Numbers don't lie, but letters sometimes stretch the truth. KFC
now pretends, in commercials, to stand for Kitchen Fresh Chicken,
and it can't be long before we see the similar rebranding of
Fatburger (to Fitburger) and IHOP (as in, I'll Have Oatmeal,
Please). Worse, San Francisco Giants rookie David Aardsma is now,
alphabetically speaking, the first surname in baseball,
supplanting Hank Aaron at the front of the game's alltime roll
call, in the way that AAA Locksmith weasels its way to the front
of the business listings, line-jumping worthier tradesmen like
Aardvark Tamers and Abacus Salesmen.
Though the Giants recently demoted Aardsma--to Triple A, aptly
enough--the fact remains: In sports, the letter A will always
belong to Aaron. Or will it? To avoid future confusion, we hereby
award 26 letter jackets, assigning each letter of the alphabet to
the greatest sportsman whose surname begins with that letter,
thus answering the question I hear most often in sports: Who's
the biggest A you've ever met? (Polite answer: Muhammad Ali.)
B's a bee-yotch. How to choose among Barry Bonds, Larry Bird and
David Beckham? Easy. They're B-listers, bowing down before Jim
Brown, who never missed a game in nine seasons.
For their success at stud, Citation and Wilt Chamberlain vie for
the C, but not even Bob Cousy or Roger Clemens can compete with
Ty Cobb, cantankerous cuss. D is a death match between Joe
DiMaggio and Babe Didrikson. The winner had a sweet swing, a
celebrity spouse and a famous nickname. The loser sold Mr.
Coffees. Sport's biggest E's were Andy Etchebarren's eyebrows,
but they--and Erving, Earnhardt and Evert--lose, on a last-second
drive, to Elway.
F: If boxing, baseball and football really are chess matches,
then Bobby Fischer is a better athlete than Joe Frazier, Bob
Feller and Brett Favre. G: The Great Gretzky, more than Red
Grange, Lou Gehrig or Steffi Graf, dwarfed all others in his
sport, as did Ben Hogan--H--in his.
I is the exclusive isle of Allen Iverson, whose thin
competition--Michael Irvin? Monte Irvin?--was voted off that
island early, leaving AI to cannibalize his cofinalists, Dane and
Michael Jordan shot (and earned) the J. Sandy Koufax threw--and
drew--our K, with Evel Knievel (again) falling short by inches.
The cursive L sewn to the baby-blue sweater of Laverne, on
Laverne & Shirley, would not look as divine on Joe Louis or Carl
Lewis as it does on Vince Lombardi. Diego Maradona was a better
footballer than Joe Montana and Dan Marino combined. Rocky
Marciano never lost, Man o' War was beaten once, but none of
these M's--nor Musial, nor Mantle--was Willie Mays.
N? Nicklaus. Next!
Had Bobby Orr beaten Hitler with his headlong goal in the '70
Stanley Cup, had Shaquille O'Neal head-faked the Fuhrer in the
'02 Finals, either might own the O now worn, like a halo, by
Palmer? Payton? Petty? Puh-lease. P is Pele, period.
Our Q, strangely, has the lowest Q rating of any letter-winner.
Yet here he is, Dan Quisenberry, who uttered the line: "I found a
delivery in my flaw." If championships are the measure of the
man, then the R rightfully belongs to be-ringed Bill Russell (11
titles), with Babe Ruth (seven) finishing third, behind Rocket
Richard (eight). Among the S's, Secretariat would have been
lightning-fast without a jockey, but Willie Shoemaker would not
have been without a horse. Advantage, Secretariat.
Who would win a prison decathlon, atop the T's, between Iron Mike
Tyson and Big Bill Tilden, men with little in common save
athletic dominance and incarceration for sex crimes? Jim Thorpe,
during visiting hours, that's who.
Bob Uecker was told by Birdie Tebbetts before his first major
league baseball game, "Son, up here we wear the supporter on the
inside of the uniform." It's with regret, then, that we give the
U to Johnny Unitas.
Sports have seen more sweet vans (Brad Van Pelt, Andy Van Slyke,
Johnny Vander Meer) than the members of Phish. But one--Norm Van
Brocklin--stands out, victorious in the V's by a nose over Dazzy
Vance, who didn't win his first big-league game till he was 31
and still pitched himself into the Hall of Fame.
W is President, but the nation's highest-ranking W remains
neither he nor Ted Williams nor Tiger Woods. It's John (the
Wizard of Westwood) Wooden, a man who has more W's to his name
than any other figure in sports.
X is not the domain of Olympic champion diver Ni Xiong. It
belongs to the shoeless and illiterate Joe Jackson, who signed
his confession in the Black Sox scandal with that very letter.
Cy Young will forever wear a Y on his chest, like a Yale letter
winner, but only because we couldn't knit one big enough for the
Y, in Springfield, Mass., where James Naismith invented
basketball, the sport played by the memorably named ...
...Wang Zhizhi, formerly of the Dallas Mavericks. But he isn't
our Z, nor are any of those hockey Zhamnovs, Zholtoks or
Zhitniks, nor the Zimmers, Zisks and Zernials of baseball. Emile
Zatopek would beat our winner in a footrace, but still we honor
Zippy Chippy, who deserves to finish here as he did in nearly 100
races: dead last.
The R belongs to be-ringed Bill Russell (11 titles), with Babe
Ruth (seven) finishing behind Rocket Richard (eight).