I have been struck more than I expected by the announcement of Tim Duncan’s retirement. I have always been a fan from afar, but this has really got me thinking about his legacy and the current state of pro sports. Now, I’m struck but not surprised. The game is changing and the off-season dealings in Golden State are pretty dirty.  He is leaving the game the right way and on the right terms. 19 seasons, a fist full of rings and a legacy that will endure. With his resume, Duncan can walk right from San Antonio to Springfield. He is a 5-time NBA Champion, 2-time NBA MVP, 3-time Finals MVP, 14-time All-Star, 14-time All-NBA and All-Defense. He earned 1,000+ wins (3rd on the all time list) for one coach and one franchise.

With his resume, Duncan can walk right from San Antonio to Springfield.

This got me pondering the all-time greats in the realm of greatness, grace and gratitude (for their gifts and the opportunities they had.) Who are they? What makes them great? How can we respect and preserve their legacies?

This is certainly another bar room debate for the ages, but I think it’s one worth having. I based my selections on four criteria: 1) Respect for the game…no nonsense, no rap sheet, no whispers of PEDs, 2) optimized potential and/or work ethic, 3) respect for the franchise and fanbase, 4) leadership on the team and/or in the league.

Here are my 12, three each in all four major US sports. Who are yours?


Tim Duncan – The stats tell part of the story, but there is more. One franchise: San Antonio. One coach: Gregg Popovich. One mission: win the right way. ¡Adiós y vaya con Dios!

Bill Russell – More rings than fingers. Success on every level and every stage. More courage amidst more adversity than most athletes can image. Bill Russell continues to be a giant in the NBA and in our national discourse, both in and out of athletics.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – Like Russell, Kareem had success on every level and displayed more courage and dignity than most, regardless of profession. Also like Russell, Kareem continues to be a giant in the NBA and in our national discourse on many levels.


Cal Ripken, Jr. – “The Streak” was just reporting to work for Ripken. Along the way the results and respect accumulated. Hard to imagine else in the modern era who embodies the qualities were are considering here more. His work in amateur athletics seals the deal.

Ozzie Smith – Joy, respect and energy. Ozzie combines the flash of a showman with the discipline of a drill sergeant. Even if it weren’t for all this qualities, he’d be in the running for his work dropping knowledge on how not to drop the ball on “The Baseball Bunch.”

*Honorable mention to Derek Jeter for the same position and pizzaz.

Ken Griffey, Jr. – Talent, style and power. Griffey’s respect for the game and his family’s legacy in it meant that he only know one mode: “Go get it!” In an era where PEDs were rampant and many youngsters strayed from the sport, Griffey gave us all a reason to feel good about the game of baseball.

*Honorable mention to Tony Gwynn for consistent excellence at the plate and dedication to the Padres organization and the game of baseball over 20 seasons.


Walter Payton – “Sweetness.” He displayed a grace under fire that few have in his sport, or any sport for that matter. His courage in the face of all foes made him possible number one on this list of lists.

Lynn Swann – For his work on “the pitch,” in politics, and on PBS, Swann earns the honors here. As articulate as his is athletic, Swann set the bar as athlete-activist for many causes. Like Kareem and Russell, Swann led with heart, which made him a humanitarian first.

Jerry Rice – Work hard. Be humble. Respect the game. Play in a team concept. The script that Jerry Rice used for 20 NFL seasons should be standard-issue for every professional athlete.


Wayne Gretzky – “The Great One.” Scoreboard. Statline. Style. Is he number one even among these dozen athletes based on merit? Could be.

Mario Lemieux – I include Lemieux here for three reasons: 1) he’s an all-time great, 2) he has represented the city of Pittsburgh as a player, an executive and an ambassador and 3) he combined finesse and toughness in a way that only Cam Neely approached.

Bobby Orr – Had to include another Boston player here, but it’s hard to begrudge me this B. He transformed the position, he had an amazing career and he has represented the Bruins, the NHL and various other area institutions with class, charisma and style.

Bonus Round: 6 honorable mentions outside the four major sports.

  1. Mohammed Ali
  2. Serena Williams
  3. Pete Sampras
  4. (Tie) Jack Nicklaus & Arnold Palmer
  5. Martina Navratilova
  6. (Tie) Payne Stewart & Greg LeMond