Readers Write In #281: A tale of two GOATs

Posted on October 16, 2020

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(by Nathan Vens)

This Sunday was a super Sunday for a sportsfan. Just like that other super surreal Sunday last summer. For whatever reason I take pride in sporting accomplishments that aren’t mine. I also take pride that man has been able to go to the moon, and I will do so again when she goes to Mars. I wasn’t born when Apollo 11 flew, and I am no rocket scientist now.  In case you haven’t guessed, I am no sportsperson either. Oh, I play, but as people say, just for fun, and also to remind my toes to stay ahead of the tummy.

I was proud of myself yesterday for another reason. An investment I had made. An emotional investment in two real sportspersons,made fifteen years ago.  Back then I had a group of friends. Here’s the thing about friends and sports. You’re either for their guy or you’re against them. I chose against. Twice, I tossed all my chips to 20 year olds for no apparent reason other than a possible visceral vicarious pleasure of beating my friends. At that time I didnt even know what I would be beating them at. I would learn later that the game’s called Who’s the G.O.A.T (Greatest of All Time)? That’s the thing, I don’t ever think much before making a big emotional investment. Not ever. I might spend a few months thinking about what wireless modem I need. But deciding whom to spend my life with? That took all of 5 minutes and even that is a generous estimate. Its the split second decisions that have paid the biggest dividends. Like on Sunday.

When I first watched a full NBA basketball game, I was 22. Lebron James was only 19. He had already been anointed “The Chosen One” by the media. But back then, no basketball fan worth his weight in salt would ever seriously suggest that someone could be the next Michael Jordan. Not ever. But my knowledge of Jordan and the NBA at that point was just hearsay. The only time I had watched him play was in Space Jam. I was told he had an aura of invincibility. Well, it was invisible to me. On that day, I saw James make every play in a come from behind victory, and I was blown away. And in the bliss of my naivete, I proclaimed with absolutely no foundation that James would become the best basketball player ever. The rest of my friends glared in silence. And then they laughed. That point I knew, I was going to have James’s back for the rest of his sporting life.

Tennis, I’ve been watching since I was 7. Now that I think of it, I had GOAT fights even as a kid. My friends liked Sampras back then. I loved Agassi. Agassi taught me the most important lesson in sports. And life. When you decide to be with somebody forever, they will make you want to kill yourself, but it will be worth it. Like that night in 2005 against James Blake in the quarter final of the US Open. A rudderless ride I thought I could never experience again. Turns out, I was wrong, and more on that later. My first Fedal match was the Miami Open finals in 2005. Federer had already been anointed the Chosen One. My friends were visibly floored by the flamboyance of Federer’s forehand. I mean, who wasn’t?  And Nadal was only 19. He fought and fought, valiantly, and lost the match. But he won me. Forever.

No one ever doubted the brilliance of Nadal or James. But on court brilliance doesn’t win you GOAT battles.  You will be thrown a statistic that somehow succinctly summarizes the superiority of one guy over the other. Nadal had fewer slams. James has fewer rings. Me, I counted heartbreaks. Like the summer of 2007. A heartbreak of hysterical proportions. Nadal was yet to win Wimbledon, and James had never won a Conference Finals. In June, James had led his franchise to their first ever championship finals, only to lose in straight games to the San Antonio Spurs who won their 4th NBA championship. Barely a month after that, in a heartbreaking Wimbledon final, Nadal took the game to its final set only to be blown away by Federer who won his 5th Wimbledon title. Forget about GOAT. James was a king without a ring, and Nadal an idol cast in clay.

Nadal or James never made it easy. But sports isn’t meant to be easy. Unless you’re the Australian women’s cricket team. Boy, could they use some defeat if for no other reason than to empathize with the rest of the sporting world.

GOAT battles are played forever. So if you sign up for one, you better learn to hunker down after heartbreaks. Sometimes even for five years. Thats how long it took James since that summer defeat to finally step into the ring of Champions. Thankfully, Nadal needed only one. In July of 2008, the rudderless ride returned with a vengeance. Nadal fought and fought and fought, and with Federer’s streak, he tossed every last shred of doubt that he deserved to be there.  After that, GOAT battles went off court, and into calculators.

You know, numbers are nice. Love them or hate them,  they don’t care. And in sports, one number counts more than anything. Age.

On Sunday, James and Nadal called the bluff on that one. James was older than every other starting player in the NBA finals lineup, and Nadal was older than every other French Open quarter-finalist. That’s the thing about GOATs. They’re like whiskeys. As some wiser than I have said, “the best get better with age” and “Some whiskeys just happen to be better than others.”

Ultimately, GOAT battles are not really about victory and defeat, or who’s better and who’s not. They’re about love. That undying love for your champion. Even when the chips are down. Especially when the chips are down. Its easy to love Federer. Someone once said, if you take the fraternity of sports champions, and intersect it with the fraternity of folks who always say the right thing and do the nice thing, the only people we will end up with are Rahul Dravid and Roger Federer. Its not that the other guys aren’t nice. Somehow there’s this “coolness” associated with being cool and composed. All the freaking time. Instead, if you’re the kind who fist pumps when your opponent double faults, then in comparison you become less “sportive”.

Its easy to love Jordan too. For different reasons. He is so firmly established in the pantheon of greatness. He’s never going to lose another game.  But God forbid, if you are a champion who worships Jordan but still think you can displace him. Then every lost game is a victory for the established. And if you lose a championship? Hell breaks loose in a stampede of I told you so’s.

Its really for the lost games that I am a sports fan. Its the one time I know my champion is human. I can feel that pain which I know will make the next victory that much sweeter. Like this super super sweet Sunday. As George Costanza might say, “There are days you just want to go down on your knees and thank the heavens that you have access to high speed Internet”.