Commentary

Best practices

What's up with all the athletes who think they're the best at their sport?

Updated: May 21, 2012, 12:56 PM ET
By Chris Jones | ESPN The Magazine

Chris Jones IlloIllustration by Edel RodriguezMaybe if an athlete is the best, he should say it, writes Chris Jones.

This story appears in the May 28 World Football Issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!

YOU ARE ABOUT to read the best sports column written this year. Yes, I know what you're thinking: Could this column really be better than all of my other columns, each of which has been practically divine in its perfection? I'm here to tell you that it will be. In fact, it won't just be the best sports column written this year. I'm certain that it will be the best sports column of all time, by the greatest sports columnist ever. Red Smith? W.C. Heinz? Jim Murray? They were just setting the table for this moment -- the most transcendent 792 words in the history of sports writing. Maybe in the history of human language, although I don't speak Icelandic all that well, so it's hard for me to know for sure.

I am not alone in my superiority, of course. There are other jobs that I have not yet dominated, gracefully leaving room for others to be the best at them. Most recently, New York Yankees pitcher Ivan Nova caught an apparent glimpse of what my life is like, only from a mound and surrounded by fans. After winning his 15th consecutive decision -- if you ignore the time he spent in the minor leagues last year to make room for Phil Hughes and the playoff game he lost to end the Yankees' season -- Nova allowed reporters to approach him: "If you ask me who's the best pitcher in the world," he said, "I say me. You know, you have to believe it. That's why you win so many games."

Some observers felt Nova was being too bold in his self-praise, given the number of talented hurlers working today. But what else would you like him to say? "I feel as though I am the 27th best pitcher in baseball. Sometimes I think it's me, sometimes I think it's Kyle Drabek. This fickle game causes me such terrible doubt, I've honestly considered plumbing as a career alternative." That would go over well. Besides, Nova made a larger, almost unassailable point: You have to believe it. If you're going to be the best at something, at some point you must believe you will be, long before you actually are. Best doesn't just happen. Best isn't chance.

Don't get me wrong: You have most likely been told all your life, probably by people who love you very much, that you can do or be anything you want. You have been lied to. You might be living smack in the middle of the Age of Entitlement, but desire alone doesn't make dreams come true. Just ask every sports columnist who's reading this historic testament to my gifts right now and understanding that he'll always be writing for second place. But without that drive, without self-belief, you won't have a prayer. Desire isn't the key; it's the fuse.

Take, for instance, Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens. Only a few weeks before Nova's pronouncement, Flacco made his own, saying: "I assume everybody thinks they're a top-five quarterback. I mean, I think I'm the best. I don't think I'm top five, I think I'm the best. I don't think I'd be very successful at my job if I didn't feel that way." As proof, he pointed to his unblemished record of never having won a Super Bowl or an MVP. But give credit to Flacco for being able to ignore a mountain of fact-based evidence in favor of his heart. If self-delusion didn't exist, neither would monuments. Every man is crazy before he is great, which means that Joe Flacco might just become the greatest quarterback we've ever seen.

Time and again -- witness Joe Namath, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan before he became an executive -- the best have long declared themselves to be the best. It might even be a prerequisite to greatness. Remember when everybody made fun of Eli Manning for saying he was an elite quarterback? Well, now who has more Super Bowl rings than his big brother? Whom does Tom Brady see scrambling in his nightmares?

Speaking of Brady, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft tells a funny story about him. After the Patriots selected Brady in the sixth round of the 2000 draft, the quarterback introduced himself to the owner on the steps at old Foxboro Stadium. "Hi, Mr. Kraft," Brady said, extending his hand. "I know who you are," Kraft replied. Brady then looked his new boss in the eye and said, "And I'm the best decision this organization has ever made."

In that moment, Brady made Ivan Nova sound humble, and yet here we are. He was a great decision, one of the all-time best. Not as good as the one ESPN The Magazine made in hiring me, but still, not too shabby.

Follow The Mag on Twitter (@ESPNmag) and like us on Facebook.

Chris Jones is a feature writer for ESPN The Magazine. He is also a Writer at Large for Esquire.