The top 25 athletes of the last 25 years
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

To get down to a list of the 25 greatest athletes of the last quarter-century you have to make some cuts. My editors gave me an official ESPN list of 35 nominees the other day, and asked me to lop off 10 and rank those left standing.

Mike Tyson
Sorry Iron Mike -- you didn't quite crack the Top 25.

And so it is that we begin with a bloodletting ...

Gone from the list is Tim Duncan. Too early to say. Too many asterisks where it says NBA Champion.

To the gallows with Patrick Roy. I know it isn't right the way the goalie always gets the shaft. It isn't right, but it is tradition, and I'm not going to muck with tradition.

Cal Ripken's streak stops here. Open letter to my old friend Danny, who lives and breathes Baltimore: Forgive me.

Flo-Jo is a no-go, though she nearly made the cut on style points alone.

Marion Jones, fast as she is, feels too manufactured.

I can hear John McEnroe now: "You cannot be serious!"

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Emmitt Smith, John Elway, and Dan Marino must go, but only because their NFL competition on this list is so stiff.

And the last clip on the cutting room floor is of Mike Tyson, because this ain't a list about what might or could have been, and it ain't a list of the 25 most notorious athletes of the generation, and it ain't even a list of the athletes I'm most afraid might stumble across this piece and take exception to being left out and come looking for my skinnypunkass with a face full of loathing and fists full of fury. If it were, Mike, you'd be numero uno. But it isn't, so take a seat.

All right, now that I've mowed down 10 living legends like Speed Racer working the rotary saws on a stand of pesky trees, let's get on with the show ... Here's my top 25 from the last 25 (and just for kicks I'll roll each one out in 25 words or less).

25. Mia Hamm
Pity poor Nomar: Second fiddle at Fenway, second fiddle at home.

Mia Hamm
Mia Hamm overshadows her new husband, Nomar.
24. Sugar Ray Leonard
You measure a man by listing his vanquished foes -- Benitez, Duran, Hearns, Hagler -- well, that, and by how well he could windmill punch.

23. Serena Williams
Hey Serena, want to move up? Easy. Just play a handful of all-out matches with Venus. Or, tell me you're getting professional help for Pops.

22. Eric Heiden
Understand, he won at 500 and 10,000 meters (and everything in between). This is like ... no, it's like nothing, before or since.

21. Alex Rodriguez
That's 21 with a bullet.

20. Pete Sampras
You can't talk about Pete without talking about Andre. So let's say this: Pete was better; Andre was more interesting.

19. Shaquille O'Neal
A lot of people point to his laconic, understated work in "Blue Chips", but I'm a big fan of the emotional honesty of "Kazaam" myself.

18. Rickey Henderson
Maybe only Rickey truly appreciates how good Rickey has been. Fortunately, he doesn't keep it to himself.

Barry Sanders
Barry Sanders' awkward exit doesn't exactly help his ranking.
17. Barry Sanders
If this were all about numbers or art, he'd be top-five. But it's about losses, too (which aren't his fault), and a weird departure (which is).

16. Dale Earnhardt
You think I'm putting him this high because of his untimely death, but really it was the way he wore those shades.

15. Joe Montana
Truth be told, I never liked him, the Niners, or Notre Dame. Still, truth be told, he was a stone-cold killer behind the line.

14. Jackie Joyner-Kersee
This is a great triumph because her sick, co-dependent relationship with Al should have DQ'd her.

13. Lawrence Taylor
I had LT around 18 on my first draft ... then there was a knock at my door and, um, one thing led to another.

12. Mario Lemieux
In every list there's one guy you're pretty sure you've placed correctly but you still don't feel good about it. He probably should be higher.

11. Larry Bird and 10. Magic Johnson
When Bill Simmons makes his list he can put Larry first, but this is my list, and on my list Magic gets the head of the horse costume.

9. Martina Navratilova
Chrissie or Martina? Forget steady and staid. Go with power and flair. Go with revolution. Go with Martina.

Roger Clemens
Roger Clemens ranks rather high -- and he's not done yet.
8. Jerry Rice
In the words of Archie "Gunslinger" Coolie (Jerry's college coach), "He could catch a BB on a dead run at night."

7. Roger Clemens
Ask Phil Bradley about April 29, 1986. He'll back me up.

6. Tiger Woods
When people talk seriously about lengthening courses just to rein you in, you're in my top ten. That's an old rule with me.

5. Carl Lewis
It's tough, but I'm ignoring the "Star Mangled Banner." Just putting it out of my head.

4. Barry Bonds
Sure I think about the juice, but I think about Ruth too.

3. Wayne Gretzky
In an age of irony and clay-footed heroes we called him "Great One" without smirk or suspicion. He'd hold a top-three spot in any era.

2. Michael Jordan
Forget rings and numbers. Just give me one moment. Give me the moment he switched the ball from left to right because he could.

Lance Armstrong
Lance Armstrong -- the very best of the last quarter-century.
1. Lance Armstrong
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the genuine article.

That's it, that's all. These are my 25 and I'm sticking with 'em.

You got a problem with the list? Make your own.

You think I'm afraid of you? I don't sweat you. Bring it.

Except you, Mike. You I sweat. A lot. You got a problem with the list, I got a problem with the list. You got a problem with the list and (should you allow me to live) I'm taking a mulligan on the whole ill-fated enterprise right here and right now.

Yeah, let's see, it says here: No. 1, Iron Mike Tyson. No. 2, Mr. Mike Tyson, No. 3 ...

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.



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