For decades, millions of sports fans have debated, argued, and fought over great players being better than other great players. For each sport, those discussions culminate in the question "Who is the greatest of all time?" or "The GOAT" as so many call it. A difficult question to answer, as there are so many variables to take into account when trying to determine who should be considered the greatest player to ever play their respective sport. There are different eras, different rules, different circumstances, different types of training.
For me, there are certain things I believe go into being the greatest that transcend all of the above, things that are universal to players considered "The GOAT" or those I see as having an argument despite not being my personal choice. As a disclaimer, all of this will be my opinion, and I won't necessarily be trying to convince anyone that my choices for the greatest in different sports are the correct or only choice. Feel free to disagree, and voice opinions as well, I'd love to see others' choices/arguments. All of that being said, let's get to it.
STATS ARE IMPORTANT...
Statistics are the measure of the tangible aspects to the game being played. Thousands upon thousands of players have played every sport you can think of, so the greats separate themselves by amassing impressive stats throughout the entirety of their careers. They can be affected by longevity, although longevity is not necessary to have impressive stat lines. Stats can show how effective, and more importantly, how consistent players are in their play. So of course, the higher the stats means the better the player, right? Usually that is the case. Usually.
... BUT THEY DON'T TELL THE WHOLE STORY
Don't get me wrong, stats are important. Never let anyone tell you otherwise. What too many people do is they post a stat line from a game to show "This player is so good, they're one of the best, they're better than so and so!" There are many who use stats as gospel for determining one player being better than another. Again, they are important. A great player needs impressive stats for them to even be considered in the conversation as the best ever. But if stats were the only thing we went off of, Wilt Chamberlain would be the greatest basketball player ever, and he isn't. No one puts him in that conversation. He's acknowledged as being a statistical marvel, which he is, but not the best ever. Granted, he played in a different era, but that's not the point here. Another issue is people tend to go down the rabbit hole with finding the most obscure or arbitrary statistics that ultimately break down every single minutia of the game that don't need to be analyzed that deeply. Baseball is the biggest offender in this regard, with using analytics that go so far as to determine how great outfielders are by starting their movements a millisecond faster or a foot quicker in comparison to others. Those are the tiniest of details that would make a player a great one if looked at in a vacuum, but needing to ignore the bigger picture to fit their narrative.
WELL CHAMPIONSHIPS MUST BE IT, RIGHT?
No, not really. Michael Jordan is widely considered the greatest basketball player of all time, yet he doesn't have the most rings. Bill Russell does, and he isn't considered in the GOAT conversation. Robert Horry has more rings than Jordan, and no one in their right mind would argue he's better than Jordan.
That being said, the name of the game is to win. Why else would anybody play? Championships are of course necessary to make a case for a player. Dan Marino is one of the most talented players in NFL history. Put up against most of his other competition, it isn't even close. So why doesn't he get the nod as GOAT? He didn't win. Yes, wins are a team stat. Yes, great players don't always win yet are still considered great in spite of it. But can you really be the greatest if you didn't win anything?
Ah yes, luck. The least quantifiable thing in all of sports. There's no training for it, there's no buying it, no asking for it. Sometimes, things just happen. The greatest and best players, dynasties, teams, you name it, get lucky breaks. Players get injured, playoff standings go the way of the winner due to another team losing a game they should've won thereby giving them home field advantage, they're the recipient of a miraculous play or a frustrating foul/penalty. Even as my pick for GOAT in the NFL, I'll admit Tom Brady has gotten some lucky breaks throughout his career. It's hard to argue, but that doesn't take away from his or anybody else's' greatness. Sometimes, a player is prevented from ascending further due to an unlucky play. It happens. As fortunate or unfortunate as it may be, there's no accounting for luck.
DO YOU HAVE A MOMENT?
Sports, like life, are full of moments. They're what make them so memorable, so full of meaning. Do we remember every single 50 point game in Michael Jordan's career? No, of course not. Everyone knows "The Shot" to win his 6th NBA championship. Off the top of anyone's head, does anybody remember his stat line for that game? I'll be impressed if you do. Many won't recall, because the most important part of the game was that moment. And here's where the real discussion begins. How do players make these moments happen? A great player can have a terrible game, and yet they'll pull off the most ridiculous, the most amazing, the most spectacular plays at the end to give his/her team the win. The greatest players will make things happen when they're need the most. Shannon Sharpe, NFL Hall of Fame Tight End, says it best here:
He talks about Tom Brady in this case, but it applies to all the greatest players ever. Great players elevate their teams, and the greatest are at their best when it is needed the most. This is what stats and championships ignore. You can have impressive stats yet still lose, and you can win a bunch of championships and not be a great player. If stats and championships are the outline for a painting, moments are the color. They give life to the incredible career for the greats. LeBron James won't be remembered for his triple doubles, he'll be remembered as the leader of the team that beat the 73 win juggernaut Golden State Warriors.
The drive to create these moments can't be coached. A player can only be taught how to play the game, but only he can actually change the game. You can be the most talented athlete on the planet, it means absolutely nothing if you don't work hard at it. Hard work and heart are the epitome of what it means to be great. Look at Tom Brady. One of the worst athletes physically to play the QB position, and he doesn't have the most impressive arm talent. But he's the definition of hard work and drive. Talent can win you games, but hard work and will to win get you championships.
THE DEBATE RAGES ON
I don't expect anything I say here to really change the overall debate. Many will still point to stats, many will still point to championships, many will be hypocritical to suit their bias. I get it. Everyone is biased. Hell I'm definitely biased too. No one is going to change my mind (at least right now) on my personal choices being the GOATs in their sports. These debates can be fun though, and one can learn a lot about other players they may not have known before. And they're certainly not going to end any time soon.