80s) and at the end (Montana splintered Super Bowl passing records in Supe XXIII as his San Francisco 49ers beat the Cincinnati Bengals).

Could they dance, or what? Montana, with his Gene Kelly feet tap-tap-tapping until the last possible moment, watching more touchdowns from the seat of his pants than Pat Summer-all. Gretzky, jitterbugging in tiny arcs around and between giant unflossable defensemen, emerging somehow with the puck and depositing it on the stick of some innocent bystander wearing the right color jersey. "Passes from god," one teammate called them. Magic, with his sweaty slam dance, busting straight forward, then suddenly wheeling into a 360-degree pirouette off the dribble, and at about 320 degrees, ejecting the ball into the good hands of James Worthy.

In these 10 years, Gretzky and Magic never missed the playoffs and Montana missed them only once as a starter. In seven of those years, at least one of them won a championship. These guys saw more of Brent than Mrs. Musburger. Magic has had his team in the finals eight times, and in one of the seasons that the Lakers failed to get that far (1980-81), he sat out 45 games with a bum knee. Montana has yet to throw a Super Bowl interception. Before Gretzky, the record for assists in one season was Bobby Orr's 102. Gretzky made it 163. Mathematically, if he had been hitting home runs, Gretzky would have thumped number 97.

Even if the world suddenly got mass amnesia and these three were forgotten, what they willed us would still be around. Magic, for instance, brought into fashion the full-court bounce pass—"It was the only way I could get the thing there"—and the no-look pass. While he may not hold the patent on such things—Mr. Cousy of Massachusetts was something of an inventor himself—Magic gave them new cachet. Magic made the pass cool again. In the '70s basketball was a game of gluttonous hoop pigs like Bob McAdoo and George McGinnis, men who thought "assist" was strictly for Boy Scouts. Magic and Larry Bird made the pass a thing of honor. "Now kids on the playground all want to make the beautiful pass," says Magic. It also helped bring America back to the arena. Basketball, struggling for recognition at the outset of the '80s, has enjoyed a huge surge in popularity.

Along the way, Magic made the point guard a position of equal-opportunity employment, open even to men standing 6'9". As Peter Vecsey of the New York Post once wrote, Magic was "a human Scrabble blank," usable at any position anytime. Magic knows how he has changed the game. "In the '90s, there won't be any more low-post players," Magic says. "And I think you'll have point guards who are better than me." We should all live that long.

Gretzky created with a stick and puck artworks of preposterous cleverness. He is the master of the pass that bounces off the side of the net to grateful teammates. True, he was not the first to set up behind the net; Bobby Clarke, for one, has done that. Of course, people had hips before Elvis, too. Watching Gretzky behind the net, with two defensemen afraid to come get him and one goalie trying desperately to see out the back of his vertebrae was one of the sports ticklers of this decade.

There were times when Gretzky seemed like a stowaway aboard Mork's ship. In one impossible evening against St. Louis goaltender Mike Liut, Gretzky started by scoring off a face-off, a rare feat in its own right. Then he scored again by flipping a puck from behind the net, over the goal, off Liut's innocent back and into the net. And then he scored again from the face-off. If Liut had been found hanging the next morning from some duct pipe, Gretzky would have faced murder one.

Gretzky changed hockey so much that fighting may someday be a relic, like helmetless players and the Atlanta Flames. What 10-year-old on blades doesn't know that stickhandling, not stick mangling, will get you nine MVP awards and the Flamingo Kid's girlfriend? Gretzky's incomparable slipperiness changed the NHL from smash-face to speed and grace. "People say players in the NHL won't hit me," says Gretzky. "They all want to hit me. But they have to catch me first."

Montana may not have invented anything in the '80s, but he did make the 49ers' attack the model of the "in" offense of the decade: the control passing game, in which receivers are kept on a leash until some cornerback starts getting smart and suddenly finds himself chasing the business end of a 75-yard bomb. And what Montana reinvented was the impossible, get-serious, did-you-hear-what-happened-after-we-left comeback. Down by 22 in the fourth quarter and sick with the flu, he brought Notre Dame back for a win over Houston in the 1979 Cotton Bowl. Down 35-7 at halftime to New Orleans in 1980, Montana brought the Niners back to win. Down 21-10 in the fourth quarter against Philadelphia this year, Montana threw four touchdowns to win. And there are only a couple of dozen others.

What Unitas was to the '60s and Staubach to the '70s, Montana is to the '80s. All this from a third-round draft choice, 82nd overall, who wasn't even sure if he would make the team. "I remember that Dwight Clark and I would avoid making plans for the future because we weren't sure we'd still be around," he says.

Maybe this is what made them good and maybe it isn't, but these are three of the worst losers you'll ever meet. On road trips, magic and coach pat riley have been known to bet a dollar on whose piece of luggage will come down the chute first. "If he loses," Riley has said, "he actually gets teed off." In summer pickup games, Magic is known to call ticky-tacky fouls, so much so that some people dread playing with him.

When Gretzky's L.A. Kings lost to the Edmonton Oilers the other night at the Forum, Gretzky dressed quickly and left without greeting the locker room guests. One was Bruce Springsteen. "I just didn't feel much like chatting after we'd lost." And Gretzky is a Springsteen fan.

Or maybe this is it: All three come from similar money, which is to say, not much. They were reared in working-class neighborhoods, all in the Great Lakes region: Gretzky from Brantford, Ont., an hour from Toronto, Johnson from Lansing, Mich., less than two hours from Detroit, and Montana from Monongahela, Pa., half an hour from Pittsburgh. A very big net in 1969 might have hauled in all three.

Gretzky's father is a teletype repairman, Montana's was a telephone equipment installer and Magic's was a line worker at an Oldsmobile plant. Though there was plenty to eat, there wasn't plenty of else. Magic, because his father couldn't afford to buy him a bike, had to walk. So wherever he went—"to the grocery store, to the movies"—he dribbled. Montana learned what winning meant in his steel-toed town. "Back there," he once said, "people competed for everything." Gretzky's parents spent their fortune on skates, tournament entry fees and gas. "My dad would buy me two sticks for $1.99 down at Avery's, and they'd last me three months," he says.

Is it more than merely a coincidence? "Maybe we just didn't have any distractions," Magic says. "No beach. Not a lot of expensive stuff around—toys. Just our sports."

All three bring a certain optical-illusion quality to their athleticism. In person, Magic may have a YMCA shot, herky-jerky and one-handed, but it still has gone in 53% of the time in his career. He has always taken those mincing steps, as though his legs were not quite hinged in the middle, yet he can outjuke a wolf to a sirloin. He seems to dribble with the flat of his hand, as though holding a two-by-four, but if you were told you had to cross a minefield behind a dribbling NBA player, whom else would you choose?

Montana stands only 6'2", and when Clark met him for the first time, he said, "Who is this, the punter?" O.K., so he doesn't have the wrist of Marino, the arm of Elway, the feet of Cunningham. But he has the accuracy of Price Waterhouse, and as 49er broadcaster Wayne Walker once said, he's "cooler than the other side of the pillow."

Gretzky has the look of a bag boy at the local A & P or perhaps the guy working socks and underwear at J.C. Penney. He is a shade over 5'11" and 170 pounds—he entered the league at 161—and yet this is a player who once could have won the scoring race with his assists alone.

Of the three, Magic is probably the least natural athlete. Gretzky was terrific at lacrosse and was so good at baseball that the Toronto Blue Jays offered him a tryout. At age nine, he was nationally known as a hockey prodigy. At 10, he was the subject of a 30-minute national TV special. Once, he won a peewee game by scoring three goals in the last 45 seconds. "No wonder some parents didn't like me," he says.

Montana probably could have been a professional at any sport. (He was offered a basketball scholarship to North Carolina State.) As a child he pitched three perfect Little League games. Montana can dunk two-hands backward. In high school, he high-jumped 6'9".

Earvin Johnson, however, was not very good at anything but basketball. He was a tight end in football but gave up that pursuit without reservation—or any argument from the coach. He knows he's no Michael Jordan. "I don't jump very high, but I jump high enough," says Magic. "I don't shoot very well, but I shoot well enough. I just like to win."

Of all his thrills, he rates Game 6 of his first title over Philadelphia the thrilliest. With Kareem on his couch in Bel Air icing an ankle, the rookie got 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists—all duly recorded on a tape he keeps near his VCR. "I'm almost wearing it out," he says.

For Gretzky, the finest moment was ending the New York Islanders' bid for their fifth consecutive Stanley Cup in '84 and winning his first. That's a tough choice, though, because Gretzky has a semi full of good stuff to sift through. How about beating the Soviets in the Greatest Hockey Game Ever Played, 6-5 in Game 3 of the Canada Cup in '87? Or how about splattering Phil Esposito's alltime one-season goal record by 16? What about turning the lowly Kings team into a sellout machine inside of nine months?

For Montana, it is not the first title he most cherishes ("We were just a bunch of kids") but the last. He had his back operated on in 1986 and had been given the vaudeville hook in favor of supple-backed Steve Young in '87, then won his job back. Yet he felt as if he were sitting at his own retirement roast. And it wasn't funny. "They kept saying I'm too old, I'm over the hill and all that," he remembers. "But other quarterbacks that came out the same years as I did, they weren't saying a thing about. It made you angry."

With the 92-yard drive in the closing minutes to beat the Bengals, Montana worked out a lot of anger. At the same time, he seemed to move up a floor in the department store of history, past Unforgettables and on to Unsurpassables. Dan Fouts has said, "Montana redefined greatness at the quarterback position." Ram coach John Robinson says Montana is "unparalleled in my experience in this game."

Perhaps the only parallels these men had in the '80s were each other. None has ever been accused of spending too much time in the weight room. All three live in California. None is in the honored guests club at the Hazelden drug clinic. None has been suspended.

All three are decent guys. Magic works all summer on a benefit game to raise money—nearly $3 million to date—for the United Negro College Fund. Gretzky refused to do any promotional gigs in conjunction with his alltime point record unless it included a profit split with Gordie Howe; his share was then handed over to charity. In 1987 and 1988, every touchdown pass Montana threw meant a donation to the Crippled Childrens Society of Santa Clara County. The society came out well—Montana threw 49 TDs in those two seasons.

Still, there are basic differences. Magic and Gretzky are perennially all-interview, whereas Montana gets the hives before the microphone. Maybe it's because Montana has been divorced twice and remarried twice and cares not to entertain discussions on same. Montana and Gretzky did the thing living sports legends are supposed to do—marry sex symbols. Montana married the Schick Sheriff from his commercial, Jennifer Wallace, which seemed to be a pretty good match. After all, who had more close shaves in the '80s than Joe Miracle? Together they have two girls and a boy. Gretzky married Janet Jones, the movie star with the body, in a cozy little wedding attended by 2,000 of their closest friends, press, live newscasters and fire departments. They have a girl, Paulina. Magic is the father of one, but he has vowed to stay single until his career is over "and then have lots of kids, maybe six or eight," he says. "Maybe even adopt a few." (Sorry, you must be a kid to enter.)

All three seem to just get better with age. Magic at 30 is as good as Magic at 20. Against Denver in November, he had 24 assists, his NBA best. He even looks younger. He shaved off his trademark goatee—the one that bordered that 64-tooth smile—and now looks 25. Gretzky, a mere 28, is—yawn—leading the league in points. Montana, 33, has reached a proficiency even he didn't know he had. This year his passing rating is far and away the league's best and his career best (he's first in NFL history in the category). If he keeps orbiting along at this level he will set an NFL record for a one-season rating.

Who knows what keeps them going? Somehow they keep convincing themselves, year after year, that there is something left to prove. These days, maybe Magic figures he must show he can win without Kareem, Gretzky without the Oilers, Montana without Walsh.

It could be we might meet them here again in 1999. Gretzky says he will play at least six more years. Montana says he's good for at least three. Magic says he wants to finish the four years he's got left on his contract and then really get to work. He is getting to be a freak about business, sitting in with his agent now on all business deals. He has his own T-shirt company, his own Nintendo game and his own line of clothes, plus a hefty deal with Converse shoes. He's leaving his 8,000-square-foot house for a 13,000-square-foot house. "The old one wasn't big enough," he says with a straight face.

But what he really wants is his own NBA franchise. "I don't want to be a businessman," Magic says. "I want to be the best businessman."

Boy. some people never change.

PHOTOANDY HAYTMontana, drafted 82nd in '79, is the highest-rated NFL quarterback ever. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONMagic's most notable achievement has been to make the pass cool again. PHOTOJERRY WACHTERThe artful Gretzky has changed the name of the game to speed and grace.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)