Commentary

Greatest ever, or not?

Ibrahimovic restarts the daily conversation about amazing plays

Updated: November 21, 2012, 11:03 AM ET
By Scoop Jackson | ESPN.com

When Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic measured his place on the pitch and proceeded to backward bicycle-strike one in from 30 yards out in a game against England last week, the hysteria went way beyond the normal delirium that accompanies an international soccer goal that brings back memories of the "Hand of God."

Twitter feeds and Facebook pages and blogs and mustached sports anchors all over jumped to the front of the line with the "OMG, that was the greatest goal ever!" response that has come to define the current generation of reaction.

Slowly a better (calmer) sense of reality began to set in. The exclamation morphed into a question: "Was it the greatest goal of all time?" The impact softened. Answers became more rational.

[+] EnlargeZlatan Ibrahimovic
Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty ImagesWas Zlatan Ibrahimovic's goal celebration the greatest ever? Let's consider the competition.

And it's not just soccer. With every incredible game or spectacular play, a sense of extreme measure and comparison overtakes us and shapes our "reax."

Blake Griffin dunks on Pau Gasol last year in a meaningless regular-season game and it's the greatest dunk ever. A replacement ref blows a call that costs the Green Bay Packers a game in Week 3 and it's the worst call in the history of the NFL. In successive seasons, Pablo Sandoval and Albert Pujols bang out three homers in a World Series game and all of a sudden their feats eclipse those of Reggie Jackson and Babe Ruth.

It's the art of generalization to the extreme, the constant urge (need) to create hype beyond hype. We've become a culture of Extremists in the Moment, Hostages of the Knee-Jerk Reaction, Prisoners of the WTH Just Happened and CYBT Just Happened?

(Other forms of entertainment are victims of the same: In hip-hop, it happens when Lil Wayne spits something and is automatically considered greater than Biggie, Nas or KRS; in film, now that the box-office numbers are in for "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2," the trilogy will be considered by some greater than the original "Star Wars" trilogy.)

These arguments display an absence of context, the reduction of applied history and intelligence, and the removal of almost all subjectivity.

We rush to judge, then label and apply at the same rate of speed we want in our 4G LTE phones and 30 GHz processors. Let Dez Bryant make a last-second, game-winning, one-handed catch next week to keep the Cowboys in the playoff hunt, and suddenly talk of its being greater than David Tyree's catch or "The Catch" will surface.

If Notre Dame remains undefeated, someone will call the Irish one of the greatest underdog stories in the history of college sports, let alone college football. That 2008 Fresno State baseball team that won the College World Series will be forgotten, and Villanova's 1985 NCAA basketball championship team will recede further into forgotten history.

The classic, truest and most egregious example of this, unfortunately, is LeBron James.

When the "Is LeBron as great as Jordan?" conversation made "SportsCenter," and Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen somehow validated the topic by even engaging in the public discussion, it became the centerpiece for this era of extremism in sports and the need for all discussions of greatness to begin at the top and work their way down, as opposed to the other way around.

As great as James is (and will become), one question seemed to remain unasked or unconsidered: When did LeBron pass Magic Johnson in the conversation? (Hell, when did he pass Kareem?)

We make these leaps with the same comfort with which we jump past Thanksgiving to get to Christmas. LeBron wins one ring to go along with three MVPs (Magic has five rings, Kareem six MVPs) and instantly, we catapult him into the G.O.A.T. stratosphere. A beeline straight to Jordan.

No steps, just one quantum leap.

But it's not LeBron's fault; it's ours. Everything now must be the greatest. If not, it's not worth our time or interest, not worth any place in history if it doesn't contend for the No. 1 all-time spot.

Calvin Johnson is instantly compared to Jerry Rice. Justin Verlander is instantly compared to Sandy Koufax, Lionel Messi to Pele, Dirk Nowitzki to Larry Bird, Nick Saban to Knute Rockne. I even recently heard someone making a case that Wladimir Klitschko (59-3) is greater than Muhammad Ali (56-5) because of the better record, and that Klitschko should be spoken about as one of the greatest boxers ever along with Sugar Ray Robinson, Henry Armstrong and Joe Lewis.

Seriously. I know that's extreme to the extreme, but in this day and age, it is also very real. It explains just how now we think.

[+] EnlargeJoe Carter
MLB Photos/Getty ImagesJoe Carter's walk-off home run won Game 6 and clinched the 1993 World Series for the Blue Jays.

Yes the media (and ESPN) play a role in this. They initiate, create, amplify and control public conversation and thought, and at worst bombard a sports society with talking points that, because of where they are coming from, we accept (often without thought) as truth.

As Bill Cosby once tried to preach to us: "Come on, people!" At some point we have to be smarter than this; we have to side with intelligent thought over instant reaction. We have to think deeply before we honor absurdity. We have to stop getting so caught up in now's moments. We have to realize that -- especially when putting sports into historical perspective -- context matters.

There are moments when the application of "greatness to the max" is appropriate. Vince Carter's dunk over Frederic Weis might be the greatest dunk ever. The epic Wimbledon finals match between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in 2010 might be the greatest tennis match ever. The Boise State-Oklahoma Fiesta Bowl game in 2007 might be the greatest bowl game ever. Usain Bolt might be a greater Olympian than Carl Lewis.

Right now it's hard to imagine a World Series walk-off home run that would dethrone the heroics and joy associated with Kirk Gibson's in 1988 and Joe Carter's in 1993. Until Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin win more Stanley Cups, they should never be considered greater than The Great One. Or even Mario Lemieux or Bobby Hull. Until Tiger Woods shows some leaderboard-leading consistency and some signs of returning to that other, pre-Thanksgiving 2009 Tiger Woods, then all talk of him as the greatest athlete ever in any sport needs to stop.

Save the "rush" for Jack Del Rio's scheme-driven defense, partial titles of movies that Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Chris Tucker were in, and Geddy Lee's legacy. The rush to establish instantaneous greatness upon incidents and damn-near any achievement in sports has distorted our perspective.

So can we please stop comparing this Chicago Bears defense to the 1985 Bears defense that is considered by many the greatest the NFL has ever seen? Can we avoid meaningless arguments like the one we had about which LT was greater when LaDainian Tomlinson was making the NFL look like his personal "Madden 09"?

Can we stop misleading the public into thinking that those are legitimate lines of thinking and worth advancing for public dialog? Because once the dust has settled and time has allowed clarity and sanity to set in on those types of conversations and comparisons, we realize how absurd and unnecessary those conversations and comparisons actually were.

Excuse me … are.

So yes Zlatan's ridiculous "out-of-the-box" (literal and figurative) goal was great. One for the ages. But adding the "-est" to the back end of how great it was gives it more value than it deserves, while lessening ours.

And just like with Zlatan's goal, somehow we found a way to remove God's hand from the conversation.

Scoop Jackson | email

ESPN.com columnist