Want to spend some time this holiday season with your favorite athlete? Tune in to ESPN Classic and share some Christmas cheer with Connors, Hogan, Gretzky, Orr, Reggie, Sir Charles and more. Beginning Monday at 8 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic will present 25 consecutive hours of SportsCentury. Here's our schedule:
All times Eastern
Monday, Dec. 24
Just mentioning his name offers us a reminder that each day can't be taken for granted. Brian Piccolo didn't live long enough to fulfill his dream of becoming a great NFL running back. But in death, from cancer at just 26, he became a symbol of courage.
|Jimmy Connors is the only player to win the U.S. Open on three different surfaces.|
He was raised by women to conquer men, and that's exactly what Jimmy Connors did. He conquered them, as he had been taught by his mother and grandmother, on the tennis courts. He won five U.S. Open titles, and is the only player to win this championship on three different surfaces.
Seldom does performance match excessive expectation. Super Bowls are rarely super. Pay-per-view fights are hyped without money-back guarantees. And there's that old expression that applies so perfectly to horse racing: There's no such thing as a sure thing. Then there was Secretariat at the 1973 Belmont Stakes.
He knew only one speed -- hell-bent -- a zealous pace that brought him athletic records, fame, injury and fast criticism. Jim McMahon digested football and life with similar fervor, the two often battling each other.
Tuesday, Dec. 25
He was The Great Gretzky as a kid. He was The Great Gretzky as a teenager. He was The Great Gretzky in the NHL. And, most incredibly, Wayne Gretzky always lived up to that name.
|Bo Jackson ran for 4,303 yards at Auburn.|
There have been others -- from Jim Thorpe to Deion Sanders. But even now, almost a decade after he played his last football game and six years since his last baseball game, Bo Jackson is still considered by many to be "the man" among multi-sport athletes.
Courage is a word too frequently used by sportswriters in glamorizing an athlete's performance. But courage is not hitting a game-winning homer in the ninth inning or sinking a tournament-winning birdie putt on the 72nd hole. Courage is throwing yourself across the passenger seat to shield your wife as an out-of-control bus comes barreling down at your car. That's courage. That's what Ben Hogan did.
Irony, as we know, is part of life. And death. Is there a better word to use regarding Lou Gehrig? Think of his nickname: "The Iron Horse." It implies endurance. It recalls an indestructible man, one who never called in sick for almost 14 years -- 2,130 consecutive games, as if we could ever forget that number? And yet, at age 35, in what should be the prime of his life, the New York Yankees first baseman contracts an incurable disease. Two years later, at 37, The Iron Horse is dead.
There always was something fresh and pleasurable in his performance. Making a glove-thumping basket catch or a whirlingthrow in centerfield, losing his hat running the bases or swinging from his heels at the plate, Willie Mays played with an irresistible, unrelenting exuberance.
In a time when his own people were still subject to lynchings, discrimination and oppression, when the military was segregated and African-Americans weren't permitted to play major league baseball, Joe Louis was the first African-American to achieve the kind of hero worship that was previously reserved for whites only.
Combining an overpowering fastball with a devastating curve, both of which appeared out of a deceptively high leg kick, Bob Feller dominated the American League in the 1940s. Rapid Robert led the league in wins six times and in strikeouts seven over his 18-year career.
Only a handful of athletes have changed the way their sport is played. Bobby Orr is one of the select few. Orr radically altered the style of hockey by introducing defensemen to the offensive side of the game. A defenseman who scored goals, rushed the puck up ice, set up teammates with pinpoint passes. It was a revolutionary concept.
While Reggie Jackson was known as Mr. October, he wasn't too shabby in the other months either. On the other hand, his braggadocio caused as much trouble with
teammates as his bat did with opponents. Most noteworthy were his problems with New York Yankees manager Billy Martin.
|Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Munich.|
For most athletes, Jesse Owens' performance one spring afternoon in 1935 would be the accomplishment of a lifetime. In 45 minutes, he established three world records and tied another. But that was merely an appetizer for Owens. In one week in the summer of 1936, on the sacred soil of the Fatherland, the master athlete humiliated the master race.
Turning pro at 13 in March 1990, Capriati nearly fulfilled all the expectations before proving the experts wrong -- and then, years later, right. She went from successful teen pro to a dark period in which she gave up the sport for more than two years
and, finally, to a revival that led to her fairytale triumph -- in her mid-twenties -- when she captured two Grand Slam titles in 2001.
lthough Bill Mazeroski is best known for his ninth-inning, seventh-game home run that allowed the Pittsburgh Pirates to beat the New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series, that dramatic moment has obscured the fact that he was the premier defensive second baseman of his -- or perhaps any -- time. After years of waiting, he was selected by baseball's Veterans Committee to enter the Hall of Fame in 2001.
He has not won a race since 1984. His last championship came in 1979. But Richard Petty's big sunglasses, cowboy hat and that No. 43 still loom large over stock-car racing. His record seven Daytona 500 wins might fall some day. But what never can be displaced is the role Petty had building stock-car racing from a day at the beach for good ol' boys into a super-speedway sport for the masses.
The tennis "firsts" were served up and chronicled through most of Arthur Ashe's life. They often arrived hand in hand with his color: first African-American male to win the U.S. championship, first to win at Wimbledon, first to play for the U.S. Davis Cup team, and on and on. While sports record books dutifully mark these achievements, civil rights and health historians embrace a more substantive image of the man who seldom shied from fighting for what he believed was right.
|Playing 11 full seasons, Jordan led the NBA in scoring a record 10 times and won 6 NBA titles.|
As the 20th century drew to a close, Jordan was recognized as an icon. Tall, dark and bald, he was the first man of the planet. The Chicago Bulls guard had the rarest of gifts, the ability to transcend his sport. His fame and skill were intertwined, much as they were in earlier generations for a select few, such as the Babe and Ali.
To pick one athlete as the greatest ever in his or her sport is a good way to start an argument. But maybe not in every sport. Try thinking of anyone who was a better diver than Greg Louganis.
The approval meter always had two ends and no center, just the way Charles Barkley liked it. You either enjoyed Barkley's rough and tumble basketball style and his shoot-from-the-hip mouth, or you hated it. The wide-bodied forward left no room for middle ground.
John McEnroe was a winner and a whiner, a super talent nicknamed Superbrat. A lefthander with all the strokes, he never felt a need to stroke anybody. A serve-and-volleyer, his shotmaking artistry enabled him to dominate tennis from 1981-84.
|Barry Bonds broke Mark McGwire's record of 70 homers in a season with numbers 71 and 72 off the Dodgers' Chan Ho Park on Oct. 5, 2001.|
Barry Bonds had a season for the ages in 2001. Not only did he break Mark McGwire's mark with his 73 homers, he also removed Babe Ruth from two lines in the record book with his .863 slugging percentage and his 177 walks.
The numbers never told John Elway's story. They built him up at times, flogged him at others. His overall statistics were impressive, but his true measure as a player ran straight to his heart. The Denver Broncos star found ways to win. Strangely, it took two championships at the end of his career to certify his stature, to soften the mark of three Super Bowl losses.
It's been a long time since his days of blond hair and youthful athleticism. But even though he is older and grayer, Paul Hornung still looks the part of football's "Golden Boy." Like Mickey Mantle, there is a similar majesty that goes along with being Hornung.