FROM THE minute George Best--who died last week from complications of alcoholism at age 59--first stepped onto the pitch for Manchester United at 17 in 1963, he was different: a dashing libertine from Belfast with balletic moves, playing in a league that was dominated by reserved Englishmen who eschewed flashy dribbling in favor of dutiful, workmanlike play. Like Mickey Mantle, Best made famous the number 7 for his country's most visible team. Like the Mick, he was an exceptional talent, one who made women and sportswriters swoon. And like the Mick, he drank far too much.
Best began missing practices, and after being ridden hard by the crowd during a loss on New Year's Day 1974, he quit at age 27. He resurfaced in the NASL a few months later but was a shadow of his former self. He said he came to North America because an ad invited him to "Drink Canada Dry" and he wanted to give it a shot. It was one of many jokes Best made about his playboy life. "I used to go missing a lot," he said. "Miss Canada, Miss United Kingdom, Miss World." But his love of a good time kept him from fulfilling his potential, and Best realized that. "If I'd been born ugly," he once said, "you'd never have heard of Pelé."