The Top 100 Olympic Athletes

Let’s say up front: This list is ridiculous. It is utterly absurd to compare Olympic athletes, different sports, different eras, and try to put them in a tidy list numbered from 1-100. We are comparing Fanny Blankers-Koen, a Dutch track athlete known as “The Flying Housewife” because she dared compete after her children were born, to Naim Suleymanoglu, a powerful Turkish weightlifter to Misty May-Treanor, an American beach volleyball star, to Sir Steve Redgrave, a knighted rower who won five gold medals at five Olympics.

A list of the 100 greatest Olympians in order? Pointless. Of course.

So let’s get started.

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100. Eric (the Eel) Moussambani, Swimming, Equatorial Guinea

He appeared to almost drown swimming 100-meters at the Sydney Games … but he finished. It took him twice as long as Michael Phelps, and he obviously didn’t win any medals. But he did win some hearts and reminded us that striving is what it’s all about.

99. Huberg Van Innis, Archery, Belgium

He won two gold medals at the 1900 Olympics and then returned to the Games in Antwerp 20 years later to capture four more golds at the age of 54.

98. Duke Kahanamoku, Swimming, United States

Though he gained more fame for popularizing surfing, he first won three golds and two silvers in the swimming competitions at the 1912, 1920 and 1924 Olympics.

97. Dorando Pietri, Marathon, Italy

Here is one of the great stories in Olympic history. Pietri was a pastry chef in Italy. He was a small man, barely 5-foot-3, but he loved to run. At the 1906 Intercalated Games in Athens, he was leading the marathon by at least five minutes when he got sick and had to stop.

Two years later, at the 1908 Olympics in London, he again surged into the lead but with just over a mile to go he began to feel sick again. He ran into the stadium for the last 400 meters, and he did not even know where he was. He came in the wrong way and had to be redirected by officials. He then fell down. He got up ran a little longer and fell down again. And again. And again. And again. Five times in all, Pietri fell, though his lead was so big that nobody else entered the stadium.

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The umpires helped him up after he fell. It was written that several people basically pushed him over the finish line. Pietri crossed that line first and the crowd went crazy for him. And then, in came American Johnny Hayes. The Americans were particularly despised in Great Britain in 1908 because they had complained loudly after the British did not have an American flag for the Opening Ceremonies (officials said they couldn’t find one — those were different times). So, basically, NOBDOY wanted Hayes to win.

But after Hayes crossed the line, there was an immediate protest put up — umpires and fans are not allowed to help a marathon runner. There was much confusion (apparently, in the madness, someone lodged a complaint against Hayes because it was reported he too had received some help). When it finally cleared, Pietri was disqualified and Hayes was awarded the gold medal.

Pietri received a silver cup from the Queen of England for his efforts, though, and he was a beloved Italian hero.

96. Ben Ainslie, Sailing, Great Britain

The first person to win medals in five different Olympic Games in sailing and a four-time Gold medalist.

95. Karnam Malleswari, Weightlifting, India

Was a two-time World Champion and then briefly retired from the sport, but she returned in 2000 to win bronze and become the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal.

94. Andras Balczo, Modern Pentathlon, Hungary

The only three-time Olympic champion in the Modern Pentathlon, but he often turned down the acclaim he received back home because he was a staunch opponent of the ruling party. “The greatest gift a man can have,” he said, “is a strong will.”

93. Anastasia Davydova, Synchronized Swimming, Russia

Won five Olympic gold medals to go along with her 12 world championships. She now coaches.

92. Eric Liddell, Track, Great Britain

Was the favorite to win the 100-meter dash at the 1924 Olympics but refused to compete because the heats were held on a Sunday. Chose instead to compete at 400-meters even though he had not been especially competitive in the event internationally. On the day of the race, however, he was handed a note which said “Those who honor me I will honor” (Samuel 2:30) and, inspired, set a world record and won Olympic gold. His story was retold in the Oscar winning movie “Chariots of Fire.”

91. Isabell Werth, Equestrian, Germany

She is a five-time gold medalist in dressage. In her post-Olympic career she has been twice suspended after her horse was found to have used an illegal substance.

90. Ivano Balic, Team Handball, Croatia

Widely viewed as the greatest team handball player ever, he led Croatia to the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

89-88. Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings, Beach Volleyball, United States

They won three gold medals together and, in addition to being the greatest beach volleyball team ever, they have helped bring legitimacy to their sport.

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87. Chris Hoy, Cycling, Great Britain

The most successful Olympic cyclist ever with seven medals, six of them gold. Hoy now writes children’s books about a cyclist named “Flying Fergus.”

86. Allyson Felix, Track, United States

She is a four-time Olympic gold medalist and the defending champion at 200-meters. In Rio, she will try to become only the the third woman to win the 200- and 400-meter double.

85. Lisa Fernandez, Softball, United States

Led the United States to three consecutive gold medals. She holds the Olympic record with 25 strikeouts in a game against overmatched Australia in 2000.

84. Omar Linares, Baseball, Cuba

A star on the 1992 and 1996 gold-medal winning teams for Cuba. Linares, many scouts believe, would have been Major League superstar had he been given the chance to play in his prime.

83. Ralf Schumann, Shooting, Germany

The only shooter to win the same event at three different Olympics (he won the 25-meter rapid fire pistol).

82. Kim Rhode, Shooting, United States

Winner of three golds in double trap and skeet — in her gold-medal winning skeet performance she tied the Olympic record with 99 hits out of 100.

81. Valentina Vezzali, Fencing, Italy

She won six Olympic gold medals in foil over three Olympics. Vezzali is now a member of the Italian parliament.

80. Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), Boxing, United States

Ali was still called Cassius Clay and he breezed to gold with a knockout and three consecutive unanimous decisions in the light heavyweight division. He would later say he threw his gold medal into the Ohio River after he was refused service in a restaurant, but it’s likely that Ali created the story.

79. Joe Frazier, Boxing, United States

Frazier did not actually qualify for the Olympics in 1964 but got to go after Buster Mathis was injured. He knocked out his first two opponents but in his third fight — where opponent Vadim Yemelyanov’s corner threw in the towel — Frazier badly hurt his left hand. He was the only one who knew that he was fighting the gold medal match against Germany’s Hans Huber with a broken thumb. He won gold by a 3-2 decision.

78. Mary Peters, Pentathlon, Great Britain

She was a symbol of unity during the Troubles. After she won gold in 1972, she was warned not to return home to Northern Ireland because, as a Protestant who won a medal for Great Britain, her life would be in danger. But she insisted on returning and was greeted with a throng of supporters.

77. Bruce Jenner (Caitlyn Jenner), Decathlon, United States

Before she took on the name Caitlyn, before celebrity and reality TV and all the rest, Bruce Jenner amazed everyone by smashing the world record in the decathlon at the 1976 Olympics. Jenner then ran around waving a small American flag, something that John Belushi would mimic in a Saturday Night Live skit. Jenner quickly became one of the biggest celebrities in the country.

76. Manuel Estiarte, Water Polo, Spain

Played in a record six Olympics (leading the tournament in scoring five times), and led Spain to gold in 1996 after a heartbreaking loss to Italy four years earlier.

75. Mary Lou Retton, Gymnastics, United States

Won the Olympic individual overall gold medal at the Soviet-boycotted Games of 1984 and inspired a whole new generation of Americans to become gymnasts.

74-72: Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Jerry Lucas, Basketball, United States

The three stars on the extraordinary 1960 Olympic basketball team which is almost certainly the greatest amateur team ever assembled. The U.S. easily took gold and won games by an average of 42 points.

71. Zhang Yining, Table Tennis, China

Won back-to-back gold medals in both singles and doubles at the 2004 and 2008 games. She retired at the top of her game and worked to popularize her sport worldwide.

70. Johnny Weismuller, Swimming, United States

He won five freestyle gold medals in 1924 and 1928, but is much better known for his jungle yell as Tarzan in six MGM movies.

69. David Hemery, Track, Great Britain

Hemery won the 400-meter hurdles in such dominating fashion — setting a world record and breezing to the line a second ahead of West Germany’s Gerhard Hennige — that the BBC’s David Coleman famously said at the finish: “Hennige second, and who cares who’s third, it doesn’t matter.”

68. Olga Korbut, Gymnastics, Soviet Union

Captured the world’s heart by winning gold in the floor exercise and, particularly, on the balance beam at the 1972 Olympics.  

67. Cathy Freeman, Track, Australia

She was the first Australian Aboriginal to win Olympic gold in an individual event when she did it in the 400 meters in Sydney. The pressure on Freeman was beyond intense – she had lit the torch to launch the Olympics – and those who were there the night she won in front of 80,000 will never forget it.

66. Dan Gable, Wrestling, United States

He won the 1972 gold without allowing a point, this even though he suffered a knee injury and a separate head injury during the competition. Gable went on to become the greatest wrestling coach in NCAA history.

65. Yelena Isinbayeva, Pole Vault, Russia

Two-time gold medalist, she was one of the athletes to light the torch at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.

64. Reiner Klimke, Equestrian, Germany

Competed in six Olympics from 1960 to 1988 and won six gold medals in dressage.

63. Kristin Otto, East Germany, Swimming

The first woman to win six gold medals in a single Olympics. She did it in 1988, before the Berlin Wall came down, and ever since then many of her teammates admitted to heavily doping with performance enhancing drugs. Otto is strongly believed to have used PEDs herself — the secret police files released in 1994 suggest as much — but she has always denied it. “I worked very hard for those medals … it was not all drugs,” she said.

62. Nomura Tadahiro, Judo, Japan

The only judoka to win three Olympic gold medals.

61. Guo Jingjing, Diving, China

Perhaps the greatest female springboard diver ever, she won four gold medals.

60. Regla Torres, Volleyball, Cuba

Led Cuba’s women’s volleyball team to three gold medals (1992, 1996 and 2000) and was named the best player of the 20th century by the FIVB, the international volleyball federation.

59. Karch Kiraly, Volleyball, United States

Led the United States men’s volleyball team to two gold medals and was also named the best player of the 20th century by the FIVB. Kiraly then returned at age 36 for beach volleyball, and he teamed up with Kent Steffes to win a third gold medal.

58. Jenny Thompson, Swimming, United States

Won 11 medals — eight of them gold. All eight were as part of U.S. relay teams.

57. Natalie Coughlin, Swimming, United States

The first woman to win back-to-back golds in the 100-meter backstroke. She won 12 medals in all.

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56. Dara Torres, Swimming, United States

Won 12 medals — four of each color — and in 2008 became the oldest swimmer (at 41) ever to compete at the Olympics.

55. Gert Fredriksson, Canoeing, Sweden

A canoeing legend, Fredriksson won six gold medals over four Olympics — 1948 in London, 1952 in Helsinki, 1956 in Melbourne and 1960 in Rome.

54-52. Lisa Leslie, Teresa Edwards, Diana Taurasi, Basketball, United States

Leslie and Edwards won four gold medals, Taurasi three so far, and together they formed the greatest women’s basketball teams ever assembled.

51. Naim Suleymanoglu, Weightlifting, Turkey

“The Pocket Hercules” won three consecutive gold medals, the last a stirring competition with Greece’s Valerios Leonidis.

50-40: Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Chris Mullin, Clyde Drexler, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Basketball, United States

The often imitated but never to be duplicated “Dream Team.” Changed the Olympics forever.

39. Babe Didrikson, Track, United States

Her athletic career is so overpowering — Hall of Fame golfer, All-American basketball player — that it’s easy to forget that at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles she won gold in the 80-meter hurdles and javelin (setting Olympic records in both) and won silver in the high jump. She would have won gold in the high jump as well but judges ruled that she used an illegal technique in her final jump.

38. Ray Ewry, Track, United States

Won 10 gold medals from 1900-1908 in the standing long jump, the standing high jump and the standing triple jump. Ewry had contracted polio as a child and had spent some of his younger years in a wheelchair.

37. Elisabeta Lipa, Rowing, Romania

Won medals in six different Olympics and won eight medals overall, five of them gold.

36. Haile Gebrselassie, Track, Ethiopia

One of the greatest marathon runners of all time, he won back-to-back 10,000-meter gold at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics.

35. Ian Thorpe, Swimming, Australia

The Thorpedo won nine medals, five of them gold, at two Olympics.

34. Richard Fosbury, High Jump, United States

Invented a whole new way to high jump — now known as the Fosbury Flop — and won Olympic Gold at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

33. Matt Biondi, Swimming, United States

Biondi won 11 medals, eight of them gold. He broke the world record in the 50-meter freestyle at the 1988 Games, but it was relay swimming that marked Biondi. He swam on six relay teams and the U.S. won all six races.

32. Fanny Blankers-Koen, Track, Netherlands

She was known as “The Flying Housewife” because she made the rare decision at the time to compete even after she got married and had children. She became the first Dutch athlete to win gold in track and field when she won the 100 meters on a muddy track at the 1948 Olympics. She proceeded to win the 200, the 80 meter hurdles and she anchored Netherland’s gold-medal winning 4×100 meter relay team, coming back from third place.

31. Daley Thompson, Decathlon, Great Britain

Just the second decathlete to win gold medals at back to back Olympics.

30. Boris Shakhlin, Gymnastics, Soviet Union

Winner of 13 medals, seven of them gold, including the individual all-around competition in 1960.

29. Aladar Gerevich, Fencing, Hungary

Gerevich won six golds, his first in 1932 and his second an astonishing 28 years later in 1960. Had it not been for two Olympics canceled because of the war, Gerevich might have won medals and an unprecedented eight Olympics.

28. Abebe Bikila, Marathon, Ethiopia

Won back-to-back marathons in 1960 and 1964. He won the first one running barefoot.

27. Nikolay Adrianov, Gymnastics, Soviet Union 

He held the record for most medals won with 15 until it was broken by Michael Phelps. Of the 15 medals, seven were gold including the individual all-around competition in 1976. That year he also won gold in the vault, rings and floor exercise.

26. Al Oerter, Discus, United States

The first athlete to win the same event at four consecutive Olympics. Oerter won his first discus gold in 1956 when he was 20. He won his last in 1968 in Mexico City when he was the old man of the event at age 32. “Let’s put it this way,” he told me once. “You’ve got to love it.”

25. Brigit Fischer-Smith, Canoeing, Germany

Won an astounding eight gold medals over six Olympics — this even though she had to miss the 1984 Olympics because it was boycotted by East Germany. She was 18 when she won the K-1 500 meter race in Moscow in 1980. She was 42 when she was part of the K-4 team that won the 500-meter race in Athens. That’s one canoeing family — her niece Fanny won a gold medal in Beijing and her brother Frank won four World Championships.

24. Greg Louganis, Diving, United States

He’s the only man to sweep the springboard and platform event at consecutive Olympics. He won four gold medals in all, though it is the gold he won after cracking his head on the springboard during the preliminary rounds in 1988 that everyone remembers most.

23. Sawao Kato, Gymnastics, Japan

Winner of 12 medals, eight of them gold, including back-to-back individual all-around titles in 1968 and 1972.

22. Bob Beamon, Long Jump, United States

He won just the one gold medal — in the 1968 long jump — so his place this high on the list is probably pretty dubious. But his one jump so shook the earth that you could argue he belongs even higher. People will forget he almost did not make the final that year; he fouled on his first two jumps and needed a sensible but pressure-packed jump on the third just to qualify. Then, in the final, he jumped 8.9 meters, or 29 feet 2 1/2 inches. He broke the previous world record by almost two feet. It was a quantum leap forward in the history of Olympic competition, a space-age jump into the future. The women’s long jump record in 1968 has been beaten by two feet. The men’s triple jump record is three feet longer than in 1968. But in almost 50 years only one man — Mike Powell — has jumped longer than Bob Beamon did that day, and this year no one in the world has come within a foot and a half of Beamon’s jump. Beamon realized he had done something extraordinary and he almost collapsed in shock. “You have destroyed this event,” the great long jumper Lynn Davies told him.

21. Sir Steve Redgrave, Rowing, Great Britain

Went to five Olympics. Won golds at five Olympics. One of the most beloved athletes in the history of Great Britain.

20. Pyrros Dimas, Weightlifting, Greece

Emigrated to Greece from Albania just before the 1992 Olympics and promptly won the gold medal, shouting “For Greece!” as he made the winning lift. He set two world records at his second Olympics and won gold again. He won his third gold in Sydney in 2000. And then, though no weightlifter had ever won medals in four straight Olympics, he was compelled to compete in Athens for love of country. He was too old. He was hurt. But in the moment, he found a way to make the lift that won him the bronze medal. And as I wrote then: “He left his shoes on the stage — shoes for someone else to fill — while the Greek crowd cheered and cried and danced and hugged.”

19. Jim Thorpe, Track and Field, United States

Maybe my favorite fact about Jim Thorpe’s sweep of the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics is that he won four of the five events in the pentathlon. The one event he did not win? The javelin throw. Why not? He had never thrown one before. He finished third in the javelin throw anyway.

18. Bob Mathias, Decathlon, United States

Maybe my favorite fact about Bob Mathias’ back-to-back decathlon victories is that in 1948, he was so unsure of the decathlon rules — he had competed in his first decathlon just two months earlier — that he almost fouled out of the shot put and he almost failed to clear any height in the high jump. He won anyway and, for a moment, became perhaps the most famous athlete in the United States. He promised to never go through all that again, but he returned four years later and won the decathlon by a staggering 900 points, the largest gap in Olympic decathlon history. That year he also played fullback for Stanford making him the only man to win an Olympic gold medal and play in the Rose Bowl in the same year.

17. Lasse Viren, Track, Finland

He was famous for his brutal workouts, which is what you might expect from an athlete who swept the 5,000- and 10,000-meters at consecutive Olympics. In 1972, Viren was bumped in the 12th lap of the 10,000-meter run and he fell to the ground. He got back up and won the gold medal. Seven days later he won the 5,000 meters. Seven days after that, he went to a track meet in Helsinki — and broke the 5,000-meter world record.

16. Michael Johnson, Track, United States

The only man to sweep the 200- and 400-meters at the same Olympics. How fast was he going when he hit the corner in the 200-meters? “My dad bought me a go-kart as a kid. There was a big hill at the end of the road. And I could make that go-kart go downhill so fast, it was like flying. … “It’s the only thing that really compares to running this fast.”

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15. Aleksandr Karelin, Greco Roman Wrestling, Russia

He won three consecutive gold medals — first for the Soviet Union, then for the Unified Team, then for Russia. When American Rulon Gardner upset him in 2000, it was one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history — and probably the most memorable thing I’ve ever seen in sports — but it does not detract from the career of the nearly-unbeatable Russian who used to train by carrying refrigerators up stairs.

14. Alexei Nemov, Gymnastics, Russia

Won 12 medals, four of them gold, including the individual all-around title in 2000. It should have been 13 medals. In 2004, when Nemov was 28 and viewed as the old man of gymnastics, he put together a staggeringly difficult routine on the high bar. It was, in many ways, the crescendo performance of Nemov’s career; his contribution to gymnastics was his determination to push the boundaries and do harder and harder routines than had ever been tried before. The crowd got it. The judges did not. they scored him 9.725, which put him out of medal contention.

Well, the crowd wouldn’t have it. They booed. And booed some more. And booed more more. For 15 minutes, they booed so loud that the competition was stopped and the judges hastily got together to talk it over. The judges then announced that, hey, what do you know, a couple of math errors, turns out Nemov’s score was actually 9.762. But even that score was too low for a medal, and the crowd’s boos grew darker until Nemov himself stepped out and held up his hand in both gratitude and a sense of decency. It was one of the most glorious Olympic moments, especially because it followed one of the worst.

13. Emil Zatopek, Track, Czechoslovakia

In 1952, he did something that will never be done again — he won the 5,000-meter, the 10,000-meter AND the marathon at the same Olympics. It’s hard to put that achievement into words, but perhaps the best way is to simply say that it was the first martathon Zatopek had ever run. He had won back-to-back 10,000 meters races, but that’s only six or so miles. He was so baffled about how to run a marathon that he apparently walked up to British world record older Jim Peters, thrust out his hand, and introduced himself: “I am Zatopek,” he said. Peters already knew. In 1948, Zatopek had beaten him in the 10,000-meters by a minute and a half, a beating so thorough that it is said Peters never ran the 10,000 meters again. Peters retreated to the safety of the marathon.

Now here was Zatopek again, though Peters did not see him as a serious contender in a marathon. An hour into the race, Zatopek pulled alongside Peters and asked if the pace was too fast. “No,” Peters said in an effort to get in Zatopek’s head a little bit, “It’s too slow.” “Oh,” Zatopek said, and so he took off, leaving Peters and the rest of the world in his wake, winning the marathon by two and a half minutes. The Guardian reported that he looked like “a man who had taken a brisk country walk.”

12. Wilma Rudolph, Track, United States

She contracted polio and scarlet fever as a child. She wore a brace until she was 9. She grew up in segregated Tennessee and was, in her younger days, painfully shy. So how did Wilma Rudolph became the fastest woman in the world? How did she sweep the 100- and 200-meters at the 1960 Olympics and then anchor the world-record 4×100 meter relay team? She would say that she was inspired by Jesse Owens. But more: “I believe in me more than anything in this world.”

11. Teofilo Stevenson, Boxing, Cuba 

He never turned professional so we will never know for certain where Stevenson would have ranked in the stratosphere of great heavyweights with Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and the like. He was offered $5 million to fight Ali, but he turned it down, famously saying, “What is one million dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans?” Anyway, his three heavyweight gold medals will stand the test of time; that will never happen again. His greatest individual moment was when he upset American Duane Bobick at the 1972 Olympics — up to that point, the U.S. viewed the heavyweight gold medal as an American birthright. Stevenson knocked out all five contenders at the 1976 Olympics. In 1980, with the U.S. boycotting, Stevenson knocked out his first two opponents and won the last two fights by easy decision.

10. Florence Griffith-Joyner, Track, United States

On July 16, 1988, Florence Griffith-Joyner ran a 10.49 100-meter dash at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Indianapolis. This remains the world record.

Two months later at the Olympics in Seoul, Florence Griffith-Joyner ran a 21.34 200-meter run. This remains the world record.

Not sure what else needs to be said.

9. Nadia Comaneci, Gymnastics, Romania

She won five gold medals in total, but what Nadia is remembered for is perfection. Her 10.0 score on the uneven parallel bars (marked 1.0 because the scoring device did not have place for enough digits) broke open the possibility that an athlete could, in a small way, be perfect.

8. Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Track, United States

The heptathlon events include: The 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot-put, 200-meters, long jump, javelin throw and 800 meters. When Jackie Joyner Kersee won the heptathlon in 1988, she was by far the best female athlete in the world. She already had the five best heptathlon scores ever recorded. She was a star college basketball player. And six days after she put the heptathlon record up where no one has even come close, she went out and won the long jump. Four years later, she won the heptathlon again. Four years after that, she won another bronze in the long jump.

7. Paavo Nurmi, Track, Finland

It’s all but impossible to define the toughness of Nurmi, who won nine gold medals. He once won the 5,000-meter and the 1,500-meter on the same day. He set Olympic records in both. He was famously intense; my favorite Nurmi fact is that when Zatopek, who would win the 5,000, 10,000 and marathon at the same Olympics, felt like he was spent he would shout to the heavens: “I am Nurmi! I am Nurmi!”

6. Mark Spitz, Swimming, United States

Spitz’s remarkable 1972 achievement — the first athlete to win seven gold medals at the same Olympics — was driven by disappointment. In 1968, he failed to win a single individual event, even though he was the prohibitive and world record-holder in the 100-meter butterfly and the best swimmer coming into the 100-meter freestyle. He came in claiming he would win six golds, he left Mexico City with two golds, both relays. He was then determined to do something unprecedented, and he did that in Munich, winning the 100- and 200-meter freestyles and the 100- and 200-meter butterflies in world record time, and then leading three U.S. relay teams to gold medals and world records. Seven golds. Seven world records.

5. Carl Lewis, Track, United States

Ten medals. Nine gold. Back-to-back wins in the 100-meter dash.

Oh, and I’m convinced he once jumped 30 feet.

4. Usain Bolt, Track, Jamaica

What is left to say about Bolt? Winner of six golds. Swept the 100-, 200- and 4×100-meter relays at each of the last two Olympics. World-record holder at 100- and 200-meters. The greatest sprinter of all time. What’s left to say about Bolt? We might find out in Rio.

3. Larisa Latynina, Gymnastics, Soviet Union

Still the record-holder for most individual medals won at the Olympics with 14. She won the individual all-around twice, in 1956 and 1960, and won silver in 1964. She won three medals in vault, three medals in the floor exercise, three on the uneven bars and two on the balance beam, When you consider that all-time medal winner Michael Phelps won 11 individual events, you can appreciate Latynina’s greatness.

2. Michael Phelps, Swimming, United States

Twenty-two medals. Eighteen golds.

1. Jesse Owens, Track, United States

When I did a similar list four years ago, I had the order different — had Phelps at No. 1 and Owens at No. 4. The reasoning, I guess, was that while Owens’ performance in 1936 was singular — he won four gold medals and set two world records in the most heated environment imaginable — it was still one Olympics compared to lifetime achievements of Latynina and Phelps and Nurmi and so on.

But what Owens did in 1936, with Nazism on the rise, with Hitler himself in the crowd, is the most remarkable achievement in the history of the Olympics. He won the 100-meter, the 200-meter, the long jump and was part of the gold-medal winning 4×100-meter relay team. In the moment, he overcame the racism of his own country and the rising hatred in another. He’s the greatest Olympian of them all.

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    The Embrace

    Cincinnati. Crosley Field, June 21, 1947 (two months after Robinson became the first African-American of the 20th Century to play Major League Baseball).

    ANNOUNCER RED BARBER: Expressing their displeasure as the Dodgers take the field.

    Crowd yells vicious racist slurs toward first baseman Jackie Robinson. They are also calling the Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese names. “Traitor!” “Carpetbagger!” “Pee Wee!” one shouts. “How can you play with this black bastard:”

    Reese finally has heard enough. He walks across the infield to Robinson.

    ROBINSON: What’s up?

    REESE: “They can say what they want; we’re here to play baseball.”

    ROBINSON: “Just a bunch of crackpots still fighting the Civil War.”

    REESE: Hell, we’d have won that son of a gun if the cornstalks had held out. We just ran out of ammunition.

    ROBINSON (laughing): “Better luck next time, Pee Wee.”

    Pee Wee Reese puts his arm around Jackie Robinson.

    REESE: Ain’t gonna be a next time. All we got is right now. This right here. Know what I mean?

    Crowd looks shocked and horrified that Reese has his arm around Robinson.

    REESE: Thank you, Jackie.

    ROBINSON: What’re you thanking me for?

    REESE: I’ve got family here from Louisville up there somewhere. I need them to see who I am.”

    — Scene from the movie “42.”

    * * *

    When I was 10, the man down the street told me the story of Pee Wee Reese. The man had played baseball in the Navy with Reese — he showed me a photograph of the two of them on the field — and when the man realized that I had not heard of Reese, he quickly explained. Pee Wee Reese, he said, was a great baseball player. And Pee Wee Reese had helped Jackie Robinson smash through the color barrier in Major League Baseball.

    The story ignited my baseball imagination — and that of many others across the country.  A statue commemorating Reese’s embrace of Robinson stands in Brooklyn. The above scene from “42” is the crescendo of that movie. Countless pastors have used it in sermons, countless history teachers have taught it in their classes, and Reese’s small gesture of goodwill toward Robinson is the basis for various children’s books, including Peter Golenbock’s “Teammates.” The embrace has been written about, talked about, argued about, celebrated, discounted and used as a symbol, as you will see, to make wildly contrasting points.

    But now comes the most personal of questions, the one the 10-year-old inside asks hesitantly.

    Did it happen?

    * * *

    “It’s a wonderful folk tale.”

    — Baseball writer Stuart Miller in the New York Times.

    One thing we know for certain: It sure didn’t happen like in the movie. If it happened at all, it likely would have happened on May 13, 1947. That, not June 21, was when the Dodgers made their first road trip to Cincinnati. On that day, there was an early rain, but the weather cleared in time for the game. The Dodgers played sloppy baseball, made three errors and lost 7-5. The Reds took two hits away from Robinson on nice defensive plays.

    The game is unmemorable and, in the grand scheme of history, unimportant. What matters all these years later is that it was a delicate time in Jackie Robinson’s first year. There were rumblings that the St. Louis Cardinals players were planning a strike in defiance of him. Branch Rickey, the man who signed Robinson for the Dodgers, had only the day before gone public with several “crank” letters Robinson had received from angry people all over the country. Robinson was hitting just .263.

    When the Reds took the field in the bottom of the first inning, as the story goes, the Cincinnati crowd was particularly nasty. Cincinnati — with its close proximity to Kentucky — was considered the most Southern of baseball cities. Reese grew up in nearby Louisville, and so eyes were on him too. Fans taunted him just for the sin of playing with a black man. Finally, as the level of vitriol reached its peak, Reese is said to have walked over to Robinson before the first pitch was thrown. He put his arm around Jackie as if to say: “This is my teammate and my friend.” Nobody recalls what, if anything, was said.

    The moment was all the more touching because Reese had been raised to think of blacks as inferior. He grew up in a city where blacks were not allowed to play in the park or drink from the white drinking fountains. He would admit not even thinking about it. “I don’t t guess that I ever shook the hand of a black man,” he would say. But in that moment, as son Mark would memorably say, ‘My father listened to his heart and not the chorus.”

    “Something in my gut reacted in that moment,” Reese told the writer Craig Wright some 50 years later. “Something about what? The unfairness of it all? The injustice of it? I don’t know.”

    “His walk across the diamond,” Jonathan Eig wrote in his fine book Opening Day, “his embrace of Robinson, would be described years later as one of baseball’s most glorious and honorable moments.”

    “But,” Eig would say later, “I don’t think it happened.”

    * * *

    The Undefeated writer Mike Wise: “Wait, Pee Wee Reese putting his arm around Jackie Robinson never happened?”

    Documentarian Ken Burns: “That’s right. There is no image or write up anywhere.”

    Wise: “A photo maybe?” 

    Burns: “No.”

    Wise: “But there’s a statue in Brooklyn. And you played up this moment in your ‘Baseball’ documentary.”

    Burns: “You’re right, there’s a statue. And we did perpetuate it in 1994’s ‘Baseball.’ But it never happened. We know more now.”

    — Ken Burns’ Jackie Robinson documentary 

    When chasing ghosts and secrets and myths, the first thing you do is go to the papers. Burns is right. There is no mention at all of the embrace in the newspapers. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote that very day that Robinson “was applauded every time he stepped to the plate.” Meanwhile, there is no mention of it in the black press either; Burns insists that the embrace had happened, the black papers “would have done 15 related articles.”

    There is no photo of it. Robinson’s 1948 book about his first season called “Jackie Robinson: My Own Story” does not mention any such incident. As Eig points out, Commissioner Happy Chandler was at the game and — being both a Kentuckian and one of Robinson’s greatest champions — you might have expected him to celebrate the moment if it really happened. Best anyone can tell, he never even mentioned it.

    It is difficult, of course, to prove a negative. Still, there is a compelling absence of evidence here. There isn’t a single contemporary account of the embrace in any of the newspapers or magazines. This is enough for Eig, for Miller and particularly for Burns to conclude that the story, at least as popularly told, is a myth.

    But, like everything else in this search, it might not be so simple.

    Yes, now we find every element of Robinson’s struggle to be fascinating and historic. There have been dozens and dozens of books written about it, countless articles, millions and millions of words. We now view it as the single most important sports story of the last 100 years. But the 1947 coverage of Jackie Robinson’s struggle was, to say the least, not so probing. We may celebrate Robinson’s first game every year but at the time, it garnered almost no attention in newspapers across the country. The New York baseball writers stuffed Robinson’s breakthrough moment somewhere in the middle of their baseball play-by-by. The New York Times game story made no mention at all of Robinson’s being the first black baseball player of the 20th Century. This duty was left to the columnist Arthur Daley who, after writing about numerous other points of the game, finally got to it. “The debut of Jackie Robinson,” he wrote, “was quite uneventful.”

    True, Robinson’s play was well covered — he was listed daily along with Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Vernon and Hank Greenberg and others in the “How Stars Did Yesterday” column that appeared in many newspapers — but stories in the white newspapers, with only the rarest exceptions, focused on baseball, not Robinson’s struggle. The black newspapers as Burns suggests did focus significantly on Robinson’s personal endeavor, but there were so many big stories to cover — the potential strikers in St. Louis, the ascension of other black players like Larry Doby, Robinson’s insistence that first year of turning the other cheek — little stories constantly slipped by. Even if Reese had put his arm around Robinson during pre-inning warm-ups — and the writers understood the significance — it’s not clear that anybody would have written about it.

    And, would they have understood it? Let’s presume the event happened exactly like the story has been told. Reese walked over and put his arm around Robinson. What would that have looked like from the pressbox? Maybe they were going over signs. Maybe Reese wanted to offer some defensive advice to the novice first baseman. Maybe Reese had heard this great joke he wanted to pass along. Why would anyone even notice it?

    Sure, you could say that it would have made for a striking image in 1947 to see a white man jog across the infield to put his arm around a black man. But that’s probably not true. Here, after all, is the famous photograph taken on opening day, the photograph on the cover of Eig’s book.

    032713robinson.jpg

    That’s Eddie Stanky with his arm on Jackie Robinson’s shoulder. Stanky would later be a pseudo-villain in a story told by Roger Kahn in “The Boys of Summer,” one where Stanky said he did not consider it out of line to hurl racial insults at Robinson.

    Would Reese’s embrace of Robinson, assuming it happened, have captured anyone’s attention?

    Eig, in his book, quotes Lester Rodney — a writer for the Communist paper “The Daily Worker” — as vividly remembering the embrace. “I was there that day,” Rodney said. “That kind of drama, how do you measure it?” Rodney, Eig wrote, would kick himself years later for not writing about what he had seen. Well, why didn’t he write about it? Rodney does not say, but there are at least two distinct possibilities:

    1. Eig’s apparent theory is that Rodney was simply misremembering a now-famous event or confusing it with something else. This is quite possible. The vagaries of memory are well known.

    2. Maybe Rodney did see it. Maybe he just did not fully comprehend what he had seen until many years had gone by.

    * * *

    “We want to feel like white people had something to do with this, that we were open-minded and that we saw what was right, and we wanted to make it happen. And Pee Wee Reese is our symbol for that. We all want to be the one that’s wise enough to see that we can do better as a country. So the myth serves a really nice purpose. Unfortunately, it’s a myth.”

    — Jonathan Eig in “Jackie Robinson.”`

    Let’s say that the Reese-Robinson Cincinnati embrace is a myth. If so, how did it become such a famous one?

    Burns’ “Jackie Robinson” documentary suggests it became a popular story because we desperately want it to be true. We want Pee Wee Reese to stand behind Jackie Robinson. We want to believe that for every racist screaming, there was a decent person with a powerful sense of justice. And sure, maybe we want there to be some white people who contributed to the cause. Eig is right, Pee Wee Reese is a perfect symbol — he was a profoundly decent man who rebelled against his own upbringing and embraced Jackie Robinson as a teammate and a friend.

    You know the line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” You’ve heard how the word “upset” came about, right? There was a horse named Upset that beat the great Man O’ War. Isn’t that a cool story? No, it isn’t true — the word upset had been used a for many decades, it was the very reason the horse was named “Upset” in the first place. But it’s a good story. And every time I write that it’s a myth, I will hear from people who angrily insist it has to be true.

    So, yes, you can see how the Reese-Robinson story would become legend, even if it didn’t happen. We know there are elements of truth to it. We know that Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson had a beautiful friendship. We know Reese was one of the teammates who supported Robinson in the early years, inviting him and writer Wendell Smith, to join him on the golf course. We know that it was hard for Reese to go back to Cincinnati in those early years.

    “Pee Wee Reese used to tell me he hated to go to Cincinnati because he had to face his family,” Robinson said. “Everybody from Louisville was there. They’d all bug him about me, and he’d say, ‘Look, have you ever met him?’ And he’d introduce me.”

    And, we know that SOMETHING like the Cincinnati story happened because Jackie Robinson himself told it many times in his later years. Thing is, he usually placed the story in Boston in 1948.

    “In Boston during a period when the heckling pressure seemed unbearable,” Robinson wrote in his autobiography I Never Had It Made, “Some of the players began to heckle Reese. They were riding him about being a Southerner and playing ball with a black man. Pee Wee didn’t answer them. Without a glance in their direction, he left his position and walked over to me. He put his hand on my shoulder and began talking to me. His words weren’t important. I don’t even remember what he said. It was the gesture of comradeship and support that counted. As he stood talking with me with a friendly arm around my shoulder, he was saying loud and clear, “Yell. Heckle. Do anything you want. We came here to play baseball. … The jeering stopped, and a close and lasting friendship began between Reese and me.”

    So, why isn’t that story the one that became celebrated? Well, that story is a bit different. That happened in 1948, after Robinson had established himself, after several other black players, including the Dodgers Roy Campanella, had made their debuts, after the fire had cooled considerably. It’s still a moving story, but it doesn’t have the same impact of Pee Wee Reese standing with Robinson in 1947, in Cincinnati, at the height of the fight.

    “One of those stories we can sort of disengage ourselves from,” Burns says in an interview with Evan Smith, “because it’s too convenient and the subject of children’s books and statues, is that famous thing that in that first season, 1947 … Pee Wee Reese put his arm around Jackie Robinson. It’s one of the great moments in the mythology of Jackie Robinson. It didn’t happen.”

    “The moment was brave, caring, even sweet,” writes Dave Kindred, “except most likely it never happened.”

    “It should have happened,” Bill Livingston of The Cleveland Plain Dealer writes. “But apparently it didn’t.”

    * * *

    “No, I do not see it as a myth.”

    — Baseball writer and historian Craig R. Wright

    “I would trust Craig’s opinion a great deal more than Ken Burns’.”

    — Baseball writer and historian Bill James

    So is this where it ends? Was the story of Pee Wee Reese walking over to Jackie Robinson in Cincinnati that day simply a folk tale stitched together with details from a variety of stories and our own hunger for it to be true? Should we leave it there because there is no surviving photograph or contemporary account? Does it even matter?

    The 10-year-old in me says: Yes. It does matter. And it led me to Craig Wright, an early pioneer of Sabermetrics and author of the sensational “Pages from Baseball’s Past.” Wright wrote about the Reese’s embrace and, subsequently, responded to the hailstorm of doubt that it ever happened. He believes that it did. And he pointed me to a series of stories Jackie Robinson did with the Brooklyn Eagle’s Ed Reid in 1949. It was a 10-part series going over Robinson’s life. In the eighth part, Robinson talked about his start with the Dodgers. This is what he said:

    In the eighth part, Robinson talked about his start with the Dodgers. This is what he said:

    “I’ll never forget the day when a few loud-mouthed guys on the other team began to take off on Pee Wee Reese.

    “They were joshing him very viciously because he was playing on the team with me and was on the field nearby. Mind you, there were not yelling at me; I suppose they did not have the nerve to do that, but they were calling him some very vile names and every one bounced off of Pee Wee and hit me like a machine-gun bullet.

    “Pee Wee kind of sensed the hopeless, dead feeling in me and came over and stood beside me for a while. He didn’t say a word but he looked over at the chaps who were yelling at me through him and just stared. He was standing by me, I could tell you that.

    “Slowly the jibes died down like when you kill a snake an inch at a time, and then there was nothing but quiet  from them. It was wonderful the way this little guy did it. I will never forget it.”

    There are few details in that story. It doesn’t say that the moment happened in Cincinnati, and it doesn’t say that it was in 1947. It doesn’t incorporate the fans taunts at all. Mostly, it doesn’t say that Reese put his arm around Robinson, only that “he was standing by me, I could tell you that.” The one thing that is clear from the story, however, is how much Reese’s support meant to Jackie Robinson at a time when it seemed so much of the world was against him.

    “I remember Jackie talking about Pee Wee’s gesture the day it happened,” Robinson’s wife Rachel said in 2005. “It came as such a relief to him that a teammate and the captain of the team would go out of his way in such a public fashion to express friendship.”

    “Only (Robinson) could say what it took for it to be special for him, and say, ‘I will never forget it,'” Wright writes. “It didn’t take a hand on a shoulder; it didn’t need to be a big gesture of public support, and in a way I think Jackie’s big need was for it to be remarkable in an unremarkable way. … There is literally nothing to contradict Jackie’s account of that day in Cincinnati.”

    In the end, of course, we can never prove it happened … and we can never prove it did not. The decision to believe or disbelieve is ours. The 10-year-old in me, the one who first heard the story 40 years ago, would prefer something more concrete, something more tangible, but history is rarely so accommodating. Fortunately, there is another story from 1947, one I only just heard. I like it even better.

    It seems that every player on the team got letters when they arrived in Cincinnati. The letters insisted that if they didn’t do something — if they didn’t get together and stop the integration of baseball — they would all lose their jobs to black players.

    “Pee Wee got on the bus and brought it up,” Jackie Robinson would say. “And we started discussing it. And pretty soon we were all laughing about it. Pee Wee was the captain. He knew how to handle everything.”

    Less than Jake

    Something happened June 21, 2015, in Minneapolis. Nobody is talking about it, which makes you wonder if there’s some Roswell, X-Files, Men in Black kind of cover-up going on here. Martians? Government secret program? Magic? Everything is in play.

    That day, Jake Arrieta took the mound against the Twins and, you know, he was just Jake Arrieta. Yep. He was good ol’ Jake from State Farm with his khaki 41-38 record and his khaki 4.34 ERA.

    It’s hard to remember this far back but do you remember what most people were saying about Arrieta when the Orioles traded him to the Cubs back in 2013? Nothing. Sure, there were a few Orioles fans who were clinging to the various sparks of talent that Arrieta has shown, but nationally hardly anybody even knew Arrieta was in that deal. It was the Scott Feldman deal. The Orioles had traded flammable reliever Pedro Strop to get Feldman.

    Jake Arrieta? He was a 27-year-old, one-time mega-prospect flapping around in Norfolk.

    MORE: Arrieta spins second no-hitter  |   Ten Takeaways

    “I’m below average right now,” Arrieta told the Norfolk reporters after the trade was made. “But I’ve got some time to work on it.”

    He did work on it. From the start, Arrieta pitched much better in Chicago. He had a superb 2014 season. He only pitched 156 innings, but he struck out 167, and the league hit just .203 against him. He was good enough to make Orioles fans groan in agony but … was anyone really buying it? Arrieta was always a guy with great stuff; that’s why the scouts had loved him in the first place. How much had they loved him? Let’s get the quotes. He had “a fastball with the action to generate swings and misses” and a slider “that is a solid second pitch and is a plus at times” and a change-up that “shows flashes of being an out pitch.”

    But for every flash of brilliance he displayed, for every swing-and-miss he got, there was a counter, a hanging slider crushed 440 feet or an 0-2 count that turned into a walk because Arrieta wouldn’t just challenge the hitter. When Arrieta took the mound on June 21, 2015, he was 29 years old. For the year, he was 6-5 with a 3.40 ERA. He had just come off a game in which he walked a career-high six batters. It seemed like this was it, Arrieta had arrived as much as he ever would, a solid but inconsistent pitcher who would have a fine but not particularly interesting career.

    Then that something happened. What was it?

    “Stuff was crisp,” Arrieta would say after that life-altering game. “It actually got better as the game wore on.”

    [nbcsports_mpx url=http://vplayer.nbcsports.com/p/BxmELC/nbcsports_embed/select/media/cDP_1wJvr_G4?autoPlay=false]

    That day, Jake Arrieta threw his second career shutout, a 122-pitch masterpiece. He allowed four hits, walked none and struck out seven. After he had blundered an easy ground ball in the third inning, he seemed shaken — he promptly gave up a couple of deep fly balls that died at the warning track. But for the rest of the way, he overwhelmed the Twins. His fastball topped out at 97. He seemed to start every batter off with a breaking-ball strike.

    “He had really good stuff,” Twins rookie Byron Buxton said. “He was on his game.”

    “We got a little tentative as the game went on,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said.

    “What he did today,” Torii Hunter said, “would shut anybody down.”

    Even so, Arrieta was not the big story of the day. Dexter Fowler hit a grand slam for Chicago. Anthony Rizzo kept up his hot hitting. Also, Cubs mega-prospect Kyle Schwarber got another in what had been a series of big hits, and he was making the Cubs’ plan of sending him back to the minors look a little shortsighted.

    Arrieta’s nice pitching performance, well, nobody could have possibly realized that it would set off an explosion like baseball has never seen.

    * * *

    How big an explosion? Well, let’s start with the numbers. Since June 21, 2015:

    — Jake Arrieta is 20-1 with an 0.86 ERA. His only loss? He gave up three runs in six innings … and Cole Hamels threw a no-hitter for Philadelphia.

    — All 24 of his starts have been quality starts, the second-longest streak since Deadball ended.

    — He has pitched two no-hitters, four shutouts, and 14 games where he did not allow a run.

    — He has allowed four — count ’em FOUR — home runs. He has HIT three home runs over the same span.

    We could play around with these numbers for a long time because they are so staggering. The league is hitting .154 against him. His WHIP is an insane 0.719. On and on. But at this point, the only reasonable question left: Is this the greatest pitching stretch in the history of baseball?

    Quick answer: Probably, yes, depending on how you judge. It’s hard to break down careers into 20-to-25 game stretches but using quality starts as our guide:

    Bob Gibson from September 12, 1967, to July 30, 1968.

    — He had 26 consecutive quality starts, which is the record that Arrieta chases. Over that time, Gibson threw eight shutouts, had an 0.90 ERA and allowed just five home runs in 229 innings*.

    *In case you are curious, Gibson hit 24 career home runs, but none during that stretch.

    Gibson had a stretch, from June 6 to July 25, that will likely never be touched. He pitched 10 games. He completed all 10. He won all 10. Eight of the 10 were shutouts. The other two he allowed one run. His ERA over the time: 0.20. That’s even better than Arrieta.

    Chris Carpenter from May 12, 2005, to September 8, 2005.

    — Carpenter had 22 straight quality starts and went 17-2 with a 1.66 ERA over the stretch.

    Johan Santana from June 9, 2004, to September 24, 2004.

    — Santana had 21 straight quality starts, went 18-2 with a 1.34 ERA and had a 199-30 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The American League was still scoring a LOT of runs in 2004, so this is even more impressive than it might seem.

    Greg Maddux from June 27, 1997, to April 15, 1998.

    — He threw 21 consecutive quality starts, went 11-2 with a 1.55 ERA. Again, this was in a high-scoring time, so as good as those numbers look, Maddux was even better than that.

    Lon Warneke from April 12, 1933, to July 25, 1933.

    — He’s worth mentioning because there are some similarities between him and Arrieta — – both big right-handed pitchers for the Cubs. Warneke threw 21 straight quality starts and had a 1.49 ERA over the stretch. He was not, however, particularly dominant, just very consistent.

    Let’s throw in four others:

    — Sandy Koufax in 1963 had a 19-game stretch with nine shutouts, a 1.49 ERA, and a 149-31 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Koufax was not a streaky pitcher, in part because he was typically better at Dodger Stadium than on the road, so he never really had an Arrieta-like run.

    — Tom Seaver finished off 1971 with a crazy 12-game stretch, where he gave up just 11 runs in 107 innings (0.93 ERA) and then he picked it up in 1972 by allowing just one run in his first three starts.

    — Don Drysdale famously threw six consecutive shutouts from May 14 to June 4 in 1968. He was excellent that whole year, though his best stretch was probably over 17 games, when he had a 1.05 ERA and allowed three homers in 137 innings. But nobody was scoring runs then. To tell you how different that time was, the Dodgers only went 9-8 in those 17 games.

    — Orel Hershiser broke Drysdale’s scoreless inning streak in 1988, though his stretch of awesomeness was only about nine games — he went 7-1 with an 0.44 ERA and 0 homers in his last nine starts that year.

    So there are your contenders. There were several dominating stretches during Deadball — Eddie Cicotte, in 1916-17, had 25 straight quality starts, and Walter Johnson, from September 1914 into July of the next year, had 24. But it’s not really comparable.

    How does Arrieta’s stretch compare? Well, all due respect to these great pitchers, only Gibson’s incredible 26-game period of dominance from 1967 to 1968 seems close to what Arrieta is doing.

    And as good as Gibson was, he didn’t have two no-hitters, a two-hitter, a three-hitter and a four-hitter in his stretch. He also pitched in a time when, as mentioned, nobody was scoring runs. The point is: We’ve never seen pitching quite like this.

    Of course, yes, I see you Mets fans jumping up and down angrily. It’s true, you can’t talk about Arrieta’s dominance without mentioning that the Cardinals and particularly the Mets DID beat him up pretty good in the postseason last year. He dominated Pittsburgh to kick off the playoffs and started off well against St. Louis. He then gave up five runs to the Cardinals, including a two-run bomb to Jason Heyward.

    And the Mets, yes, they crushed him from the very start: A single by Curtis Granderson, a double by David Wright, a homer by Daniel Murphy and, a little later, they tacked on another run. For those two games in October, Arrieta looked like, well, like the old Jake Arrieta. And so you still hear people saying that, while it has been amazing, Arrieta will still turn back into a pumpkin.

    Of course, you could also say that Arrieta had just pitched so many innings he was burned out by the time he faced the Mets and Cardinals. You could say that a couple of rough games are inevitable, and he had them at the wrong time. Or you can say that, yes, Arrieta floundered in the playoffs, and now he’s REALLY ticked off. The no-hitter he threw Thursday night suggests that whatever happened in Minnesota that day last June isn’t wearing off any time soon.

    His kingdom

    Super Bowl halftime shows are, by definition, awful. When I think of the halftime shows, a singular image comes to mind — not of “Up With People” or the shlocky themes like “World of Children’s Dreams” or Elvis Presto and that bizarre magic show or that Disney “Tapestry of Nations” crime against humanity or those people on the field who are paid to act like groupies or even Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction.

    No, I think of Paul McCartney, one of the singular musical forces of the last century, finishing a raucous performance of “Live and Let Die,” which, let’s be honest, isn’t exactly “Let It Be” (or even “Love Me Do”). Then, seeming quite self-satisfied, Sir Paul looked up at the crowd and shouted in that beautiful voice of his, “Thank you, Super Bowl!”

    Thank you Super Bowl!

    Every single Super Bowl performance save one had some of that “Thank you Super Bowl!” ghastliness in it. That’s true even of the good ones. Tom Petty & the Hearbreakers had a strong Super Bowl show. My musical hero, Bruce Springsteen, had fun doing his show. Beyonce and U2 and Michael Jackson and Madonna and others had a few moment of genuine joy. But at its core, they were still Super Bowl halftime shows, still a cheesy handful of greatest hits crammed into a few minute gap while the football players drank Gatorade and the football coaches talked adjustments.*

    * This struck me during the U2 show in partcular — hey, those guys can fill up 80,000-seat stadiums around the world with people who JUST want to hear their music. Why do they have to play distraction for the Super Bowl? How about, next show, they stop for a few minutes between “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “In the Name of Love” and let a few guys on the field play a little football game?

    Prince was the one show that was different. Yes, I really like Prince, but I’m reluctant to call myself a fan because I let go a while ago. I was a fan, certainly, in the 1980s, when music seemed to pour off of him like sweat. I bought everything Prince, including an album or two of protegees like Shiela E or Morris Day.

    But I more or less stopped buying his music around 1992. That’s a long time ago. The last album I bought (it was a CD; I still have it) was that weird love symbol one. It is shocking to me how much music he made since then. I count 25 albums since 1992, not counting the live albums and the compilations. I’ve heard none of these. And so I cannot in good conscience call myself a fan in good standing. The truth is that my Prince appreciation is probably best expressed by having “LIttle Red Corvette” on my favorite playlist. I probably hear it once or twice a month. I never tire of it.

    Still, after the news of his shocking death at 57, I think back to how much I loved Prince, the happiness he brought me, the fruitless hours I spent trying to figure out what his lyrics really meant. Mostly, though, I think of his halftime show at Super Bowl XLI in Miami. THAT was different. The Super Bowl shrinks every other performer, even McCartney, even Springsteen, even the Rolling Stones. They all feel more than a little bit like sideshows. Not Prince, though. Definitely not Prince. It was his stadium.

    “Dearly beloved,” he began, “we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.”

    He was the show. The game — I don’t even remember who played in that game (Oh, it was Colts vs. Bears, no wonder I don’t remember). But I remember that guitar solo Prince played in “Let’s Go Crazy.” I remember the way the Florida A&M band was playing and dancing while he sang “Baby I’m a Star.” I remember the way it rained while he sang “Purple Rain.” It was heaven. I don’t know of anyone, other than maybe fans of the two teams, who wanted the game to begin again.

    You probably know the Prince story from earlier that week — before every Super Bowl, the halftime show artists have a press conference. These are awkward affairs where someone inevitably will ask for a selfie with the artist or someone will prelude a question by saying something like, “I’ve always been a huge fan.” I will say I did avoid this (barely) at the Sprinsgteen halftime show press conference.

    But it was made clear to us that Prince would not be answering any questions at his press conference. Well, of course he wouldn’t — he was PRINCE. Then he showed up and it was announced that, surprisingly, Prince WOULD allow a question from the press. Someone was called on, and the question was asked: “Prince how do you feel about being at the Super Bowl.”

    And at that point he whipped the guitar around from his back and blasted right into “Johnny B. Goode.” That’s how he felt. That’s how he made us all feel.

    The hobgoblin of an unoccupied mind

    I‘ve told this story before: In October of 2001, I was covering the World Series as columnist for The Kansas City Star. Curt Schilling pitched Game 1 of that series for Arizona against the three-time defending champion New York Yankees, and he pitched a breathtaking game. He gave up a run-scoring double to Bernie Williams in the first … and he never came close to allowing another run. He retired 10 of the last 11 batters he faced, with only a walk breaking things up.

    Schilling was so overpowering, Yankees manager Joe Torre conceded after the game that, when the score was 5-1, he knew it was over. Scoring four runs off Curt Schilling that night was beyond imagination.

    That night, I wrote a column about the empty seat at what was then called Bank One Ballpark. That empty seat was for Cliff Schilling, Curt’s father. Cliff Schilling had a seat at every one of his son’s 436 starts. Cliff died in 1988, when Curt was 21 years old and was still in the minor leagues. He never got the chance to attend any of Curt’s Major League games. But Curt always believed: Cliff saw every last one of them.

    When I woke up at 6 or 7 the next morning, I groggily wandered across the hotel room to my computer, turned it on and opened up my email. The first email I got — remember, this was 6 in the morning — was from Curt Schilling. He thanked me for that column. It was a very nice thing for him to do.

    I do not bring this up to name drop — I’m pretty sure nobody’s too excited about name-dropping Curt Schilling these days anyway — but to make a point. This was 2001. This was before Twitter, before Facebook, before smartphones or moderately bright phones, before even Google News was launched. To that point, I had never met Schilling. He wouldn’t have known me if I was wearing a name tag. I’m not entirely sure how he even could have found that column at The Kansas City Star.

    But, more, much more, how could he have found that column on the NIGHT HE PITCHED IN THE WORLD SERIES? Did he go home after pitching one of the great World Series games of recent times, go right to his computer and search far and wide for stories about himself? Did he have friends in various places who were forwarding him the best stories about the game, and he wanted to read them before the glow of the evening got away from him? Did he happen to stumble upon my column by some fluke and, thinking of his father, feel that he needed to reach out at that exact moment?

    It was strange. I never asked Schilling about it, not even after we connected on other occasions. I guess it doesn’t matter. He’s a strange case, that Curt Schilling. A friend of mine, who was around the Diamondbacks a lot in those days, used to compare Schilling with his more famous teammate Randy Johnson. It seemed that everybody on the team despised Johnson on the days he pitched because he was so intense, but they loved the Big Unit the rest of the time. And, my friend said, it was the opposite with Schilling. They loved Schilling on the days he pitched because he was so good. The rest of the time, for the most part, they could do without him.

    That might be harsh — I’m sure Schilling has friends in and around the game — but it has never been hard to find people annoyed or infuriated by Schilling. Well, he’s a loudmouth. That’s something he readily admits. He says insensitive, uninformed stuff all the time, and it splits people — many are offended, others race to his defense. Sometimes he apologizes. Sometimes he doesn’t. This time — after posting clueless and nasty anti-transgender stuff on his Facebook page — he’s not apologizing. That led to him getting fired at ESPN. Maybe he saw that coming. Maybe he didn’t.

    Either way, he was defiant on his blog as he explained himself: “If you get offended by ANYTHING in this post, that’s your fault, all yours.”

    Defiant … and, yes, thoroughly disingenuous. I mean, even in that one sentence, he sounds terribly offended by anyone that would be offended.

    Why does he insist on saying these things that he has to know will hurt and offend a lot of people and, inevitably, will bring a wicked backlash back at him? I mean — he knows the drill. He’s been through it enough times. Why does he keep going there? And the obvious answer is: I don’t know. I never studied psychoanalysis. He explains it like this: “I’m loud. I talk too much. I think I know more than I do … but I’m OK with my flaws, they’re what make me, me.”

    There’s more, but I’m going to stop right here because that is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever read. It isn’t our flaws that define us. He can’t possibly believe that. Don’t our best attributes define us? Isn’t it how how we deal with our flaws, how we try to overcome them or at least improve them, that defines us? Would we ever tell our children: “OK, listen, you have these flaws, you’re selfish and mean, you’re insensitive and jealous, you have a bad temper and you like to take shortcuts, embrace those, they are what make you, you?”

    Anyway, it’s again disingenuous. Did Curt Schilling, no matter what he believes, really think he was doing some grand public service by re-posting a vile anti-transgender meme on Facebook and leaving himself only the extremely weak defense of “I didn’t post that ugly looking picture?” You can decide that for yourself.

    Curt Schilling was a fantastic pitcher. He belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame. It bothers me that he has received so little support (this year, for the first time, his vote total finally jumped 50 percent), and I suspect much of that has to do with his Svengali-like talent for offending people. That’s not right. He was remarkable on the mound. He has the greatest strikeout-to-walk ratio in baseball history. He pitched some of the most memorable postseason games in baseball history. He is one of the best pitchers of all time and belongs in Cooperstown.

    As for the rest, well, it has been rough professionally for Schilling after baseball. There has been bankruptcy. Financial fights. Public embarrassment. Now he has been fired. I think pretty often about that email he sent me in the middle of the night after his greatest baseball triumph. Why did he send it? My best guess is that, just a few moments of the natural high that came with pitching brilliant baseball against the New York Yankees, he was just bored. I can’t help but wonder if boredom explains a whole lot of it.

    Special Ks

    OK, the strikeouts thing in baseball has gotten a bit out of control. It has only been three weeks, but so far hitters are striking out 22.8 percent of the time,  by far the highest percentage in baseball history. That’s a crazy percentage, by the way. We are getting to the point where one out of every four batters is striking out.

    True, you can call it small sample size, but this is a continuing trend. Last year hitters struck out 20.4 percent percent of the time, the highest percentage in baseball history. Two years earlier it was 19.9 percent (highest percentage up to that point). Two years before that it was 18.8 percent (highest up to that point). And so on and so on. From 2008 on, hitters have struck out more every single year.

    Then, you probably know, strikeouts have been on the rise for much longer than that. In fact, they have been rising pretty much since the end of the Deadball Era.

    Strikeouts per nine innings:

    1926: 2.75

    1936: 3.33

    1946: 3.90

    1956: 4.64

    1966: 5.82

    1976: 4.83

    1986: 5.87

    1996: 6.46

    2006: 6.52

    2016: 8.21

    The only reversal in the trend happened between 1966-76 and there is a reason for that: During those 10 years, baseball lowered the mound, adjusted the strike zone and the American League added the designated hitter. And even after doing all that,  strikeouts were back up a decade later.

    Bill James has a fascinating explanation for why strikeouts have skyrocketed and will continue to skyrocket for the forseeable future. It really comes down to a two-step cause:

    1. Good pitchers get more strikeouts than weaker pitchers, but

    2. Good hitters (historically) ALSO strike out more than weaker hitters.

    See, it’s a one-way street. There are specific factors for why strikeouts are way up. For one thing, hitters try to bunt for hits much less than they did 50 and 60 years ago. Bunts are mocked these days, but bunts are not strikeouts. Hitters use thinner bats that whip through the strike zone much more quickly, creating more power but limiting contact. The check swing strike is called more often than it was in the days before video (since video proved conclusively that that batter ALWAYS swings).

    And in recent years, of course, we’ve seen a lot more relief pitchers — the analyst Tom Tango says a pitcher will have a 17 percent higher strikeout rate as a reliever than he would have a starter.

    Take a look at the Yankees this year: Andrew Miller has struck out 12 of the 17 batters he has faced, and Dellin Betances has struck out 15 of the 24 batters he has faced. When Aroldis Chapman is eligible to play, the Yankees finally might go with that slogan I’ve been pushing: “The New York Yankees: The Only team in baseball with more than one K in their name.”

    Then again, they might not.

    These are just factors though. The overriding cause, as Bill James says, is that the incentives of the game point to more strikeouts. From the pitching side, well, it’s obvious that to win you want pitchers who strike people out. The best pitchers are, with very few exceptions, strikeout pitchers. You look at the best pitchers in the game now — Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Jake Arrieta, Madison Bumgarner, David Price — all finished in the Top 10 in strikeouts last year. Zack Greinke finished just out of the Top 10. It’s POSSIBLE to be an effective pitcher without a lot of strikeouts, but you wouldn’t want to try it.

    So, that’s easy: To prevent runs, you want more strikeouts.

    But the opposite is not true. The best hitters often strike out a lot. Mike Trout led the league in strikeouts in 2014. Both of last year’s MVPs, Bryce Harper and Josh Donaldson, struck out 130-plus times. Early season sensation Trevor Story leads the league in strikeouts. And this is true historically. Mike Schmidt struck out a lot. Mickey Mantle struck out a lot. Babe Ruth struck out a lot.

    So while teams try to find pitchers who strike people out, teams do NOT try to find hitters who avoid the strikeout. There’s your one-way street. Strikeouts keep climbing.

    Will the rise ever end? Right now, an average game will see 16 or 17 strikeouts. That’s a lot of strikeouts. Can that number possibly go up? Will we soon see 20 strikeouts per game? Then 22? More?

    The answer: Yes. Strikeouts will keep rising, at least for a while, because baseball teams are mostly uninterested reversing the trend.

    The Kansas City Royals are a great test study. Four years ago, the Royals decided to go against the current baseball mindset and build a team that does not strike out. That has been their singular offensive philosophy. The Royals have sacrificed power — they don’t hit home runs. They have sacrificed walks — they don’t work the count. The Royals just put the ball in play. They had the fewest strikeouts in baseball every year from 2012-15, and you can see that they’ve gotten better and better at not striking out.

    2012: 1,032 Ks (37 fewer than 2nd place Minnesota)

    2013: 1,048 Ks (19 fewer than Texas)

    2014: 985 Ks (119 fewer than Oakland)

    2015: 973 (134 fewer than Atlanta)

    The Royals have, of course, been extremely successful over those years, going from 72 to 86 to 89 to 95 victories, winning two American League pennants and a World Series. So why haven’t they started a trend? The answer is: Nobody around baseball really believes that their ability to put the ball in play has been all that important in their success. They have won, baseball people say, because of their great defense and great bullpen.The Royals don’t score that many runs — they did not finish Top 5 in the American League in runs scored at any point during their winning stretch.

    Meanwhile, the trendiest young teams in the game — the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros — strike out more than anybody else. They, not the Royals, are setting the standard for how to play offensive baseball in this new era. Hit the long ball. Steal bases at a high percentage. Draw walks. That’s still the winning formula.

    And strikeouts keep rising.

    You do wonder if it will turn at some point. We are in the lowest scoring five-year span since the late 1960s. Will teams eventually seek out hitters who handle the bat, strike out less, hit the ball the other way (which would have the added benefit of beating defensive shifts). In the 1970s, players like Rod Carew and Pete Rose and George Brett were some of the game’s biggest stars. In the 1980s, it was Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs and Rickey Henderson. Will we get back to that?

    Probably not. For now, though, it seems to be going the other way. Even the Royals are not immune. They are on pace to strike out 300 more times than they did last year.

    Too big to fail

    Ken Burns’ magnificent documentary on Jackie Robinson tells so many important stories. It takes Robinson out of the realm of mythology and makes him flesh and blood — driven, angry, courageous, unforgiving, a force of will. It discussion the Pee Wee Reese story — Reese, it is often told, put his arm around Robinson to publicly demonstrate his acceptance and love — and why it became so legendary, and suggests that it never happened. It dives into the less-told portion of Robinson’s life, the years after he integrated baseball, when he stopped turning the other cheek and was berated and crticized by so many of the people who had initially applauded him.

    Most important of all, the documentary reminds us of the sheer wonder of Rachel Robinson, a pioneer and an American hero.

    But there’s something the documentary does not do, something that no one seems able to do. It does not explain how the heck Jack Roosevelt Robinson became such a great baseball player.

    Now, Burns’ documentary is not about baseball. It is a story of America. Still, it does what so many do: It assumes that Robinson was an unquestionably great baseball player whose greatest challenge was to play well under the extraordinary pressure of being the first. But the BASEBALL story of Jackie Robinson is miraculous.

    You probably know that baseball was, at best, Robinson’s fourth-best sport at UCLA. He was an exceptionally talented baseball player as a young man, someone the scouts had their eye on, but he went a different direction. His best sport at UCLA was football — he was a Gale Sayers-type of runner. To this day, he still has one of the highest punt-return averages in the history of college football. Enduring film clips show a runner who was impossible for one man to tackle. He juked and feinted and stopped and started and if he had been born a decade later, he probably would have become an NFL superstar.

    Basketball was probably his second-best sport. Robinson twice led his conference in scoring, The Bruins had a terrible basketball team — this was a decade before John Wooden arrived — and that was part of the reason that Robinson was overlooked as a basketball player. Another part was pure racism; some coaches simply refused to put him on the all-conference team. The conference darling was a fine USC player named Ralph Vaughn. He was put on the cover of Life Magazine. Here is what the Oakland Tribune’s Art Cohn had to say about that:

    “Now that all the picture mags have glorified Ralph Vaughn of USC  as ‘America’s No. 1 basketball player’ it is interesting to note that he wasn’t even the best player in Los Angeles. Because Jackie Robinson of UCLA, playing on the Coast’s weakest with NO support even remotely comparable to that which Vaughn received from a championship team, has just won the Conference individual scoring title.”

    Track and field would have been Robinson’s No. 1 sport, but after the cancelation of the 1940 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, he backed off. His brother Mack famously finished second to Jesse Owens in the 200-meters at the 1936 Games (and was ignored after he returned home; he got a job as a street cleaner and could sometimes be seen outside wearing his Olympic jacket). Jackie said that without the Olympics to motivate him, he saw no real point in competing in college track. His own coach would question his dedication. But when it came to it, he decided to halfheartedly compete in the broad jump. He won the NCAA championships.

    Then — only then — there was baseball. In his only season at UCLA, he hit .097. There were reports of him playing good defense, but he still led his team in errors. His team was disastrously bad and the most enduring memory of the season was when Robinson took the mound in an effort to get the umpire to call the game because of darkness. “I can’t see the plate!” Robinson reportedly whined, and he purposely threw wild pitches to underline the point. The umpire did call the game. It was a rare UCLA victory.

    He did not letter in any other sports — four was plenty — but Robinson did make it to the semifinal of the National Negro Tennis Tournament. He reportedly won several swimming events. It has been reported that Robinson unofficially won the conference golf tournament as well, though that could just be some unnecessary folklore building.

    Robinson cared so little about baseball that the next year he did not even play. He was sick of school and ready for something new in his life. He was reportedly offered a chance to join several professional football teams, a professional basketball team in America and a Mexican baseball team. He turned those down. He took a job at the National Youth Administration in the hopes of working in college athletic departments. “The thought of working with youngsters in the field of sport excited me,” he said.

    It didn’t last. He played one football game for the Los Angeles Bulldogs. He got hurt. He signed to play football with the Honolulu Bears, though mainly it was a construction job. The Bears were terrible and Robinson badly injured his ankle. He left Hawaii two days before Pearl Harbor was bombed. He worked as a truck driver. He was drafted in March of 1942. He was 23. He worried that his ankle would not hold up under basic training.

    Robinson famously wanted to play baseball at Fort Riley, but the officer in charge refused to allow any black players on his team. A woman named Ruth Danenhower Wilson wrote a study of race relations in the Army called “Jim Crow Signs Up,” and specifically mentioned Robinson a couple of times. Both times he was referred to as a football player. “At Fort Riley,” she wrote, “the faculty of the Officer Candidates School felt that the Negro all-American Football player Jack Robinson had been better liked than any other Candidate at the school.”

    Robinson’s court-martial and acquittal is well known … but the point remains: He was honorably discharged in late 1944. He was almost 26.

    Robinson had not played competitive baseball in almost five years — and he had hit .097 in college. On the advice of a former Negro Leagues pitcher named Ted Alexander (or Hilton Smith — it has been disputed who gave Robinson the advice) he wrote to the Kansas City Monarchs in the hopes of landing a job. The talent of the Negro Leagues had been drained by the war. Robinson, after being such a great college athlete and then winning against the U.S. Army, was a hero of the African-American community. The Monarchs’ Thomas Baird offered him a deal for $400 a month.

    Robinson utterly despised his one year with the Kansas City Monarchs. He hated the bus rides. He hated the black hotels. He hated the umpiring. He hated the condition of the fields. He felt like the players drank too much and had no discipline. He thought the whole league was unprofessional.

    It is difficult to tell how well Robinson played his one year in the Negro Leagues. He played well enough to play in the East-West All-Star Game, and enduring statistics show him with a .345 average. But the talent in the leagues was significantly down because of the war — this list of Negro Leaguers who served in World War II is very long and includes many of the best players. Also, Robinson was a celebrity, which made him an All-Star certainty. Numerous players around the league said Robinson’s arm was weak and he had holes in his swing. Bob Feller among others would say that Robinson was too musclebound for baseball and couldn’t hit the inside fastball. Maybe there were ulterior motives for such criticism, but the reality is that Robinson was signed by Branch Rickey based on his great athletic ability and one partial season playing war-torn baseball in the Negro Leagues.

    He was 27 years old when he made his debut in Montreal.

    I simply cannot think of a comparable situation. I suppose from a pure baseball perspective it might be like Tim Tebow having a pretty good winter baseball season in the Dominican and getting signed to play and sent directly to Triple-A. Of course, you would also have to heap the mounds and mounds of pressure on him along with the burden of history and the vicious taunts of the racists and a million other things like that. But, again, talking pure baseball it seems almost impossible to imagine an athlete, no matter how great, giving up baseball, not playing for five years, then returning to the game under extreme duress and becoming one of the greatest players in baseball history.

    How did he do it? Buck O’Neil always had a theory that the burden of history, rather than haunting Jackie Robinson, inspired him to greatness. He could not fail. The consequences for failure were too staggering to imagine. Everyone who knew Robinson — fans and critics alike — always sensed that he felt destined to change America. He would not back down from challenges. He would not stand silent against injustice. He would not move to the back of the bus. He would not, could not, fail as the first black baseball player.

    In this way, his story is one of immovable resolve. He went to Montreal and hit .349, stole 40 bases and led the Royals to the championship. He went to Brooklyn and, after a sluggish start, hit .297, led the league in stolen bases and sacrifice hits, scored 125 runs, tied for the team lead in home runs and helped Brooklyn to the World Series. The next year, he added some brilliant defense to his sensational hitting. The next year, he led the league with a .342 average and won the MVP award.

    Over the years, it has become easy to take for granted the inevitability of all this. Buck O’Neil used to say, “Jackie wasn’t the BEST player. But he was the RIGHT player.” Jackie Robinson inspired in so many different ways, but this way often gets overlooked. He became a great baseball player because that’s what the time demanded.

    Grand finale

    Well, that was one remarkable night of basketball.

    I’ll admit up front that when the evening began, the two big events were ranked like so in my mind.

    1. Golden State’s attempt to break the Bulls’ regular season record of 72 wins.

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    2. Kobe Bryant’s final game.

    This is not to diminish Bryant’s bigger-than-life career. It’s just that the Kobe Bryant who mattered, the Kobe who slashed unrelentingly toward the basket, the Kobe who always took and usually made the last shot, the Kobe who willed the Los Angeles Lakers to five NBA championships, that guy played his final game a long time ago. The new Kobe, who made about one-third of his shots for irrepressibly awful Lakers teams, well, to be honest, I’ve seen enough of that guy.

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    Anyway, how can anyone resist the Warriors? People have been arguing about their legacy, their place in history, their chances against Michael Jordan’s Bulls, but all that seems beside the point: No team ever played basketball like these Warriors. To start with, nobody has ever played basketball like Steph Curry. During Wednesday’s game against Memphis, I put up this statistic on Twitter: Curry has made more 3-pointers in the last two seasons than Larry Bird made in his entire career. The stat doesn’t say as much about the two players as it does about how much Curry has helped change the game. Bird was the very standard for shooting excellence in his time — twice he led the NBA in 3-point field goals made. Those two years, he made 82 and 90 3-pointers.

    Curry has made 94 3-pointers in the last month.

    Different game. Different time. The Warriors play what still looks like futuristic basketball. When it isn’t Curry raining threes, it’s Klay Thompson, who made 276 of them this year, more than anyone in NBA history not named Steph Curry. The team’s leader in both assists and rebounds is a 6-foot-7 Swiss Army knife of a player named Draymond Green, who plays forward, guard and center, defends like mad and, on the side, sets the best picks in the league. Off the bench comes Andre Iguodala, an Olympic gold medalist and underappreciated superstar who embraced his new role and was the MVP of the NBA Finals last year.

    And so on. Marreese Speights is a 6-foot-10, 260-pound whirlwind who pours in so many shots they call him “Mo Buckets.” Harrison Barnes is a 23-year-old out of North Carolina, who would be the top 3-point shooter on many NBA teams. The bench overflows with veterans like Shaun Livingston and Brandon Rush and Anderson Varejao, and they all instinctively know what they need to do at all times. And, almost as a nod to the past, the Warriors still have Andrew Bogut, a conventional 7-footer who grabs some rebounds and blocks some shots and plays the game as it used to be played.

    So these Warriors were the story Wednesday night, at least for me, and they did not disappoint. From the start, they overwhelmed Memphis with what has become a typical barrage of brilliant passing, 3-point shooting and pure energy. Curry needed eight 3-pointers to get to what many were calling the “magic number” of 400 3-pointers. But it’s absurd to call 400 3-pointers a magical number — no one else has ever made THREE hundred threes. It’s like saying that 150 homers is a magic number. It’s like saying 3,000 rushing yards is a magic number.

    Even so, Curry made seven 3-pointers in the first half, and then right when the second half began, he made his eighth of the game and 400th of the season. He finished with 46 points, pushing his season average over 30 points per game. With the game in hand, Curry sat out the fourth quarter for the 19th time. Green had his usual numbers potpourri, Thompson made four 3-pointers, Livingston somehow managed 10 assists, and the final score, for posterity’s sake, was 125-104.

    The final record, for posterity’s sake, was 73-9. The Warriors won their first 24 games. They lost two games at home all year. They won a record 34 road games, including their first at San Antonio in almost 20 years. They made 1,077 three-pointers, smashing Houston’s NBA record by 144.

    More: Helin: Kobe delivers note-perfect finale | Indomitable spirit will live on | Lakers’ emotional video tribute

    Wednesday’s game was so perfect, such a tidy summation of the greatest team I’ve ever seen, including those Jordan Bulls, and yet … yes … I did find myself turning back to Kobe Bryant, just to check in. And what was happening there, I must admit, was stunning.

    In Michael Jordan’s last game, he shot the ball 15 times, scored 15 and left the stage.

    In Wilt Chamberlain’s last game — Game 5 of the 1973 NBA Finals — Chamberlain shot the ball 16 times.

    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shot the ball eight times in his last game. Karl Malone shot it just twice, as did Dominique Wilkins, who never met a shot he didn’t like. Shaquille O’Neal, in the last game he played in the NBA, did not even attempt a single bucket.

    Kobe Bryant, in his last game, shot the ball 50 times.

    Fifty. Mind-boggling. Ever since the NBA started counting field goal attempts in the early 1980s, no one has shot the basketball 50 times in a game. There have been plenty of players — Bryant foremost among them — who would have LOVED to shoot the ball 50 times in a game. Think Jordan. Think Dominique. Think Allen Iverson. Think Tracy McGrady. But even they could not push themselves to do it. Jordan shot the ball 49 times in an overtime game against Orlando in 1993. He scored 64. The Bulls lost the game. “Just wasted energy,” Jordan said afterward.

    Chris Webber shot the ball 47 times in a game against Indiana back in 2001. Russell Westbrook fired it up there 43 times in a 2015 game. Allen Iverson shot the ball 42 times and scored 58 points in a game in 2002, inspiring his coach Larry Brown to offer this meager compliment: “He took very few bad shots, none in the fourth quarter.”

    It should be said that Iverson’s 42-shot night was DIRECTLY INSPIRED by Kobe Bryant, who had scored 56 the night before (on a mere 34 shots). “You knew when Kobe got 56, (Iverson) would be looking to have a big game,” Brown said.

    Yes, well, that’s Kobe Bryant. When you look at the list of chuck-em-up games, Kobe Bryant stands alone. Bryant had a 47-shot game (in 2002), a 46-shot game (that was his 81-point night against Toronto in 2006), a 45-shot game (in Charlotte in 2006) and two 44-shot games.They talk about how great shooters must have the ability to forget their last shot, no matter how badly it missed. Kobe Bryant was walking amnesia on a basketball court. The guy had 10 games where he shot the ball 40 or more times. He shot 50 percent in only one of those.

    You knew going into Wednesday night that Bryant would try to leave behind a night to remember. This whole season has been a grueling affair, with a beat-up Bryant playing terrible basketball. It was often hard to tell whether Bryant’s insistence on firing up bricks was supremely sad or oddly inspiring. It was probably a little bit of both. It’s never fun watching a sporting legend deteriorate before your very eyes. And yet, you could not help but sense how much he loved it all — the scoring, the adulation, the feeling of having every eye in the arena on you — and it was stirring to see how unwilling he was to let it go. Here was someone raging against the dying of the light.

    More: Are Warriors the greatest team ever? | Ratto: Real test starts now

    The advanced numbers have never been overly kind to Bryant. By player-efficiency rating, he was never the best player in the league or even the second-best. The same is true if you use Win Shares or Value Over Replacement Player. He was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive first team nine times, but the numbers never backed up that he was that great of a defender. And he missed 14,481 shots. That is far and away the most for any player:

    1. Kobe Bryant, 14,481 misses

    2. John Havlicek, 13,417

    3. Elvin Hayes, 13,296

    4. Karl Malone, 12,682

    5. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 12,470

    Michael Jordan is next on the list — Kobe missed 2,000 more shots than Jordan did. Bryant’s hunger to shoot, his unwillingness to share, his fury for the fight made him unique. When it turned out that Los Angeles wasn’t quite big enough for both him and Shaq, it was Shaq who left, and Kobe who won two more titles in purple and gold.

    Wednesday night’s magic show was once again provided the Golden State Warriors. But in the end, yes, it was Kobe Bryant who reminded us of the extreme power of human stubbornness. He scored 60 points by simply refusing to stop shooting. The crowd wanted it. The analysts wanted it. The countless NBA players who had recorded video tributes wanted it. Jack Nicholson wanted it. Most of all, Kobe wanted it. His 50 shots included some of the ugliest you’ve ever seen. But, like always, he kept shooting. He simply wore down everyone else. The Utah players, with nothing on the line, seemed to back off by the end. Nobody ever won a game of chicken with Kobe Bryant.

    Yes, people will always remember Kobe Bryant’s last game. I suppose, when you get through everything else, that was the point. On this historic night in Golden State, when the Warriors clinched their place in NBA lore, Kobe’s final game was supposed to be the touching sideshow. But Kobe Bryant never could stand being the second act. That’s what made him great.

    Weight of history

    AUGUSTA, Ga. – Listen to the echoes. They are everywhere at the Masters. The echoes make the Masters the greatest golf tournament in the world. Think of it: The Masters isn’t a championship of anything – it doesn’t even have the word “championship” in its title. The Masters does not have the long history of the Open Championship or U.S. Open; by the time the great Bobby Jones invited some friends to play a little tournament on this stretch of farmland once covered by azaleas and fruit trees, he was already too old to win it.

    But the Masters echoes. Everyone knows that the roars reverberate through the pines whenever someone makes a glorious shot … or a calamitous one. But, more, words and feelings and the weight of golf history echo through the years. They say that the Masters does not begin until the back nine on Sunday. This is why. This is when the echoes are the loudest.

    “As I stood over the ball,” he said, “my brain seemed to completely shut down. I was suddenly unsure what I should be thinking about.”

    Who said that? It could have been Greg Norman in 1996 when he came into the final round with a seemingly insurmountable six-shot lead and then lost his equilibrium and hit disastrous shot after disastrous shot. When it ended, Norman had shot 78 and lost to his rival Nick Faldo by five shots. On the 18th green, after it ended, Norman all but collapsed into Faldo’s arms.

    It could have been Ken Venturi in 1956, who started the final day with a four-shot lead but could not make a putt all day. He shot 80 and lost to Jackie Burke. It could have been Scott Hoch, who stood over a 2-foot putt that would have won him the 1989 Masters, backed off it, stepped back over it and then missed it. It could have been Curtis Strange, who led by four shots going into the final nine holes in 1985 and then lost his composure, hitting balls into the water on the 13th and 15th holes. The words could have been said by any of them. But they were not.

    “What really tore me up inside,” he said, “was the knowledge that I’d lost because I’d failed … to stay focused until the job is finished.”

    Jordan Spieth heard the echoes. He had seemed immune to them just like he had seemed immune to just about every Masters precedent. First-timers are not supposed to play well but in his first Masters Spieth had finished second and led on Sunday. Players are not supposed to go wire-to-wire at the Masters, but Spieth did that last year, breezing to a dominant victory. Players are not supposed to repeat at Augusta, but Spieth led the first three rounds this year and seemed an unstoppable train. Most of all, Augusta National is not supposed to be easy. But Jordan Spieth kept making it look that way.

    He did again on Sunday. Spieth came into the day leading by only one shot – this after an unexpected two-hole collapse Saturday evening – but by the time he made the turn his lead was five. Spieth had birdied four holes in a row. “It was a dream-come-true front nine,” he would say.

    The trailing players had no reason to hope at that point. Spieth’s resolve had been steel. Even when he plunked his second shot in the sand at No. 10 and made bogey, it did not seem to matter. Even when he hit a wild drive and missed an 8-foot putt at No. 11, it did not seem to matter. Yes an often underestimated British player named Danny Willett, who was only playing at Augusta because his first child was born early, did manage to cut his deficit to one shot. But that seemed a superficial comparison. Spieth still had two par 5s to play and the wind was down. The thing seemed over. Only then Spieth walked to the tee at the 12th hole.

    “Instead of seeing nothing around me except the business at hand,” he said. “I suddenly seemed to notice everything around me. The color of the sky. The expectant faces of the people in the gallery. You name it.”

    The 12th at Augusta National is probably the most perfect little golf hole ever dug out of the dirt. It is beautiful, of course, with the azaleas and pines and flowering shrubs, with the gorgeous little Hogan’s bridge that arcs over Rae’s Creek. The 12th hole has its own soundtrack, a combination of tinkling piano keys and chirping birds and Jim Nantz’s baritone voice all-but singing “The Masters.”

    But what makes the 12th hole utterly perfect is the same thing that makes the Masters perfect: The echoes roar louder there than anyplace else in golf. On most days, this is the most basic of holes. It is only 155 or so yards. It has a fairly big green. On a benign day on any week other than the first week of April, it would seem almost too simple.

    But then you add an untrackable wind – even when it’s a fairly light wind, like on Sunday – and then you add the Sunday pressure and then you add the ghosts, all those ghosts – Arnold Palmer in 1959 and Seve Ballesteros in 1982 and Gary Player in 1962 and Norman in 1996 and a man named J.C. Snead in 1973, and on and on and on. All of them lost the golf tournament at the 12th hole, though Snead’s loss was probably the most poignant. He was a former minor league baseball player and fine golfer, an eight-time winner on the PGA Tour. But he was probably best known for being the nephew of the great Sam Snead and for not winning a major. It could have been different. In 1973, he led by two shots coming into the 12th. He plunked his shot in the water and made double bogey. He lost by one shot.

    Spieth stepped to the 12th tee, and he still seemed invulnerable to all this Augusta National lore and pressure. He jabbered away with his caddie, Michael Greller, which is always entertaining. What we did not know then, what we could not know then, was that Spieth’s brain was buzzing and sputtering. He was very concerned – let’s even call it too concerned – that he might hit the ball over the green. It’s true that you don’t want to hit the ball over at 12; it leaves a treacherous chip back toward the water. But that’s not the worst thing that can happen.

    The worst thing that can happens is exactly what did happen: Spieth addressed the ball while still unsure whether he wanted to draw the ball right to left or fade it left to right. He hit a fade vaguely toward the flag, but he hit it without conviction. The ball died in the air, landed short and bounced back into the water of Rae’s Creek. The shock of the crowd created a heavy silence; several longtime observers said they had never heard the place so quiet.

    “That hole, for whatever reason, just has people’s number,” Spieth would say.

    Listen to the echoes. “My brain seemed to completely shut down,” he said. Spieth went to tee up his third shot 80 yards from the hole, in the belief that gave him the best angle to the hole. It is unclear if this was the right decision because Spieth promptly hit one of the worst shots of his life. He hit the ground far behind the ball, exhuming a divot so large that sportswriters across America sought out comical objects to compare it with. A flank steak. A manhole cover. A Buick. The ball itself barely reached the water of Rae’s Creek. But it did reach the water. Spieth was hitting 5.

    He hit his next shot over the green and into the bunker, the one thing he had been trying to avoid all along. His best shot was the delicate chip out of the sand, and he made the putt. Spieth finished with a quadruple bogey and he was promptly three shots out of the lead.

    “Buddy,” he would remember saying to Greller, “it seems like we’re collapsing.”

    Willett was walking to the 16th tee when he saw the red 1 – for 1 under par – put up on the scoreboard next to Spieth’s name. Willett undoubtedly, began to think about destiny. Sunday was the official due date for his wife to give birth, and so he planned to skip the Masters. After Zachariah was born on March 30, Willett became the last person to officially enter the tournament.

    And seeing Spieth implode, he realized this was now his tournament to win. Such a realization could overwhelm a man, but Willett came in as the No. 12-ranked player in the world and though he is fairly anonymous in the United States, he is, in fact, a terrific player. He promptly hit a brilliant shot at 16 and made birdie to increase his lead to four over Spieth. He parred the last two holes to get in at 5 under par. Willett then waited to see if Spieth had any last bits of magic.

    Spieth did not. He briefly flashed some possibilities. He birdied the 13th and 15th holes with delicate approaches and superb putts, then at the 16th he hit it close but on the wrong side of the hole – his nasty downhill putt for birdie did not have a prayer. Spieth then buried his second shot in the bunker at 17 to end his chance. Willett’s friends attacked him out of joy.

    Because Spieth was defending champion, he had the honor of putting the green jacket on Willett. It was undoubtedly as agonizing as it looked. Spieth appeared dead inside. “I can’t think of anybody else who may have had a tougher ceremony to experience,” Spieth said.

    Ah, but there was somebody. Listen to the echoes. They are everywhere at the Masters. The voice above in this story – the one talking about the brain shutting down and the agony of not finishing the job – belongs to the very man that Jordan Spieth shared a locker with in the champions’ locker room this year. It belongs to Arnold Palmer. That was 55 years ago.

    In his glorious career, Palmer famously faltered in some big moments, but those came later. In 1961, like Spieth this year, Palmer was still viewed as invincible. He was defending champion, and he led by a shot going into the 18th hole, and he hit a perfect drive. He strode up the fairway, that famous Palmer walk, and he saw an old friend, George Low, a putting guru. “Nice going, boy, you won it!” Low said. Palmer smiled and accepted the congratulations.

    Disaster followed. Palmer hit his second shot into a bunker. According to press reports some fans, hoping for a playoff, cheered Palmer’s failure. He was noticeably shaken as he flew his third over the green and into the gallery. His chipped rolled to 20 feet from the hole. Palmer needed to make that putt just to force the playoff with Gary Player, but his head was gone. His putt threatened to fall but did not. Player had won.

    And Palmer was the one who put the green jacket on Gary Player. Like Spieth, he was gracious throughout the ceremony. Then, Palmer returned to his car and slammed his golf shoes on top of an engraved silver cigarette box that had been given to him by Augusta National’s Clifford Roberts. Palmer had kept that dented box on his desk ever since as a reminder.

    “I thought,” Palmer said, “that this only happened to other people.”

    “This one will hurt,” Spieth said Sunday. “It will take a while.”

    Working man

    AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tom Watson was always the hard one to love. Arnie was chummier. Jack was more majestic. Gary was more enthusiastic. Lee was funnier. Ben was warmer.

    And Tom Watson? Tom was the intense one. The grinder. Lee Trevino remembered seeing him back in the day hitting golf balls out of a bunker on pro-am day. “Who is that kid?” he asked his caddie. When told the name, Trevino shrugged and went about his day. After finishing his round, five hours later, Trevino was walking by the same bunker. Tom Watson was still in it, practicing shots.

    Watson didn’t play golf. He worked it. He slaved at it. He was not a phenom like so many of the other greats of the game. Nobody knew his name when he made it to the PGA Tour. He had never won a major amateur tournament. He was not even an All-American at Stanford.

    He showed up on the PGA Tour having made only a promise to himself and to his father’s friends who sponsored him: He would work harder than anybody.

    He looked like Huck Finn in his younger days – sportswriters could not avoid the comparison – but there was nothing light or mischievous about him. He guarded his privacy. He played as if in a tunnel. He rarely joked. When he blew a few leads early in his career, he readily admitted that he had choked.

    “Who is your biggest threat?” reporters asked him in 1977 as he entered the final day of the Masters with the lead.

    “Myself,” Watson said.

    He buried his emotions. That was at the heart of his greatness. When other golfers withered in the wind or complained about the rain, Watson thrived. When his great rival Jack Nicklaus seemed to have him beat, Watson found something more in himself. He would not let feelings – fear, disgust, rage, jitters – hold him back. Nobody in the history of the game hit more good shots after bad ones. When he found his ball in trouble, he would look at his caddie Bruce Edwards, smile his hard smile, and say, “Watch what I do with this!” Excuses were for losers.

    No, Watson has never been too comfortable dealing with earnest emotions. In 2009, when there was an outpouring of love for him after he almost won the Open Championship at age 59 – it would have been the greatest victory in the history of the sport – he had a hard time processing it. He heard fom people from all over the world who said that he had inspired them to feel younger, to believe in the impossible. He was thankful for all those sentiments, but he did not quite know how to process them.

    “Didn’t all those letters make you appreciate what you had done?” I asked him once.

    “What did I do?” he said. “I lost. That’s all I did.”

    That’s Tom Watson – a show-me Missourian who does not deal in the touchy or the feely. Friday, he played his last round of golf at the Masters – his last competitive round of golf with the younger players – and the outpouring of emotion was there. Everyone stood. Everyone applauded. Everyone cheered. Everyone yelled, “Thank you Tom!” It was touching because goodbyes to sports legends are always touching.

    Thing is, all the while, Watson was trying desperately to make the cut. Even at the 16th hole, he still had a chance to make it – and that’s where his head was. When he missed the putt there, he started to realize it might not happen. When he missed a birdie putt at 17, he knew then. And so he walked up the 18th fairway for the last time, and what were his emotions?

    “I thought, ‘I’m glad I don’t have to play that hole again,’” he said. “’I’m glad I do not have to hit 5-irons and 3-woods out there. I just can’t hit it far enough to compete.’”

    Well, surely, those weren’t his only emotions, and he admitted feeling some tears build up as he turned to his caddie and friend Neil Oxman. But it was just that: An admission. To the very end, Watson had a hard time embracing the love. It’s his nature.

    I’ve known Tom for 20-plus years. I wrote a book about him. I have followed him round after round, from St. Andrews to Pebble Beach. I have talked with him for countless hours about countless things – fathers, children, politics, journalism, what really matters in life.

    And through it all, I never saw the emotions get to him.

    Until Friday.

    “I’m just a golfer,” he began. “I just go out and try my damndest to play the best golf I possibly can every time I’m on the golf course when I’m in competition. It wasn’t a walk at all. I didn’t feel like it was a final walk until the last couple of holes because I still had a shot at it. And that’s just me. That’s just me.

    “I feel very …” he said, and he stopped to compose himself. Tears filled his eyes. He sat there for a long time until he felt like he could speak again. “I just feel very blessed that they feel that way about me. I hope that over my career I’ve been able to show the crowd, show them some great golf.”

    This is Watson at his rawest. He does not often speak personally. It’s nobody business. Except …

    “When I was a kid,” he said, “I was a shy kid. One of the ways I expressed myself was to hit a golf shot.”

    Yes. Of course. He was talking to the crowd with those shots. He never felt like he could crack jokes like Trevino or inspire a gallery like Palmer. But he could, at his best, hit great golf shots, the sort that would leave people awed and wondering, “How did he do that?” That was how he showed his love for people. And that’s why, in the end, they loved him back.