1. Are they too cool to try/care? If so, then I don’t bother. This is like girls that smoke (when I was single, of course). Regardless of how attractive/rich/beautiful she was, smoking was not negotiable. Likewise, acting too cool to try/care is not negotiable. DeSean Jackson is flirting with joining Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Jose Reyes, Manny Ramirez, Amare Stoudemire, and Richard Jefferson in the “too fly to try” crew. Trying/caring only in big games or when the score is close doesn’t count either. It’s all or nothing. I want guys diving after loose balls, sacrificing their bodies, and giving 110% despite the scoreboard. (Notice I couldn’t come up with any hockey players? Effort is what hockey is all aboot, err about.)
2. Is there enough talent? While I don’t need Michael Jordans, I do need to win games. A fourth string cornerback can work his tail off on special teams, but if he can’t shut down the opposition’s top receiver his effort is irrelevant. Effort is enough for his mom to love him. Not enough to be my favorite player.
3. Would I want to be his teammate? All personal preferences on this one. I can’t pledge my allegiance to a whiner (oops, sorry, didn’t see you there Cindy Crosby). Nor will I root for a “love me some me” egomaniac to succeed (how are you today, Terrell Owens). Finally, it would be impossible for me to support someone whose teammates can’t stand him (here’s to you, Wilt, Barry Bonds, yester year’s Kobe, and yet again, TO).
4. Does he have “IT”? “IT” can’t be taught or acquired. You either have it or you don’t. Tom Brady has it, Donovan McNabb does not. “It” is that uncanny ability to rise to the occasion. To overcome obstacles. To hoist a team on your shoulders and carry them to victory, or more importantly, championships. Derek Jeter, Martin Brodeur (shaking my head), Kobe Bryant, Ben Roethlisberger (I just threw up a little) and Dwyane Wade have this.
5. For who? For what? Seriously, Ricky Watters would like to know. I’ll defer to Aaron Rowand for this one. Take it away, Aaron. “For who? My teammates. For what? To win.” Well said.
That’s the current criteria. “For who? For what?” was the latest addition - added in 2007. The list is always changing, so I’ll update it as necessary. Remember, ask not what you can do for your favorite athlete, ask what your favorite athlete must do for you. Now onto my favorite players…
As you will soon learn, Philadelphia athletes were excluded from this list because they’re obviously (for better or worse) my favorite athletes. Very few of them meet the criteria anyway (at least right now). Therefore, with the exception of Willie Green, they’ve been left out. Just Kidding… Wait, that’s confusing. Just kidding about Willie Green being included. Not kidding - Philly athletes were left out.
Derek Jeter fulfills all the necessary requirements. However, I can’t pick a Yankee, even if he is, “The Captain.” Therefore, Albert Pujols is currently my player of choice. Like Jeter, Pujols rates extremely high in all categories on my checklist. Obviously, Jeter has more championships, but Pujols just turned 30, so there’s plenty of time for him to claim a couple more. Some may argue his “IT” level isn’t up to par with other baseball superstars. I think Brad Lidge would vehemently disagree.
Here’s what I love about Pujols: He can hit for power AND average. I get frustrated that Ryan Howard has only managed to do this once (his MVP season of 2006). I know Howard’s power numbers are ridiculous, but I can’t excuse his averages over the past three seasons (ok, his.279 in ‘09 is acceptable). Pujols’ power numbers rival Howard’s and he hits at an average nearly 50-100 points higher. All while batting in a lineup significantly less potent than the Phillies’ stable of mashers. Again, I understand Howard’s power numbers are fantastic, but name two other players in the Cardinals’ batting order. You can’t, and Pujols still rakes in the RBI.
It gets better… Pujols doesn’t strike out. It would take over three full seasons for Pujols to strike out as many times as Howard does in one, yes one, season. Need further statistical evidence of his greatness? Pujols ranked in the top five in on base percentage (OBP) every year from 2003-2009 except one (8th in 2004), and was in the top five every year during that span in slugging percentage (SLG) and OPS (OBP and SLG combined). He’s an offensive machine that often gets overlooked for postseason awards because he’s unbelievably consistent. To top it all off, Pujols is an amazing talent at first base who baseball junkies say loses out on gold gloves because he lunges for, and sometimes boots balls that other first basement can’t make a play on. Do I wish he could steal 50 bases? Sure. Other than that, there’s not much else to ask for.
What makes the NFL great is that a single player can’t carry a team to a championship. A quarterback can’t run an offense if he’s under heavy pressure. Wide Receivers can be double covered. Eight men in the box will slow down a stellar running back (LaDanian Tomlinson’s playoff career). An offense can easily avoid a defensive superstar if the unit surrounding him is average (Darrelle Revis vs. Colts in AFC Championship). In football, it’s hard for a single player to even influence every game unless it’s the quarterback. With that said, Tom Brady is my favorite NFL player that satisfies all five requirements. I don’t always root for him or his team, but I love everything about how he approaches the game.
His championships speak for themselves as do his multiple Super Bowl MVP awards. Brady’s clutch. If I had to select any quarterback for a 4th quarter drive to tie or win a game, I’m picking Brady. No question about it. You may argue for Ben Roethlisberger but I can’t put the game in his hands over Brady. (In fact, I wouldn’t put anything near Roethlisberger’s hands. He’s apparently too touchy-feely.) Peyton Manning was elevated to “clutch driver” status for two weeks following his dismantling of the Jets. Unfortunately, his horrendous 4th quarter in last month’s Super Bowl got him demoted. Now he’s beating Roethlisberger away with a pylon down on tier two. I digress.
Despite his ability to rise to the occasion, it’s Brady’s demeanor and style that I enjoy most. Only he and Manning will get into a receivers face over a dropped pass or blown route. I love this. Accountability among teammates is the most important foundation for championships. Brady demands perfection of himself and his teammates.
(*It was hard for me to go with Brady here. Brady went soft in 2009 - letting Moss pout all over the field while Welker killed himself week in and week out. He’s also never been the same since his knee injury. I was prepared to switch my allegiance to Manning but again, he Bill Bucknered the Super Bowl.)
Alex Ovechkin is everything I hoped Eric Lindros would become. What Lindros often lacked (heart, grit); Ovechkin brings on a nightly basis. He also leads the NHL in points and goals. Ovechkin is an offensive force. Even better, he ranks first in plus/minus. Not only is he producing during his time on the ice, but he’s keeping his opponents off the board as well. When you’re getting that kind of production from one of the league’s premier players on both ends of the ice, you must be thrilled as a coach.
Qualification number one (too fly to try) doesn’t really apply to hockey players. When nine other skaters are flying around you at warp speed, it’s hard to be lazy without getting benched. However, anyone who’s watched Ovechkin knows his energy level and intensity is unmatched. He hits, defends, fights, and does whatever else is required to win. From everything I’ve read, his teammates love him too, and opposing fans despise him (always means you’re doing well).
Two concerns with Ovechkin. First, he’s young now, only 24, but will his body hold up for an extended career with his reckless style of play? I sure hope so. Everything I love about Alexander the Great is what I despise about Sidney Crosby. Cindy is always whining about something or antagonizing an opponent before scurrying back to his bench. Maybe my perception of Crosby is because I’m a Flyers fan. Maybe not. Either way, Sid the Kid is a fantastic hockey player. He’s also a gigantic pansy.
My second concern is Ovechkin’s response to the pressure of matching the successes of Crosby. Crosby now has a Stanley Cup and an Olympic Gold Medal. Crosby defeated Ovechkin in both tournaments en route to his titles. Will their rivalry push them both to greatness a la Bird and Magic, or will Crosby’s early success do irreparable damage to Ovechkin’s confidence a la the Jordan - Drexler battles in the early ’90s? If Ovechkin and the Capitals fail to advance further than the Penguins or worse, lose to them again, will Ovechkin succumb to the pressure? While he’s yet to carry his team deep into the playoffs or anywhere near a championship, I believe Ovechkin has the intangible “IT.” Time will tell.
Like or not, the NHL rests on the shoulders of Ovechkin and Crosby. They are the league’s most marketable stars and are the most attractive playoff matchup the NHL has had in years. That, in addition to matching Crosby’s early success, is a lot of pressure for any 24 year old. Let’s hope he can handle it.
Contrary to most NBA superstars, its Duncan’s skills and intelligence that set him apart from his peers, not his athletic ability. In fact, Duncan’s athleticism has all but abandoned him now. He labors up and down the court like my friend Brad after four hours of ball, dragging his knees behind him. Yet, he can STILL put up a 20 and 10 whenever he pleases. That’s right, whenever he pleases.
With Duncan, you won’t see gaudy numbers every night because he won’t force it, especially if his team doesn’t need him to. The stats don’t matter. His playing time doesn’t matter. Winning matters. Take the night of February 18, 2010 for example. Duncan and the Spurs starters were getting ripped by the Houston Rockets. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich went to his bench in the second half. San Antonio’s bench cut into the deficit and kept the team close, cutting the lead to 3 with less than ten seconds to go. Following the game, Duncan was asked about his playing time and the extensive playing time given to the bench. Duncan’s response?
"Our second unit did a good job getting us back into the game. The guys out on the court were the guys making the run. You don’t penalize them and take them out when the score gets close."
You see, Duncan understands winning. He knows it’s not about him or his touches. Winning is about a cohesive unit where no player is more important than the next. This is why Popovich rips into Duncan at practice like he’s a rookie from the D-League. Duncan has no ego. He sets a precedent for his teammates - No one is above the team and everyone is subject to tough love from the coach. It’s no coincidence the Spurs have been one of the NBA’s elite teams over the past decade.
Watch Duncan play and you’ll appreciate him more and more. He’s a master of his craft. Annually, my brother and I see the Spurs when they visit Philadelphia. I spend most of my time watching Duncan’s every move and cursing the Sixers in-house announcer, Matt Cord. (Seriously, Matt, shut up.) Duncan boxes out with precision and his offensive moves are effective, even though mundane. He worked Samuel Dalembert over so many times that poor Sammy got himself a technical for screaming at the referee. Dalembert then went over to Duncan to say a few things. Duncan’s face didn’t change. On the very next play, he raised his right hand toward his point guard, received the ball, and drew another foul on Dalembert. Sammy went off, got ejected, and Duncan stood there in silence with a blank stare. Just another day at the office.
Duncan has the accolades and titles to further prove what a great player he is. He teammates love and respect him as evidenced in the way he puts his massive hands on their heads to congratulate or encourage them. They don’t shy away either, they embrace it. He’s the alpha wolf looking after his pack.
Duncan’s time in the NBA is winding down. I’m hoping he gives us another long playoff run before he hangs the shoes up for good. Regardless, the best power forward the NBA’s ever seen will be a tough act to replace on my favorite players list. After falling to the Spurs 90-87, in a game where Duncan struggled offensively but still grabbed 26 rebounds, Pacers guard, TJ Ford summed up Duncan in one sentence, “I don’t know too many guys in this league that can go 4-for-23 and still help his team win.” Neither do I TJ. Neither do I.