Ten Greatest Athletes I’ve Seen Perform Live

This was a difficult list for me in that I saw a lot of great athletes in my youth and younger adult years. There will unquestionably be some who disagree with me when I mention some of the noteworthy stars I left out of the top ten. I’ll start with them.

I went to a lot of NBA games from the mid 70s through around the turn of the century and saw a number of the league’s top stars in action during that period. Julius Dr. J Erving was a Philadelphia hero and a huge favorite of mine during my younger years, but he didn’t make the top 10. Neither did Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Durant, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone or Moses Malone. Even I am not sure those were the right calls, especially with regard to Kobe and Shaq. I didn’t want to go too heavy on basketball players for one thing, but I wouldn’t quibble with anyone who disagrees with me for leaving them out. 

I also had the pleasure of watching Mike Schmidt, the greatest third-baseman and Phillie ever, on many occasions. But he didn’t make the list either. Nor did Edwin Moses, who won two gold medals in the 400-meter hurdles and didn’t lose a race for over nine years. 

Chris Evert, who won 18 major tennis titles, also missed out. 

I saw Muhammad Ali in person once, but it wasn’t in action. The Greatest was sitting ring-side for some of the boxing finals at the 1984 Olympics. I was also in attendance and was thrilled to be able to chant his name along with the rest of the adoring crowd when he was introduced. But that doesn’t count. I’m limiting the list to athletes I saw perform in person. 

So here goes. They are in random order. Ranking them would be too difficult.

Carl Lewis   I attended both the 1984 and 1996 Olympics and was privileged to be in attendance when arguably the greatest American track & field athlete ever won five of his 10 gold medals; all four in 1984 and his long jump win in ‘96.

Willie Mays   One of the early Phillies games I attended was a 1972 matchup between the Phillies and Mets. The starting pitchers were hall-of-famers Steve Carlton and Tom Seaver. But the man many consider to be the greatest baseball player ever stole the show, hitting what turned out to be a game winning home run off Carlton in the eighth inning.

June 12, 1998; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan (23), right, goes up against Utah Jazz player Bryon Russell (3) in Game 5 of the 1998 NBA Finals. Mandatory Credit: Anne Ryan-USA TODAY

Michael Jordan   I first saw the best basketball player ever live at the ‘84 Olympics, where he led the U.S. team to gold. I later saw him play for the Bulls against the Sixers at the Spectrum. If I recall correctly, he had an off-night. But that obviously is of little consequence to whether he belongs on this list.

Martina Navratilova   Chris Evert was not the only star I saw the one time I attended a tennis tournament. It was at the Palestra in the mid to late 70s and a rising Czech was also in action that night. She was ranked number two at the time, probably behind Evert. But she would go on to establish herself as one of the all-time greats, winning the Wimbledon singles title nine times.

Ervin ‘Magic’ Johnson   I was in attendance for two of the 1980 NBA Finals games, including Game 6, when the Lakers’ rookie played center and dominated the game in the absence of Jabbar, who was injured during the previous game. I saw Magic play several times and became a fairly big fan of the man I consider to be the best on-court leader in league history during his later years, after the Lakers-Sixers rivalry had died down.

Tiger Woods   As with tennis, I have only been to one golf tournament, but it was a big one – the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage on Long Island. Tiger won his second Open in three years and I spent the third round following him around the course. It was tough to get a good view as many others had the same idea. 

Reggie White  The Minister of Defense, who I saw play live on several occasions, was arguably the greatest defensive lineman in NFL history. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t win a Super Bowl until he left Philly for Green Bay, but he is still remembered very fondly by me and countless other Eagles fans. 

Michael Johnson   The only man to win both the 200 meters and 400 meters gold medals at the same Olympics – in 1996 at Atlanta – did so in blazing times. I was thrilled to be there to see him cross the finish line in his trademark gold running shoes. 

Larry Bird   This is the one guy on the list for whom I had some fairly intense hostility during his playing days. The rivalry between the Celtics and Sixers was the most heated in professional sports during the early 1980s, and I simply couldn’t stand the team from Boston. But as I grew a bit older, I came to respect and admire Bird’s superhuman skill-set.

Hank Aaron   Unlike Mays, Hammerin’ Hank didn’t homer the day I saw him play for the Braves against the Phillies at Veterans Stadium. But I fondly remember the warm ovation he received when the Braves’ lineup was announced and am glad to have seen the all-time non-steroid-induced home run king. 

Feel free to tell me I was nuts to leave Kobe, Shaq or one of the others I mentioned at the top of this post off the list in the comments below. Perhaps I should have made a top 15 or top 20 list instead of limiting it to 10.

Published by BZ Maestro

I live outside of Philadelphia and have been food-obsessed for as long as I can remember. After toying with the idea of starting a blog for a fairly long time, the extinction of a food-themed message board that I frequented for years prompted me to finally take action. Thank you for taking the time to check out what I've been up to - and eating. If you've enjoyed what you have read and seen, please consider clicking the "like" button and signing up as a follower.

8 thoughts on “Ten Greatest Athletes I’ve Seen Perform Live

  1. Barry, one of the saddest things about the good old days in sport, particularly baseball, is that fans in National League cities rarely got a chance to see American League stars and vice versa. Being from New England, there was only one true standout athlete in my mind, and that was Ted Williams. Whenever he came up to bat in a crucial situation, he showed his excitement, concentration and determination in the way he fidgeted in the box and glared back at the pitcher. You knew he was going to do something thrilling. Never saw anyone like him. He hated pitchers and they were sensibly terrified of him.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a great comment, Pete. I wish I could have seen Teddy Ballgame, although I wasn’t born yet when he retired. I remember my father and I would always leave the TV on until Schmidt’s next at bat when we had somewhere to go.

      Your comment on Williams’ hostility for pitchers reminds me that Rich Ashburn used to say he wouldn’t want his daughters to marry a pitcher.

      I have to get in touch with you soon to arrange another cheesesteak outing.


  2. I saw Willie Mays hit a home run and, more exciting, make an over-the-shouder catch and hold the runners when he was playing for the Mets. He was my childhood hero, and I was thrilled to see him.
    I almost caught foul ball hit by Ted Williams, but I have no other memory of the game. I think I was six at the time.
    I would include Pete Maravich as one of the 10 greatest. I saw him play in college, and he clearly was laying a different game than everyone else. He revoilutionized ht sport

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I also saw Barry Bonds but decided to leave him out of there because while he was great pre-steroids, he wasn’t AS great and the steroids just rub me the wrong way. In fact, when I saw Bonds play, which was the night of my G-rated bachelor party, he hit what was probably the hardest-hit ball I’ve ever seen in person; a home run that might still be going if it hadn’t hit a sign.


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