- Rick Reilly, Columnist, ESPN.com
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Somewhere, LeBron James is wringing the champagne out of his T-shirt, bathed in the adoration of the nation, which declares him the greatest living basketball player, an improvement on Michael Jordan, Gandhi and possibly Alexander the Great.
But let's play "Let's Say" for just one tick of the clock, shall we?
Let's Say ... that James' teammate, Ray Allen, doesn't drain that death-defying, Game 6-tying, desperation 25-foot heave from the corner with five seconds left while the world unravels around him.
Then ... everything changes. Then ... NBA history changes. Then ... it's Tim Duncan whose hamper smells like champagne this morning. Then ... it's Tony Parker with a cigar in his mouth and three rings on his dresser. Which means ... it's LeBron James being mounted and pinned like a butterfly by the sports world, which uses a magnifying glass to figure out why he's such a choking dog.
Just like that.
Fair or not, the legacies of athletes -- unlike politicians or artists or musicians -- flit and spin in the wind, like a canary feather. They turn in the tiniest breeze, twist on the simplest decision, float on a teaspoonful of luck. And yet when that feather finally lands, it lands with a thud that echoes forever.
For instance ...
Let's Say ... the most perfectly catchable spiral ever doesn't go through the mitts of New England Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel with 1:18 left in the 2008 Super Bowl against the New York Giants.
Then ... Eli Manning isn't still on the field for the next play and doesn't escape the jailbreak coming at him, doesn't throw up a bomb to David Tyree, whose special Velcro helmet doesn't snag the ball, which doesn't give the Giants a first down and lead to the game-winning touchdown to Plaxico Burress four plays later. Which means ... the Patriots become the first 19-0 team in NFL history, two better than the 1972 Dolphins. Then ... Tom Brady has his fourth Lombardi Trophy in six years. Then ... the two Mannings each have only one ring and Thanksgivings are a lot less chilly.
Let's Say ... A massive snowstorm doesn't hit Minnesota in 1948, just as John Wooden, the young head coach of Indiana State, is waiting on a call from the University of Minnesota, which will tell him whether or not it's going to agree to his terms and offer him its head-coaching job. Wooden, a devout man of his word, has told Minnesota if he doesn't hear from it by 6 p.m., he'll take a call from UCLA at 7 and accept its job, if offered. But his wife, Nell, doesn't want to move to Hollywood. She wants to stay closer to home.
Then ... the phone lines in Minnesota wouldn't have been knocked out, the call would've gone through, and Wooden becomes the Maestro of Minneapolis. Which means ... UCLA is a baseball school today.
Let's Say ... Tiger Woods' too-perfect wedge into the 15th green on Friday of the 2013 Masters doesn't hit the bottom of the flagstick. Let's say it's one inch to the right and checks up nicely, rather than ricochets into Rae's Creek, which is as lousy a break as a man is going to get next to hitting a fire hydrant.
Then .... he doesn't lose his mind and take a drop not prescribed in any rule book anywhere, which leads to a 2-shot penalty the next day. Then ... he makes a birdie 4 on that hole (he got the replacement wedge shot up and down, you'll recall) instead of a snowman 8, which means he makes the playoff with Adam Scott and Angel Cabrera, whom he picks off like sweater lint. (He's 16-4 in playoffs, after all.) Which means ... the golf world is buzzing like a caffeinated hive wondering if he can win the Grand Slam this year instead of asking if he'll ever win another major as (cough, cough) SOME writers have lately.
Let's Say ... it's 1956 and the son of seven-time NBA All-Star and Boston Celtics forward Easy Ed Macauley isn't sick back home in St. Louis. Let's Say ... Macauley doesn't beg Celtics GM Red Auerbach to trade him to the St. Louis Hawks so he can be near him.
Then ... Auerbach never trades his best player to the Hawks for their new draft pick, University of San Francisco center Bill Russell. Which means ... Russell wins St. Louis those 11 rings instead of Boston, making St. Louis Basketball Heaven, not Beantown. Which means ... 13 years later, when Bill Simmons is born, the Celtics are a Sominex franchise and Simmons develops an overwhelming passion for horticulture.
Let's Say ... the silver dollar that's flipping through the air in 1970, fresh off the thumb of NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, takes just one more half a turn. Let's Say ... it comes up heads, just as Chicago Bears executive Ed McCaskey calls it.
Then ... it's the sorry 1-13 Bears who get the No. 1 draft pick, not the sorry 1-13 Pittsburgh Steelers. Then ... the Bears use that pick on Terry Bradshaw, the All-Everything QB out of Louisiana Tech. Which means ... the Bears win four of the next six Super Bowls and the Steelers remain the front-office bunglers they've always been, the team that cut Johnny Unitas, that could've drafted Jim Brown, that couldn't spell cat if you spotted them the "c" and the "a."
Let's Say ... the most famous air ball in history -- Dereck Whittenburg's last-second, 25-foot, 3-point try in the 1983 NCAA title game -- travels just 6 more inches. Let's Say ... it bounces off the front of the rim, instead of settling into the hands of teammate Lorenzo Charles, who can't catch it and dunk it at the buzzer to win the title for 6-seed North Carolina State.
Then ... Jim Valvano doesn't run around the court looking for somebody to hug. Which means ... he doesn't become the most huggable college basketball coach ever. Which means ... he isn't a national celebrity when he contracts cancer 10 years later, and he's probably not at the ESPYS to give his unforgettable never-quit speech, and the $100 million The V Foundation for Cancer Research has raised on the strength of that speech doesn't exist.
And lastly ...
Let's Say ... the wife of the assistant sports editor at the Boulder (Colo.) Daily Camera isn't working next to me in the teller line at National State Bank in 1978. Let's Say ... she doesn't finally buckle under my six months of badgering and go home and tell her husband that the 20-year-old kid he'd anonymously judged as the winner of the state high school sports writing contest two years before is bugging her every day to give the editor his phone number. Let's Say ... that editor doesn't then call me the next day and offer me a job typing up girls volleyball scores from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. every night. Then ... you wouldn't have had to read any of this.
2hEthan Sherwood Strauss