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Our Favorite Athletes

It's not nice to play favorites, but we're making an exception here, celebrating not necessarily the greatest but those who brought us the greatest joy

By Richard Hoffer

Sports Illustrated We look at today's athletes, the astonishing way they are rewarded for their peculiar and largely irrelevant talents, and it's hard to make sense of our own lives. Well, it's impossible. A guy in plaid pants can ball roll into a hole, earns $100 million? He rolls it in more easily than we do, sure, but is that worth $100 million? A head scratcher.

  Neal Barr Hand-colored by Pamela Capozzola
As we roll ourselves into the next millennium, our only advice is, don't think about it too much. Unless there's some cosmic corrective looming that we don't know about (in our experience, cosmic correctives always take you by surprise), the premium for play is only going to go up. And the people who putt, pass, pitch and punch will continue to enjoy positions of importance that, in any other time (before ESPN? Monday Night Football? The Industrial Revolution?), would be baffling.

Still, there is the occasional athlete who satisfies our old-fashioned (and increasingly desperate) need for proportion, who actually gives us more than he gets. It's not that he's so much better than the rest, or works so much harder. That's appreciated and goes without saying. It's something else. The ability to generate awe while performing in the compression of crisis -- which is what sports is, right? -- is so rare that we'll only see it a few times in our lives.

You know what we're talking about, even if you can't articulate what that something else is any better than we can. There's some charisma, some extravagance of spirit that goes beyond talent. That makes us care about certain athletes far past their ability to putt and pass.

How many of these athletes are there whose peculiar and largely irrelevant talents stir a society, whose otherwise pointless play looms heroic, whose brief careers become reference points not just for their sport but for us, whose brave little performances help us make sense of our own brave little lives? Not many, for sure. But let's say 20.

Complete Top 20

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Issue date: July 12, 1999

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