The One True GOAT


Convivium, 17 January 2019

There are many great pretenders to the title of greatest athlete of all time. But Father Raymond de Souza acknowledges New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady has a commanding claim to being better than all the rest.

A few weeks back, LeBron James allowed as how his 2016 NBA championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers made him the “greatest of all time.” In sports circles, the “GOAT.” Given that sports talk – radio and cable TV – exists to inflate trivialities into three-hour (radio) or three-minute (cable) foaming-at-the-mouth diatribes, you can imagine what they did with LeBron’s auto-declaration as the GOAT – greater than Michael Jordon, greater than Bill Russell, greater than them all.

But before we get to all that, spare a thought – just in passing mind you, not prolonged – for the fans of the New England Patriots. Since 2001, when they happened upon the greatest luck in the history of football, discovering that their backup quarterback was the superlative Tom Brady after their starter was injured, they have won 5 Super Bowls. All the more impressive, in that time they have been to 8 Super Bowls, and have appeared in the conference championship game (semi-finals) an astonishing 13 times. When they play this Sunday in the conference championship, it will be their eighth consecutive appearance.

It gives them a commanding position in the discussion about the greatest football dynasty of all time. That puts their fans in an awkward position. The Patriots have been so good for so long that any fan who has come to support the team in the last 18 years can be accused of selecting his team after browsing Hence those older fans who clutch their 1990s ticket stubs to their breast, protesting that their loyalty predates the current run of success.

At Convivium we know of such people; a colleague is counted among them. There are whispers around the office that he may have had a ticket stub permanently attached to his body by means of a discreet piercing, though no one has ever produced evidence of this.

So there are arguments that can be had, and settled easily. The Patriots are the GOAT when it comes to pro football dynasties. But GOAT discussions are partly attractive because usually they cannot be so easily resolved, if resolved at all. There is perpetual grist for the mill. Are the Patriots the GOAT when it comes to all sports dynasties? That could never be resolved, given the 1970s UCLA Bruins, the 1960s Boston Celtics or the 1950s Montreal Canadiens.

The GOAT for basketball players is in the not-easy-to-resolve category. LeBron has his own view of his greatness. Scottie Pippen, who played with Michael Jordan, commented that the great ones are not really supposed to have a public view about their own greatness. Let others say it. Being the greatest includes a measure of (at least public) humility.

Danny Ainge, who played with Larry Bird, took a more critical take, suggesting that LeBron was taking a “Donald Trump approach to selling himself.” Which was meant to be insulting, all the more so because of LeBron’s criticism of the president.

Which is noteworthy, because LeBron’s self-promotion, like the president’s, has the same roots, namely in Muhammad Ali, who took it from professional wrestling, where there is precious little humility but a lot of selling oneself.

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