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.
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.