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Greatest Sportsperson in the World --- A Perspective!

This conundrum has been plaguing me since time immemorial. Whenever I thought about this subject I felt as if I were a deer in the headlight! But this time, I thought I would at least try…

I admire every one of the great sports personalities in the world. Certainly, my A-list expanded as I aged.

I have had the habit of watching almost all sporting events on TV. My wife Shanti complaints even now…. “Stop! this is ridiculous…you don’t miss even high school athletics!”. Habits die hard…so, I continue...

In Tennis, Roger Federer, and Naomi Osaka top in my list of active players. I admire Nadal, Djokovic, Thiem, Tsitsipas and many others too. Players such as Borg, Becker, Sampras, Agassi, Connors, McEnroe, Lendl, Amritraj brothers, Krishnans, Leander, Chris Evert, Billie Jean King, Navratilova, Martina Hingis, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Sharapova, and the famous Williams sisters also appear in my tennis hall of fame list. However, my no#1 pick is Federer. The Australian Open, which started at the time of writing this article, will miss Federer. Nadal has a chance now to surpass Federer’s record in Grand slam wins…but being very candid, I do not want that to happen…I like Federer so much…hope his record will be intact.

Coming to cricket, I have another catalogue of great players. Kapil, Gavaskar, Tendulkar, Azhar, Viv Richards, Kallicharan, Lara, Imran, Lillee, Willis, Botham, and Hadlee. Baby boomers and Generation X may remember these players who were at their prime in 70s and 80s. Can you imagine that protective gear was limited to the gloves, abdomen guard and pads for batsmen then? All other aids of safety like the helmet, elbow protector and chest and rib guards were unknown. I remember listening to the radio commentary of the 1975 World cup where Kallicharan was at his best, disdainfully sending Lilliee’s deliveries after deliveries to the boundary. I was fortunate to watch India’s win in 1983, this time on TV…what a glorious win! the adrenaline rush, the jubilation, the excitement…could not believe it, and hence, “the Haryana Hurricane”, the ebullient Kapil gets my vote.

India produced many superstars in Hockey. Though I lost touch with hockey lately, I still remember very vividly India’s win at the 1975 World cup. Ajitpal Singh, Govinda, Dhanraj Pillay and Mohammed Shahid top my list in Indian Hockey. Some of the other Indians who brought fame to India years ago include Prakash Padukone and Geet Sethi.

It is quite weird that the real football, played by millions – both rich and poor, is known as soccer in the US. I used to wonder why the US football is named Football where the use of foot is limited to initial kicks and field goals. I thought that the length of football could be one foot and hence called that way; but my speculation turned out to be incorrect as I was told that the ball measures only about 11”. Anyway, leave that topic alone.

One of the greatest soccer players Maradona passed away recently. He is my number one pick in soccer though I admire Pele, Johan Cruyff, Platini, Beckham, Socrates, Ronaldo from yester years. Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Salah, Mbappe, Neymar, Xavi etc. appear in my list of current players. I also respect Rapinoe, the women’s rights activist and one of the best women’s soccer players in the US.

In NFL, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Mahomes, and Russel Wilson are my favorites. Brady and Mahomes are identical in many respects. They started playing baseball, basketball before choosing football. To me, they are different at least in one way…. while Brady plays like a quarterback Mahomes plays like a point guard! Brady gets my vote here. How can somebody play like this at 43? Though his records on MVP and Super Bowl appearances are tough to break, I think Mahomes, one of the very few African American quarterbacks, is a strong contender for that. I believe he has become the greatest quarterback of this generation by reinventing the precise art that Brady mastered.

Everyone knows Simone Biles. She takes my memory back to the 1970s when Nadia Comaneci, who scored perfect 10 for the first time, ruled and captivated the gymnastics world. Ironically, Romania, the country she represented is no longer on the map now. Li Ning, an entrepreneur now, was the gymnastic King in the 1980s.

In Golf, Tiger Woods is still my favorite despite his controversial past. Jordan Spieth is my other hero. In track and field, yeah…. you guessed it right…. it is Usain Bolt, with his after-race characteristic “Lightning Bolt” posture and his charming presence. Eliud Kipchoge, the marathon recordholder, is my other idol. Having run about 20 half-marathons, I know very well how tough for an individual to finish a full marathon in less than 2:00 hrs. Kipchoge is the personification of stamina and speed.

I should be doing injustice to our community if I do not talk about some Malayalee athletes who excelled in their chosen areas. PT Usha, PV Sindhu, Anju George, Jimmy George, Yohannan, Vimal Kumar, IM Vijayan top my list. PT Usha is my pick though I like Vimal overly since he was my classmate in college.

Oh gosh…I like many NBA players…I do not want to go back in history….as the list will be too long. My current favorite team is Lakers. It is not because Kobe and Magic Johnson played for them…It is because King James is part of that team now.

Let me say a little more about NBA…the talents you see now in NBA is incredible. The teams had changed their strategies significantly in the last few years… to score more 3-points than to play on the paint. While Stephen Curry and James Harden make their shots so elegantly and effortlessly, there are power players in other teams well. Giannis, Durant, Kyrie, Chris Paul, Kawhi, Walker, Davis, Embiid to name a few. We saw Heats, with only Butler as a recognizable player, storming into the finals.

Last year was very bizarre.... we witnessed profound shift in race relations, the Pandemic, the Black Lives Matter demonstrations…what a year…

So…who is the best sportsperson of all-time? how do the players leverage their iconic status, their money, their fame, their voice … are they transformational?

Sifting through these names, I ended up with two…Federer and LeBron.

Federer, the dapper, the charismatic, the family man, the well-behaved - on and off the court, is certainly a legend. With age-defying stamina and artistry, he continues to mesmerize the world with his superb forehand and one-handed backhand shots. You can imagine how hard it is to excel in the very competitive singles category of tennis at this age. What a remarkable achievement!!!Undeniably, the best!

On the other hand, LeBron, the greatest basketball player of his generation, is leading a team, or spearheaded multiple teams to NBA victory…his unparalleled leadership qualities…to pull together a team and to bring the best in others were seen throughout his career, whether he was playing for Cavs, Heats or Lakers.

I see a transformational leader and a visionary in Lebron. He was able to proactively identify the needed change in the society, whether it is voting rights or poverty eradication or social justice. He is one of the few athletes involved in philanthropic and activist pursuits. Not many know that LeBron launched the nonprofit More Than a Vote in last summer. He was able to bring more people to the voting booths, irrespective of their political affiliations. The school that he opened in Akron couple of years ago offers free busing, meals, uniforms, bikes etc. He inspires not only athletes but everyone in the world.

Many NBA/NFL players and tennis players like Osaka joined Lebron in his fight against racial discrimination and injustice. What characterizes this new generation of athletes is their rejection of any limits to what they can achieve. Their actions initiated a fresh thinking among us…a strategy that builds upon the shared understandings that pull everyone together as Americans.

A True Athlete, A Philanthropist, A Down-to-earth Human being, A Big Man with an equally Big Heart, A person who could acknowledge the sins of this country’s past, and the challenges of the present without becoming trapped in cynicism or despair…the one and only LeBron James, the WINNER!

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