Thursday, December 22, 2011

Who Are the Real Sportsmen of the Year? Part I

Sports Illustrated magazine names a Sportsman of the Year every December. Sometimes it's a tie: Sportsmen. Sometimes it's a Sportswoman. On a few occasions, it's been a Sportsman and Sportswoman.

This was the case this year: Mike Krzyzewski, the head coach of the men's basketball team at Duke University in North Carolina; and Pat Summitt, the head coach of the women's basketball team at the University of Tennessee.

Coach K's Blue Devils lost in the Regional Semifinal (a.k.a. the Sweet Sixteen) of the Men's NCAA Tournament. Coach Summitt's Volunteers (a.k.a. the Lady Vols) lost in the Regional Final (a.k.a. the Elite Eight) of the Women's NCAA Tournament.

So why were they given this prestigious honor -- which, unlike the Person of the Year awarded by SI's parent magazine, Time, is not for the person who most affected the news, but a genuine expression of appreciation?

Coach K -- who, for some reason, pronounces his name not by starting with a K, "Kruh-SHEV-skee," like it should be, but "Shuh-SHEV-skee" -- has won 4 National Championships, and last season surpassed Bobby Knight, to whom he was once an assistant, to become the all-time leader in wins by a college men's head basketball coach. As of this morning, he has won 910 games. So he did have an achievement worth mentioning this calendar year.

Coach Summitt, whose 8 National Championships trail only the late UCLA men's coach John Wooden with 10, was already the women's leader in the same category -- indeed, she leads all college basketball coaches, regardless of gender, with 1,080 wins as of her most recent contest. This year, she announced that she had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type. She still plans to coach through the end of this season, at least. On occasion, SI has awarded Sports(person(s)) of the Year for bravery as much as for achievement.

But, essentially, these are lifetime achievement awards. Both Krzyzewski and Summitt have had, competitively speaking, better years. And there were other deserving candidates.

SI has done this before. Since their founding in 1954, they have given out a Sportsman of the Year award every year, and not always to the right person -- and sometimes, not for the right reason.

Here's their list, and here's who I would have chosen, if not SI's choice.

1954 Roger Bannister. As great as Willie Mays, Otto Graham and Tom Gola were in that first year of SI, SI got this one right. The four-minute mile was seen as a tremendous barrier. A Swedish runner named Gunder Hagg had run the mile in 4 minutes, 1.4 seconds in 1945, and that record had stood for 9 years, and people were thinking that the 4-minute barrier would never be broken. There were even scientists who thought that, if it was broken, the strain on the man who did it would be such that he would die.

But Bannister, a medical student at England's University of Oxford (usually written as "Oxford University"), knew from his studies of both medicine and athletics that it was possible, and he did it in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds. His record was broken a few weeks later by Australian runner John Landy, but then, at the British Empire Games (now the Commonwealth Games) in Vancouver, Bannister, while not reclaiming the record, beat Landy. He then retired, becoming a neurologist rather than compete in the 1956 Olympics. (He'd finished 4th in the 1500 meters in the 1952 Games.) Sir Roger is now retired from medicine, although he still lectures. The record is now 3 minutes, 43.13 seconds, set in 1999 by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco.

1955 Johnny Podres. Podres was the pitcher who made the difference for the Brooklyn Dodgers in finally winning a World Series on the team's 8th try -- the last 5 defeats coming at the hands of the Yankees, whom they finally beat. But was he really more deserving than Otto Graham, who came out of retirement to quarterback the Cleveland Browns to another NFL Championship, then retired at the top of his game again? I don't think so. Podres and Graham are both dead.

1956 Bobby Morrow. An American runner who won 3 Gold Medals at the Olympics, I had to look up his name to find out who he was. The real Sportsman of the Year was Bill Russell, who led the basketball team at University of San Francisco to a 2nd straight National Championship and the longest winning streak the sport had yet seen (later broken by Wooden's UCLA in 1971-74), and then led the U.S. team to the Olympic Gold Medal, before revolutionizing the pro game with the Boston Celtics (although the bulk of that happened after this calendar year). Morrow was a white man from Texas. Russell was a black man born in Louisiana (though living his "formative years" in Oakland, California). Gee, I wonder why SI made the choice they made. Both Morrow and Russell are still alive.

1957 Stan Musial. You'll never get me to say an unkind word about Stan the Man, but this was SI's first lifetime achievement award (hereafter abbreivated as LAA). Truly, Stan's best years were before SI began publishing.

How about Maurice Richard? In the spring, the Rocket led the Montreal Canadiens to yet another Stanley Cup. In the fall, he scored the 500th goal of his career, at a time when only 3 other players even had 300. True, it would have been a LAA for him as much as for Stan, but he did win a championship, something Stan hadn't done since 1946. (The Rocket also won one that year.) The Man is still alive, but the Rocket is dead.

1958 Rafer Johnson. The UCLA student set a world record in the decathlon, 2 years after winning an Olympic Silver Medal and 2 years before winning a Gold with another record. SI names its first black SOTY. No argument here. He is still alive.

1959 Ingemar Johansson. The Swede knocked out
Floyd Patterson at Yankee Stadium to take the heavyweight championship of the world. Funny, but when Floyd knocked Ingo out at the Polo Grounds the next year to become the first man to reclaim that title (many had tried), SI did not name him Sportsman of the Year. Again, the honoree was white, and the man who got gypped was black. Anyway, Ingo, who is dead, remains the last white man and the last native of the continent of Europe to be an undisputed heavyweight champion. (Then again, when was the last time we had an undisputed one of any race, of any continent? Lennox Lewis, in 2004, a black man from Britain, a nation that likes to remind us that, technically, they are not "in Europe.")

Anyway, I can't think of a SOTY choice appreciably better than Ingo, although Johnny Unitas (NFL Champion Baltimore Colts) and Darrell Imhoff (NCAA basketball champion California) are possibilities.

1960 Arnold Palmer. If you presume that golf is a sport, Arnie was a very good choice: He won the Masters and the U.S. Open, and was the leading money-winner on the PGA Tour. If, like me, you do not think golf is a real sport, then it could be Patterson. It could also be the man who was chosen the next year. Arnie is still alive, Floyd is dead.

1961 Jerry Lucas. The Ohio State forward was hailed as a "scholar-athlete," and that was no joke: He remains one of the most celebrated intellectuals in sports history, a master of memory who has created a correspondence course to help people expand their own memory skills. He led Ohio State to the National Championship the year before, dethroning Imhoff and Cal, but in '61 the Buckeyes lost in the Final to the University of Cincinnati. This result would be repeated in '62, as Lucas and fellow future Hall-of-Famer John Havlicek completed their college careers.

There's no question Lucas was deserving, but was he the most deserving? Admittedly, single-season home run record breaker Roger Maris was not much of a "sportsman," but his achievement, so much derided by the sports media of the time, has only grown in impressiveness in the half-century since. Lucas is still alive, Maris is dead.

1962 Terry Baker. The most celebrated lefthanded quarterback of his time, the Oregon State signal-caller was, like Lucas, hailed as a scholar-athlete. While he did win the Heisman Trophy and lead his school to a very successful season, they did not win their conference (the league now known as the Pac-12). His pro career was a bust: The Los Angeles Rams drafted him despite already having Roman Gabriel, and barely played. Although his degree was in mechanical engineering, he went to law school, and practiced law until retiring. He is still alive. A good choice for Sportsman of the Year, if not the best one.

I can understand why they didn't select Mickey Mantle of the World Champion Yankees: He wasn't exactly a good interview, and wasn't always a class act. But what about Russell? He led the Celtics to another title. What about Wilt Chamberlain? He only had the greatest season, individually speaking, that any basketball player is ever likely to have. What about Maury Wills, who made baseball fans rediscover the stolen base? What about Frank Mahovlich, who brought the Toronto Maple Leafs back to the Stanley Cup? Since SI (with one exception) has never given this award out twice, I'm not going to give it to Russell a 2nd time. I'm giving it to Wilt. He's dead, Baker is still alive.

1963 Pete Rozelle. This was the first time SI gave it to a non-athlete. Consider the challenges he faced, when just 37 years old and in his 4th season as NFL Commissioner: The League's expansion, the bidding war for players with the AFL, the Paul Hornung and Alex Karras gambling scandals, and the decision, with very little time to make it, to play games 48 hours after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Whether the decision was right or wrong (and he later decided it was wrong), Rozelle was an incredibly consequential figure in this year, and, if it was a mistake, he still found a way to make it with class. SI got this one right. Rozelle is dead.

1964 Ken Venturi. He had come back from a car crash to win the U.S. Open. So his selection was understandable. But was he a better selection than Olympic heroes like Don Schollander, Dawn Fraser, Wyomia Tyus? World Series star Bob Gibson? Jim Brown, the best football player of his time (perhaps all time), who won his only NFL Championship that season? Mahovlich, who won his 3rd straight Stanley Cup? At any rate, like Bill Walton, Venturi overcame a youthful stutter to become a broadcaster in his sport. He is still alive.

1965 Sandy Koufax. No argument here. Koufax is still alive.

1966 Jim Ryun. He set the record in the mile run, and held it for 9 years. A year later, he would set the record in the 1,500 meters. His career as a right-wing Republican Congressman from Kansas should not obscure his athletic achievements.

But was he the sportsman of the year, capitalized or otherwise? Frank Robinson singlehandedly turned the Baltimore Orioles from pretenders to first-time Pennant winners and World Champions, winning the Triple Crown and becoming the first man to win baseball Most Valuable Player awards in both leagues. Don Haskins coached Texas Western University (soon to become the University of Texas at El Paso, or UTEP) to the National Championship with an all-black starting lineup, defeating the all-white Kentucky. Bobby Hull became the first hockey player to score more than 50 goals in a season, breaking the record held by Maurice Richard and his former Montreal Canadien teammate Bernie "Boom-Boom" Geoffrion. I'd have chosen Robinson first, Haskins second, Ryun third, Hull fourth. Ryun, Robinson and Hull are still alive, Haskins is dead.

1967 Carl Yastrzemski. The last man to win baseball's Triple Crown, he led the Boston Red Sox to their "Impossible Dream" Pennant. Wilt Chamberlain, who led the Philadelphia 76ers to their (and his) first NBA title, could have been selected. So could John Wooden, or his star center Lew Alcindor (who became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1972), who led UCLA to an undefeated National Championship. Then there was the star of college football's National Championship, O.J. Simpson of the University of Southern California. (Okay, but we didn't know what he would do in 1994.) If they'd chosen after New Year's Eve, when Vince Lombardi coached the Green Bay Packers to the NFL Championship in the Ice Bowl, maybe they would have thought differently.

But Yaz seemed such an inspirational figure that I'm going to say that SI got it right. Yaz, Lew/Kareem and O.J. are still alive; Wilt, Wooden and Lombardi are dead.

1968 Bill Russell. SI finally selects him, for becoming the first black head coach to win a World Championship in any sport, unless you count Fritz Pollard of the 1920 Akron Pros in the NFL's first season (when it was still, more or less, a semipro league). As we discovered in the 1970s and '80s, Russell wasn't much of a coach when he didn't have Bill Russell as a player. He is still alive.

1969 Tom Seaver. In spite of a 3rd straight title by Wooden and Alcindor/Abdul-Jabbar (they went 88-2 over that span), Seaver was "The Franchise" for the Miracle Mets. Certainly, he was a more sellable star to conservative sports fans than Joe Namath, the star of that other New York sports team to win a World Championship in that calendar year. (The Knicks won their first title the following year.) Seaver is still alive.

Part II will follow tomorrow.

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