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Wish I’d seen…

Recent background noise brought to my attention a fun question: Of all the great athletes you never saw compete in person, which five would you like to see most?

What I like about the question is there’s no right or wrong answer. It’s strictly a personal thing. While I pondered my answer, I thought about how fortunate I’ve been to see a lot of great ones play, like Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Pete Maravich, Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders and Julius Erving, to name a few. Still, my initial list had 20 names before I culled that group to five. Here’s what’s left and why.

5. Walter Hagen

From all accounts, this guy was a showman and one of golf’s early greats. Whenever I’ve been around professional golf, I’ve always enjoyed seeing the bad shots they hit more than the good ones. It’s amazing to see what kind of messes they routinely clean up on any given hole. In that vein, the colorful Hagen had a simple philosophy: “Three bad shots and one good shot still make par.”

Walter Hagen Walter Hagen

Hagen played amazing golf and dripped with other pearls of wisdom as well, such as:

“No one remembers who came in second.”

“Make the hard ones look easy and the easy ones look hard.”

And the antithesis to three bad shots and one good shot…

“Seven bad shots and one good one equals Snowman.”

4. Kareem Abdul Jabbar

Of all the arguments about athletes from one era and being able to play in another, I am convinced you could plunk down Jabbar into today’s NBA game and he’d dominate. He came along when I was a kid, which made me think that he was the advent of a big man who could do so much. That thinking proved to be totally wrong. Nobody has ever come close to duplicating the deadliest shot in basketball history, Jabbar’s sky hook.

While I did get to see him play on TV a good bit, I would have particularly loved seeing him dominate during his Lew Alcindor UCLA days, to witness up close his size, agility and skill. In my opinion, there’s never been another like him.

3. Secretariat

Yeah, I know, “Big Red” was a horse. Truth be known, the fact he was a horse probably kept him from being No. 1 on my list.

Flash back to the 1971 Belmont Stakes. If Secretariat wins the race, he wins the Triple Crown. So what does he do? He buries the field by 31 lengths, covering the 1 1/2 mile course in a world-record time of 2 minutes 24 seconds. Can you imagine being a rail bird at that one? Supposedly grizzled horse players wept seeing that performance, knowing they were in the presence of greatness they would likely never see again.

2. Muhammad Ali

Muhammad_Ali_NYWTS Muhammad Ali

“The Greatest” rarely disappointed his fans and always seemed to have some kind of surprise up his sleeve.

While known as Cassius Clay, he won the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston, an ex-con of whom Sports Illustrated writer Mort Sharnik wrote that his hands “looked like cannonballs when he made them into fists.” Clay went into that fight as a 7-1 underdog and intimidated the intimidating Liston by making him think he was crazy. Later, as Muhammad Ali, he gave us the “Thrilla in Manilla” and “Rope-a-Dope”, and the list goes on and on.

Ali has always been more than simply a boxing great.

1. Babe Ruth

“The Sultan of Swat” is my top pick for a myriad of reasons. First, just being able to see one leave his bat hot and disappear to some far reaches over an outfield wall.

Next, the showmanship. There’s never been another like him in sports. He understood what a crowd wanted and he usually gave it to them.

Finally, there’s the after party. I’m having drinks with the Bambino.

Would love to know your five.

bchastain19@gmail.com

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©2020 by Bill Chastain. Photo credits: Jill Doty Photography