50 greatest black athletes
We teamed up with SurveyMonkey for a public ranking of the 50 greatest black athletes of all time.
50 Greatest Black Athletes
We teamed up with SurveyMonkey for a public ranking of the 50 greatest black athletes of all time.
The Undefeated partnered with SurveyMonkey to poll the public on the 50 Greatest Black Athletes. In April, 10,350 adults were asked to rank 200 athletes on 20 different surveys. Respondents were asked how great of an athlete each person was/is using a scale of 1 to 10 stars. The athletes were ranked in order based on their average scores to form a top 50 list. From there, the top 60 athletes (including the first 10 who didn’t make the cut to 50) were used to create a final ranking. Each athlete was ranked on four factors: overall ranking, dominance, inspiration and impact on society. Average scores were calculated from each factor to create a composite score. Athletes were ranked in order by their composite score to determine our final list, which will be unveiled in groups of 10 per week for five weeks. We’ll have more on how the public voted – broken down by race, age, gender, education level and census region – after the final group is revealed. The Undefeated’s Justin Tinsley, Jerry Bembry and Aaron Dodson wrote the biographies of the athletes, although they didn’t agree with some of the rankings. But the people have spoken, and the results should spark some serious debate.
The Undefeated and SurveyMonkey collaborated to rank the 50 Greatest Black Athletes as determined by the public. In February, pretesting began utilizing the SurveyMonkey Audience. Respondents were asked two open-ended questions: “Who is the best athlete of all time?” and “What makes an athlete great?” Responses from this survey supplemented a separate list cultivated by The Undefeated to curate the list of 200 athletes to rank in Phase One.
The Phase One survey narrowed the list of 200 athletes down to the top 60. It was conducted online on SurveyMonkey from April 10-14, 2017, among a national sample of 11,287 adults age 18 and older. Respondents for this survey were randomly selected from the nearly 3 million people who take surveys on the SurveyMonkey platform every day. Each respondent randomly received 10 athletes to rate (On a scale of 1 to 10 stars, how great of an athlete is each of the following? Skip any athlete you aren’t familiar with), and each athlete was rated by approximately 500 respondents. Data for the survey was weighted for age, race, sex, education and geography using the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to reflect the demographic composition of the United States. The top 60 athletes with the highest ratings moved on to Phase Two.
The Phase Two survey ranked the top 60 athletes from Phase One according to four criteria, which were aspects that were mentioned as characteristics that made a great athlete in the pretesting survey:
Each respondent randomly received three athletes to rate on these four dimensions, which were combined to create an overall score. The athletes were ranked by the overall score to determine the top 50 Greatest Black Athletes of All Time. The Phase Two survey was conducted online on SurveyMonkey from April 26 to May 1, 2017, among a national sample of 10,523 adults age 18 and older. Respondents for this survey were randomly selected from the nearly 3 million people who take surveys on the SurveyMonkey platform every day. Data for the survey was weighted for age, race, sex, education and geography using the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to reflect the demographic composition of the United States.
Four years ago, Michael Jordan named the players he thought could be great in his golden era of the NBA. LeBron. Kobe. Dirk. And Tim Duncan. The guy Charles Barkley called the greatest power forward in NBA history didn’t have a game that could be considered sexy. The guy Shaquille O’Neal labeled “The Big Fundamental” lacked style (he accepted his 2002 MVP Trophy wearing a T-shirt, jean shorts and sandals). Yet, the many accomplishments for Duncan include five-time NBA champion, two-time MVP, three-time Finals MVP and playoff appearances in each of his 19 seasons. Kobe Bryant received presents and praise during his 2015-16 farewell tour. At the same time, the St. Croix-born Duncan helped the San Antonio Spurs to 67 wins, delaying retirement until after his team reached the postseason. He had no video tributes. No parting gifts. No fanfare. No worries for Duncan, the only player to win three NBA titles as a starter in three decades. Duncan is the most dominant forward/center combo in NBA history. Any doubts? Just ask the greatest of all time.
He provided one of the grittiest performances in basketball history by scoring 25 points in the third quarter of a Finals game on a severely sprained ankle. Isiah Thomas was tough. He’s been accused of alienating two NBA greats (Michael Jordan and Larry Bird) and was named in a sexual harassment lawsuit as a Knicks executive. A jury ruled against Thomas and Madison Square Garden, and the lawsuit was later settled. Thomas was polarizing. His play is why Thomas, one of the most fiery players in NBA history, makes this list. Thomas was drafted by the Detroit Pistons with the second overall pick in 1981. Since 1957, Detroit had three winning seasons. Thomas changed that. First year: Thomas named All-Star starter. Seventh year: Pistons reach 1988 Finals (only Thomas’ sprained ankle keeps Detroit from the title). Eighth year: The “Bad Boys” get revenge against the Los Angeles Lakers, winning the title. Ninth year: Thomas is Finals MVP; Detroit goes back to back. Thomas averaged 19.2 points and 9.3 assists in 13 seasons. He was named one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players (1997) and inducted into the Hall of Fame (2000). Isiah Thomas. Hate him. Respect him.
College and Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell punished so many defenders in eight NFL seasons that one complained, “Every time you hit him, you lower your IQ.” Campbell started as a linebacker because he wanted to be Dick Butkus. In college, he adopted the “run over them, instead of around them” approach as a ball carrier because he wanted to be Jim Brown. Campbell, who had 34-inch thighs, led the nation in rushing his senior season (1,744) on the way to becoming the first Heisman Trophy winner at Texas. In the pros, Campbell was the Offensive Rookie of the Year (1978), league MVP (1979) and a three-time rushing leader (1978-80) with the Houston Oilers. He had an astonishing four 200-yard rushing games in 1980. Campbell paid a steep price for his running style. Campbell struggles to walk, battled an addiction to painkillers and has had multiple surgeries. Does Campbell have regrets? Hardly. “Then you wouldn’t have Earl Campbell,” he said in 2004. “You would have had somebody else.”
In 1992, a baseball scout fell in love with a high school player from Michigan. He appreciated the kid’s skills, admired his demeanor and urged his employer to select him as No. 1. The Houston Astros passed on Derek Jeter. The scout quit. When Jeter fell to No. 6 in the 1992 draft, the New York Yankees pounced. That pick changed the course of the franchise. In 1995, Jeter’s first big-league season, the Yankees reached the playoffs for the first time in 14 years. A year later the Yankees were world champs, the team’s first title since 1981. Jeter played in the postseason in 16 of his 20 years, winning five world championships. He was Rookie of the Year, selected All-Star and World Series MVP in the same year (2000), earned five Gold Gloves and was MLB’s 28th player to reach 3,000 hits. Jeter’s nickname, “Mr. Clutch,” stemmed from Jeter’s .321 World Series batting average. Memo to Houston from New Yorkers: Thank you.
When David Robinson transferred just before his last year of high school, he had never played organized basketball. That changed after the coach spotted a 6-foot-7 stranger walking the halls. Robinson’s first-game numbers: 14 points and 14 rebounds, birthing the career of one of basketball’s greatest big men. After a solid career at the Naval Academy (where he grew six inches to 7-1), Robinson was the top pick of the San Antonio Spurs in 1987. Although a military commitment delayed his NBA debut by two years, Robinson proved to be worth the wait. In 14 seasons, “The Admiral” was a 10-time All-Star, MVP (1995), two-time Olympic gold medalist (1992, 1996) and two-time NBA champion (1999, 2003). A career highlight: Robinson scoring 71 points in the final game of the 1993-94 season to edge Shaquille O’Neal for the scoring title (29.8 points per game to 29.3). Some might describe Robinson, a Hall of Famer, as a late bloomer. But it seems that he blossomed at the right time.
He may have lacked Muhammad Ali’s charisma, and George Foreman’s size and intimidating stature, but for two decades, Joe Frazier struck fear in the boxing game. Frazier dominated with a bobbing-and-weaving style that set up his vicious left hook. That punch, often delivered to an opponent’s unprotected side, led to 27 knockouts (he was 32-4-1 as a pro). Frazier learned to tenderize opponents while working in a Philadelphia slaughterhouse, where he trained by punching sides of beef. Discovered as he worked out at local gyms, Frazier launched an amateur career that resulted in three Golden Gloves titles (1962-64) and an Olympic gold medal (1964). He won the heavyweight title in 1970, setting up 1971’s “Fight of the Century” against Ali, perhaps the most anticipated fight of all time. Frazier, aka “Smokin’ Joe,” won that fight in a 15-round decision, the first of three epic bouts against Ali. Frazier lost to only two men in his career: Ali and Foreman (each beat him twice). Frazier died of liver cancer in 2011. He was 67.
Barry Sanders could barely get snaps for Oklahoma State during his first two collegiate seasons. Blame Thurman Thomas, the guy ahead of him on the depth chart. When Sanders got his shot as a junior, he shined: 2,850 rushing yards, 44 touchdowns, six consecutive 200-yard games and at least two touchdowns in all 12 games that season. The NFL version of Sanders was just as good. The most elusive back of his era followed his 1989 Rookie of the Year season with 10 Pro Bowl trips, six first-team All-Pro honors, two Offensive Player of the Year awards and four rushing titles. Walter Payton’s career rushing mark (16,726) was on Sanders’ radar as the 1998 season ended. But then Sanders quit. At the time, many questioned Sanders’ decision to walk away just two years removed from rushing for 2,053 yards (including 14 straight 100-yard games). Today, with increased coverage of the deteriorating health of former players, few would disagree with the Hall of Famer’s decision.
Brash. Defiant. Outrageous. Reggie Jackson was all of those things during his 21 baseball seasons. But here’s the most important trait that fans of the teams he played for remember: Jackson was clutch. Whether you loved Jackson or hated him — and he had a lot of haters — you had to respect the man who lived up to his “Mr. October” nickname. His career World Series stats: 10 homers, 25 RBIs, while hitting .357. The shining moments for Jackson, who combined power and tremendous bat speed, are numerous. The moonshot home run off Dock Ellis in the 1971 All-Star Game that nearly cleared Tiger Stadium. The three homers on three pitches to help the New York Yankees beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1977 World Series. Yes, Jackson feuded with his manager, team owner and teammates. Still, two franchises, the Yankees and the Oakland Athletics, retired jerseys to honor Jackson, who helped them win a combined five titles while winning two World Series MVP awards. The drama was forgiven. Because Jackson always delivered.
For Larry Fitzgerald, one of the perks of being the son of a Minneapolis sportswriter was the chance to be a Vikings ball boy. While chasing balls and running errands for the team, he closely studied the work habits of players such as Cris Carter, Randy Moss and Anthony Carter. Talk about invaluable lessons. That knowledge helped Fitzgerald become an all-time great NFL receiver as he approaches his 14th NFL season with the Arizona Cardinals. The numbers on the NFL all-time list: third in receptions (1,125), ninth in receiving yards (14,389) and eighth in receiving touchdowns (104). He has been elected to 10 Pro Bowls. Fitzgerald, a Heisman runner-up in college at Pittsburgh, has been honored for his charitable contributions. He’s won the league’s sportsmanship award and Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award and has donated to numerous causes championed by his mother, Carol, before her 2003 death from breast cancer. Proving that Fitzgerald, a great player, is also a great person.
Baseball was an afterthought for Ernie Banks during his childhood. He played basketball, swam and ran track in school and only tossed a ball when he got paid. “My father would bribe me to catch with him by giving me a nickel or sometimes a dime,” Banks said. That afterthought eventually evolved into one of the greatest careers in baseball history. In 1953, Banks, after a brief stint in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs, debuted with the Chicago Cubs as the team’s first black player. In his first full season he was second in Rookie of the Year voting in 1954, and a season later Banks earned the first of 14 All-Star appearances. With all due respect to Alex Rodriguez, Banks is baseball’s greatest power-hitting shortstop, crushing 40 homers in five different seasons. A statue of Banks, known as “Mr. Cub,” sits outside of Wrigley Field. Banks died in 2015, just over a year shy of Chicago’s 2016 World Series win, the team’s first since 1908.
Pittsburgh has a Roberto Clemente statue next to the bridge bearing the same name. South Boston has a bronze bust, Chicago and Detroit have schools, and Puerto Rico and Nicaragua have athletic complexes named after the Puerto Rican baseball legend. But Clemente is honored for being more than a sportsman. That’s not to say the Pirates right fielder wasn’t great. Among the first group of Latino MLB stars, Clemente was a 15-time All-Star who won four batting titles, 12 Gold Gloves, and MVP awards in the regular season and the World Series. Pitchers hated facing him (he had 3,000 hits and a .317 career batting average). Base runners feared his cannon of an arm, which preserved the second of his two championships. Clemente also was a humanitarian. He accompanied a 1972 relief flight he arranged to help the people of Nicaragua after a deadly earthquake. The plane, overloaded, crashed shortly after takeoff. No one survived. Clemente’s body was never found. Yet the memory of the Hall of Famer and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner lives forever.
Take Floyd Mayweather, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson or any great fighter in his prime. And dismiss them. Arguably the greatest fighter in boxing history is the man for whom the term “pound for pound” was created. Sugar Ray Robinson. Mayweather’s flash? Robinson had it, traveling abroad with perhaps boxing’s first entourage and navigating the streets at home in New York in his flamingo-pink Cadillac. Ali’s looks and bravado? Robinson’s slick hair, charismatic personality and a mouth that irritated opponents fit the bill. Tyson’s power? The heavy-hitting Robinson once killed an opponent, and he knocked out 108 fighters in his career (175-19-6). From Jake LaMotta to Rocky Graziano to Kid Gavilán, Robinson fought all comers. And beat them. From 1943 to 1951, Robinson won 88 fights, including all 19 of his fights in 1950, and lost just twice. In 1999, The Associated Press named Robinson “fighter of the century.” ESPN.com in 2007 named him the best in history. Pound for pound? Robinson, who died in 1989 at 67, was simply the greatest.
He was the first African-American man to win an NCAA tennis championship, first to represent the U.S. in the Davis Cup and the first to win a Grand Slam title. It’s been 24 years since his death, and Arthur Ashe remains the greatest African-American men’s tennis player in history. But Ashe was more than tennis. His role as activist surfaced in 1969 when he was denied a visa to play in the South African Open. Feeling slighted, Ashe spent years bringing attention to South Africa’s apartheid system. He was allowed to play in 1973, and Ashe believed he could help break down barriers. Seeing black fans forced to buy tickets from an “Africans only” counter made him realize his stance was wrong. So he co-chaired the group Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid. He protested the treatment of Haitian refugees, leading to his arrest. Later, after contracting AIDS, he created a foundation for research about the deadly disease. In 1993, Ashe, 49, died of complications from AIDS. His legacy, through the work of the Arthur Ashe Learning Center, continues.
As Ken Griffey Jr. stepped to the plate for his major league debut in Oakland, California, on April 3, 1989, the Seattle Mariners television announcer proclaimed: “Twenty-five years from now you’re gonna wanna say, ‘I was there when Ken Griffey Jr. made his home debut.’” In that first at-bat, Griffey doubled. One week later, in the first at-bat of his home debut, Griffey hit his first home run. Even then, everyone knew the destination for the guy known simply as “Junior,” or “The Kid.” He had been the 1987 high school baseball player of the year and the top pick of that year’s amateur draft, and he carried the bloodlines of his dad, baseball great Ken Griffey. Griffey’s lefty swing — a slightly pigeon-toed stance with a smooth, flawless follow-through — was perfection. It launched 630 home runs, sixth all time. In 21 seasons, Griffey won four home run titles, one MVP award and 10 Gold Gloves while making 13 All-Star appearances. Proving that 1989 Seattle announcer prophetic.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had a superior shot. Wilt Chamberlain possessed finer skills. Shaquille O’Neal unleashed more power. But in response to the debate of who had the greatest impact among NBA big men, Bill Russell needs to say only one word: Eleven. Eleven titles. Thirteen years. That’s what Russell provided for the Boston Celtics. The game’s greatest rim protector, Russell single-handedly shifted the NBA’s competitive balance upon his 1956 arrival. Often, he wasn’t considered to be the best center: In 1958, he won his first of five MVP Awards, even though he was second-team All-NBA. But no one in the league could match his impact. Russell did it his way, shunning the media and ignoring fans. That surliness stemmed from facing racism during childhood, and even later as the Celtics’ best player. So, of course, he became an activist. When the world’s greatest athletes gathered in Cleveland for the Ali Summit, Russell was seated next to The Champ. Others may have played the game better. But Russell can put his 11 rings on the table and join any argument about who’s the best.
He’s the lovable, grandfatherly figure with the world-famous grill everybody’s used once or 300 times. But George Foreman also stands as one of the most ferocious boxers of all time, with decade-spanning punching power that made gods crumble before him. Like most boxing greats of his day, the Marshall, Texas, native used the Olympic stage as his coming-out party, easily winning gold at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Foreman soundly won his first 40 professional fights — including defeating heavyweight champion Joe Frazier by knocking him down six times in two rounds. Foreman’s most famous fight, however, was his first loss, to Muhammad Ali in the 1974 classic “Rumble In The Jungle.” He retired in 1977 after a loss to Jimmy Young, citing a religious awakening. “The Punching Preacher” did, however, return a decade later, and then in 1994, with a 10th-round knockout of Michael Moorer, he became the oldest heavyweight champ in boxing history. Foreman finished his career in 1997 with an astounding record of 76-5, including 68 knockouts.
The 1999 College Football Hall of Fame inductee is a slow cooker of athletic talents. The 1982 Heisman Trophy winner not only finished ahead of future NFL Hall of Famers John Elway, Eric Dickerson and Dan Marino, but he was also associated with Donald Trump’s United States Football League, was a bobsledder in the 1992 Winter Olympics and was a sprinter at the University of Georgia — the first collegian to earn All-American honors in two sports his freshman year. Walker, now 54, said just last year that he wanted to return to mixed martial arts. Walker was involved in the most infamous trade in NFL history, an in-season swap with the Minnesota Vikings that would eventually birth the Dallas Cowboys’ 1990s domination. Walker, one of the most versatile athletes in sports history, continues to amaze because his talents were never confined to one profession. He’s not just a great football player. He’s one of the most fascinating athletic anomalies to ever live.
“Flo Jo” is, was and always will be one of the coldest nicknames in sports history. Florence Griffith Joyner burst onto the scene at the 1984 Olympics, which took place in her hometown of Los Angeles. But it was the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea, where her legend was solidified. Alongside her husband and fellow Olympian Al Joyner, brother of USATF Hall of Famer Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Flo Jo captured three gold medals and a silver. Her records in the 100 meters and 200 meters have yet to be broken, nearly 30 years later. Joyner’s dominance came under question as rumors of PED usage attempted to taint her dominance. Flo Jo never failed a drug test and passed 11 drug tests in 1988 alone. And she also doubled as a style and cultural icon. Flo Jo died in 1998, at the age of 38, after an epileptic seizure, but her swag — the custom bodysuits and the 6-inch nails — were just as recognizable as the speed that made her “the fastest woman in the world.”
Just how great an athlete was Carl Lewis? The Dallas Cowboys drafted him in 1984 despite him never playing a down in his life. The Chicago Bulls did, too — in the same draft that produced Michael Jordan. The man who delivered the worst rendition of the national anthem in history of course went on to become a Hall of Famer in the world of track and field. Yet his career wasn’t without its share of retroactive controversy; despite a long list of accomplishments, Lewis was unable to shake the doping demons. He admitted to having failed three drug tests in 1988. That being said, there’s no denying that during the ’80s and into the early ’90s, Lewis was the pre-eminent face of American track and field dominance. Over four Olympics (1984, 1988, 1992, 1996), Lewis captured nine gold medals — four of them at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, tying him with his idol Jesse Owens. Lewis is also the only man to win the long jump Olympic title four consecutive times.
Michael Johnson spent much of the ’90s breaking world records around the globe. And while he did capture gold again at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, it was 1996 when Johnson truly cemented himself as one of the greatest athletes in history. Aside from the tragic bombing at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, if any image defines that summer it’s Johnson sprinting into history with his now legendary golden shoes. Just how fast was Johnson? He became the first man to win both the 200 meters and 400 meters in the same Olympics. Johnson redefined dominance in the sport — he even hijacked the “World’s Fastest Man” title usually reserved for 100-meter heroes. Canada’s Donovan Bailey sprinted to a world record of 9.84 seconds in the 100, but Johnson’s 19.32 in the 200 meters equaled consecutive 9.66’s — or 23.1 mph. The world’s fastest man sprinted into history at roughly the speed limit of driving through a school zone.
Only James Nathaniel Brown, an inductee into both the Pro Football and National Lacrosse halls of fame, can make the case for being the greatest of all time in two different sports. What’s scary, too, is Brown called lacrosse his best sport. Former Syracuse lacrosse coach Roy Simmons agreed, saying Brown was “the greatest lacrosse player I ever saw.” But there’s a reason Brown is considered by many, despite his ranking here, the greatest football player to ever live. In nine seasons, he went to nine Pro Bowls, made First-Team All-Pro in all but one year, led the league in rushing in all but one season and never missed a game in his career. His 104.3 yards per game is still the best in league history. Brown was the quintessential package of violence, speed, intelligence and wizardry while running through, around and by defenders to the tune of 12,312 career yards. Unlike most professional athletes, Brown retired at the peak of his powers at 29 after an MVP season in 1965.
No athlete in history has ever had more gaudy expectations heading into his first professional game — and that contest happened only a few months after his senior prom. James has, of course, lived up to the supernatural expectations put upon him and surpassed them. The King’s résumé speaks for itself: seven straight Finals appearances, Rookie of the Year, four-time MVP, three-time Finals MVP, only player to lead the Finals in all five major statistical categories, the leading scorer in playoff history, the only player ever to average a triple-double in the Finals, and many more. Yet, perhaps the most important aspects of James’ work and lifestyle are his philanthropy and social commentary. James is the first true megastar athlete of the internet era. His reign as the league’s best has him solidly in the running, with his idol Michael Jordan, for the title of best player in the history of the game. All this as his every move and decision (pun intended) have been lauded, yes, but more so overly dissected and criticized. James’ may be the most head-scratching placement on this entire list, but it’s also a stark reminder of how his unicorn dominance won’t be fully appreciated until long after his retirement.
The allure of Stephen Curry is simple: No one predicted he’d be a serviceable player, let alone a two-time MVP, two-time NBA champion and future Hall of Famer. In hindsight, maybe the writing was on the wall from his Davidson days, when he was a one-man fireworks display in the 2008 NCAA tournament, which made him a household name. Overcoming early ankle issues, the son of Charlotte Hornets star Dell Curry has morphed into one of the five best basketball players on the planet on arguably the greatest team ever. The only unanimous MVP in league history is also a 3-point assassin well on his way to rewriting record books. Curry’s not the youngest person on this list, but he does have the most ground in front of him with regard to elevating his game. He’s already No. 10 in 3-pointers made and only 1,056 behind Ray Allen for tops. Given his average of 337 made the past three seasons, Jesus Shuttlesworth’s mark could die within the next three seasons. At this point, Curry, the greatest shooter of all time, is just padding his résumé.
In the annals of iconic sports moments that are too rarely discussed, Jackie Joyner-Kersee winning bronze in the long jump at the 1996 Olympics with a strained hamstring is near the top. But the seemingly impossible was the norm for the former UCLA track and basketball standout. An all-conference hooper in college, Joyner-Kersee frequently squared up against a powerhouse USC squad led by Cheryl Miller, Cynthia Cooper and Paula and Pam McGee (the latter would later have a son named JaVale). She set records in the 50-meter hurdles twice. She won gold in the ’88 Olympics in the long jump, while taking bronze in ’92 (and the aforementioned ’96). Joyner-Kersee took home the gold twice in the heptathlon: in ’88 (she tallied a yet-to-be-broken 7,291 points) and in the 1992 Olympics. She was named IAAF World Athlete of the Year in 1994 and Sports Illustrated’s Female Athlete of the 20th Century. Debating the greatest of all time isn’t valid until Joyner-Kersee receives the respect she has so rightfully earned.
As arguably the most polarizing and dominating force in sports history with regard to accomplishments, the sky was the limit for the man known by names such as “The Big Dipper” and “Wilt the Stilt.” Wilton Norman Chamberlain, (who died in 1999 of an apparent heart attack) at one point owned 72 NBA records, 68 of them by himself. And some of these records, such as averaging 37 points and 27 rebounds in his rookie season, averaging 50 points for an entire season, earning 11 rebounding titles or scoring 100 points in a single game, will likely never be broken. Had blocks been tallied when he was playing, the Philly native would likely lead in that category as well. Though often on the receiving end of Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics’ 1960s dominance, there’s no doubt Chamberlain’s legacy continues to endear him to a league drastically different from the one he helped carry a half-century earlier. Chamberlain retired in 1973 as the league’s all-time leading scorer, although the ridiculously physically fit enigma probably could have played a few more seasons. Need proof? He was still receiving contract offers at the age of 50.
Vincent Edward “Bo” Jackson’s athletic life was about a lot of “not only.” Not only was he a supernatural athlete as a teenager, dominating in track (including two decathlon titles), baseball and football. Not only was he drafted by the New York Yankees out of high school. Not only did Jackson star at Auburn in three sports (including in football, in which he was named an All-American twice and was 1985’s Heisman Trophy winner). Not only did he split time playing professional football and professional baseball, earning Pro Bowl and All-Star nods. Not only did he scale a 7-foot wall after making a catch, run for 221 yards on Monday Night Football in his fifth NFL game and run through Brian Bosworth. On top of all that, and fueled by his iconic “Bo Knows” Nike campaign, Jackson became a pop culture phenomenon in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Had it not been for a devastating hip injury that ended his football career in 1991 (he left major league baseball three years later), Jackson would have been a top-10 athlete here. His impact on American sports can never be shortchanged though: He shifted the realm of possibilities.
If it were up to Ray Charles Leonard — yes, named after the legendary singer — his boxing days would’ve ended after the 1976 Olympics that made him a household name and gold medal recipient. But Leonard’s family was strapped for cash, so the three-time Golden Gloves winner made the pragmatic decision to keep boxing. What resulted is one of the most storied careers in boxing history — with a record of 36-3-1, Leonard was a sensation from jump street. He was a beast in the ring, combining speed with power. And his charm made him the most flamboyant fighter since Muhammad Ali. Leonard’s reputation as an all-time great “big fight” boxer stands the test of time, too. His battles with Roberto Duran — immortalized by Duran uttering the words “no mas” in their 1980 rematch, although Duran claims he never said those words — is boxing’s second most-known trilogy. He defeated Thomas “Hitman” Hearns. And his post-retirement classic with Marvin Hagler in 1987 stands as an iconic and equally controversial moment in a sweet science littered with them.
If Jack Johnson was America’s first superstar black athlete, Joe Louis was the first superstar black athlete whom America embraced. “The Brown Bomber” was the son of sharecroppers, great-grandson of a slave, and great-great-grandson of a white slave owner. Louis’ racial and soulful complexity followed him all the way to a record of 68-3, 54 knockouts and boxing immortality. The “heavyweight champion of the world” once stood as the embodiment of a god on earth. Louis was just that, holding the most coveted title in sports for 12 years, the longest reign in heavyweight history. “For one night,” wrote Alistair Cooke when Louis defeated Jim “Cinderella Man” Braddock in 1937, “in all the dark towns of America, the black man was king.” Louis was the first black heavyweight champion since Johnson. But it was his 124-second rematch with Nazi poster boy Max Schmeling that temporarily united a country dealing with economic depression, a second World War on the horizon and racial strife. “Even white folks on the job that would say n—– 50 times a day,” said activist Dick Gregory, “… would light up when they talked about Joe.”
Named co-FIFA Player of the Century in 1999, along with Diego Maradona, Pelé is widely regarded as the greatest soccer player who ever lived. Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento in Três Corações, Brazil, Pelé turned professional at 15 with Santos in 1956. He became an international star at the 1958 World Cup, winning the tournament for the first of three times. And by 1969 he notched his 1,000th goal, which led to fans storming the field in celebration — it caused a 30-minute delay. After Pelé’s rise to stardom, European clubs attempted to pry him away. Brazilian President Jânio Quadros couldn’t allow Pelé to leave on his watch. Quadros pushed through a bill naming Pelé a literal “national treasure,” making it legally difficult for the legend to leave the country. But Pelé of course made the most of his travels — and in official capacities: J.B. Pinheiro, Brazil’s ambassador to the United Nations, said Pelé “did more to promote world friendship and fraternity than any other ambassador anywhere.”
Wilma Rudolph’s blinding speed, which earned her the nickname “Skeeter,” wouldn’t have been possible without a mother’s love. “My doctors told me I would never walk again,” Rudolph said, referring to the double pneumonia, polio and scarlet fever that left her with a brace on her left leg as a child. “My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.” A former high school basketball player in the Jim Crow South and alum of the historically black Tennessee State University, Wilma Glodean Rudolph sprinted into history at the 1960 Summer Games in Rome. She became the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics: the 100 meters, 200 meters (in which she set a world record of 23.2 seconds) and 4×100-meter relay. Rudolph immediately became a worldwide star but retired soon after. She dedicated her life to community involvement, starting the Wilma Rudolph Foundation to support amateur athletics in 1981. The U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame sprinter died Nov. 12, 1994, after a bout with brain cancer.
It’s fitting that Gale Sayers spent part of his childhood in the town of Speed, Kansas, because during his storied pro football career, which ended far too soon, that’s what the running back and return specialist became known for — speed. Sayers, nicknamed the “Kansas Comet,” made an impact on the NFL as soon as the Chicago Bears drafted him with the fourth overall pick in 1965, when he was named the league’s Rookie of the Year with a still-standing rookie record of 22 touchdowns. Sayers also has held the NFL’s single-game touchdown record since 1960, with a six-score performance in his first season. His dominance, however, took a toll when he ruptured ligaments in his right knee in 1968. Eventually his left knee broke down, too, forcing Sayers to retire in 1971 after just seven NFL seasons. In 1977 at age 34, Sayers became the youngest player in history to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His career yards per kick return average (30.6) also still ranks first in league history.
“ … Smith at left guard, 35-, 40-yard line. That should do it! Move over, Sweetness! Make a place for Emmitt!” That was how it sounded — the call from Dallas Cowboys play-by-play announcer Brad Sham, when Emmitt James Smith III became the most accomplished running back in NFL history. On Oct. 27, 2002, with an 11-yard carry in the fourth quarter against the Seattle Seahawks, Smith broke the late Walter Payton’s 18-year record for career rushing yards. After two more seasons, Smith finished his 14-year career in 2004 with 18,355 yards rushing, a virtually untouchable record he still holds to this day at more than 5,000 yards ahead of the next closest active player. Yet, if his rushing total doesn’t sell Smith as one of the greatest running backs ever, if not the greatest, take a closer look at his stats. Smith rushed the ball into the end zone 164 times in his career, ranking him No. 1 all time in career rushing touchdowns.
It took the man whom Joe DiMaggio once called the “best and fastest pitcher” he’d ever faced more than two decades to finally get his moment. On July 9, 1948, Satchel Paige played in his first Major League Baseball game at age 42. After his professional debut in the Negro Leagues in 1926, Paige reached the long-overdue career milestone of playing in the majors 15 months after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1947, though Paige once said, “it still was me that ought to have been first.” And, honestly, he was right. The fact that MLB barred Paige — the first Negro Leaguer to be elected to the Hall of Fame, in 1971 — and other African-American ballplayers alike from joining a league with their white counterparts for so many years is an atrocity. Paige’s arm, competitiveness and showmanship that he translated into an estimated 2,500 games, 2,000 wins, 300 shutouts and 55 no-hitters over his career deserved to be on display in the majors long before 1948.
High-flying yet silky smooth athleticism, a crisp Afro and majestic nickname all melded to perfection in the form of Julius “Dr. J” Erving. The basketball gods blessed the game with Erving, who became the face of the American Basketball Association (ABA) in the early 1970s before the league merged with the NBA in 1976. Erving is the only player in history to earn MVP honors in both the ABA (three times, 1974–76) and NBA (1981), although his accomplishments, which also include three titles and 16 All-Star selections between the two leagues, are mere footnotes in his story. Erving helped modernize basketball by taking the game from textbook traditionality to the above-the-rim approach of play we all know and love. The player dubbed “The Doctor” gave the game and NBA an everlasting dose of swag and style, which he displayed on arguably the most athletic play in NBA history: his baseline, behind-the-basket, reverse layup in the 1980 NBA Finals, which Magic Johnson called “the all-time greatest move I’ve seen.”
In 1992, when then-NBA commissioner David Stern announced Shaquille O’Neal as the first pick in the draft, the LSU product reacted to the selection with two words: “What … me?” But O’Neal knew — everyone knew he was going No. 1 and destined for greatness. Just look at him. At 7-foot-1 and an athletically slender 300 pounds when he was drafted, O’Neal emerged as an absolute force in the NBA, while also proving that he was built to last. In his first 13 NBA seasons, O’Neal averaged more than 26 points and 12 rebounds a game. At the peak of his career — and his heaviest, at 338 pounds — between 2000 and 2002, O’Neal was a monster, with three All-NBA First-Team selections, three NBA titles, three Finals MVPs and one league MVP. There’s no hesitation in saying that O’Neal in his prime was the most dominant player in NBA history. Yes, him. (Sorry, Wilt Chamberlain.) That’s why the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James could confidently say that only prime Shaq and Jesus Christ could guard him in the post.
Many often forget that before Serena, there was Venus. In 1997, at age 17, the elder of the prolific Williams sisters became the first unseeded U.S. Open women’s finalist in the Open era, which began in 1968. On Feb. 25, 2002, Venus became the first African-American woman in the then-32-year era’s history to rise to the No. 1 spot in the Women’s Tennis Association rankings. By June 2002, Serena had climbed to the No. 2 ranking, making a pair of black sisters raised in Compton, California, the two best players in the world. While traditionally the older sibling whups the younger one, Serena has gotten the better of Venus, a seven-time Grand Slam singles champion, throughout their careers. In eight career Grand Slam final matches against each other, Venus has won only twice: at the U.S. Open in 2001 and Wimbledon in 2008, after which she said, “My first job is big sister, and I take that very seriously.” So, let us never forget that without Venus, there would be no Serena.
One thousand McDonald’s chicken nuggets in 10 days helped fuel Usain Bolt to the title of fastest man in the world. That was the Jamaican sprinter’s diet at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, where he became the first man in Olympic history to win the 100 and 200 meters in world-record times. “Man, I should have gotten a gold medal for all that chowing down,” Bolt wrote in his 2014 autobiography, Faster Than Lightning. At the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Bolt’s gold-medal winning time of 9.63 seconds in the 100 meters made him the first man in history to set three Olympic records at the same games. At three consecutive Olympics — Beijing, London and Rio de Janeiro in 2016 — Bolt earned gold medals in the 100, 200 and 4×100 relay, although in 2017 he was stripped of his 4×100 gold medal from Beijing after his relay teammate Nesta Carter was found guilty of doping. After all the medals and world records, it’s hard to believe that Bolt was eliminated in the first round of his first Olympics in 2004.
The day after he won his first NBA title in 1971, Lew Alcindor announced to the world that he’d converted to Islam and changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In Arabic, it means “the noble one, servant of the Almighty” — a powerful name for a mighty man in more aspects than one. Abdul-Jabbar is a proven activist, having first shown an affinity for civil rights in college, when at 19 years old he attended the Cleveland Summit in support of boxer Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. He’s also a best-selling author who published his first of 12 books in 1983. And, in the realm of basketball, some consider him to be the greatest of all time. A six-time NBA champion, 19-time All-Star, 10-time All-NBA first-team selection and the league’s all-time leading scorer, the 7-foot-2 Hall of Fame center is the magician of the “skyhook,” one of the greatest shots basketball has ever seen. In 2016, Abdul-Jabbar’s contributions across sport, culture and social justice earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“The epitome of greatness, admired and respected by all.” That’s how Jim Brown once described Walter Payton, aka “Sweetness,” who’s widely regarded as the best running back, and most esteemed humanitarian, in the history of the NFL. On Oct. 7, 1984, Payton, a product of the historically black Jackson State University, became the league’s all-time leading rusher, breaking the record Brown set in 1965, 10 years before the Chicago Bears drafted Payton fourth overall in the 1975 draft. In 13 NFL seasons, Payton held several other records, including career rushing touchdowns, carries, yards from scrimmage and all-purpose yards, en route to his 1993 Hall of Fame induction. Six years later, Payton contracted primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare liver disease that led to his death from bile duct cancer in 1999 at age 45. Yet, Payton’s legacy has lived on through two annual awards. The Walter Payton Award honors the most outstanding college player in the Football Championship Subdivision, while the NFL presents the Walter Player Man of the Year Award to one player for his volunteer and charity work.
Nov. 7, 1991, will forever be one of the saddest moments in the history of the NBA. On that day, 6-foot-9 superstar Los Angeles Lakers point guard Earvin “Magic” Johnson announced he had tested positive for HIV and would retire from the league immediately. Magic would play again in brief stints over the next five years, but his storied NBA career effectively came to an end in that news conference. In no way, though, has Johnson’s announcement affected his stature in basketball lore. He’s still remembered as one of the greatest point guards, and overall players, of all time: a five-time NBA champion, three-time Finals MVP and three-time NBA MVP, among some of his countless accolades. From a physical standpoint, the NBA had never seen a player with Johnson’s size yet incomparable skill — and hasn’t experienced one quite like him since. Maybe it’s now up to Johnson, whose prowess as a businessman translated into a front-office position with the Lakers, to find a successor capable of even coming close to replicating his talent.
Career receptions, career receiving yards, career receiving touchdowns — name a major NFL pass-catching record and it likely belongs to Jerry Rice, the greatest wide receiver of all time. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of his journey to becoming the undeniable greatest of all time (GOAT) is the fact that it all began at a historically black university. During his four-year career at Mississippi Valley State, Rice earned one of the dopest nicknames when teammates and coaches began calling him “World” because of his ability to catch anything and everything thrown in his vicinity. After becoming a two-time first-team Division I-AA All-American and setting 18 I-AA records, Rice took his sure-handedness to the NFL, where he played an unfathomable 20 seasons for three teams, most notably the San Francisco 49ers. Out of his aforementioned NFL marks, the one that separates itself the most is his 22,895 career receiving yards, which is considered the most unbreakable record in league history. When it comes to receiving, every NFL wideout who’s succeeded him is stuck in Rice’s world, playing catch-up.
At the 2012 London Summer Olympics, Gabby Douglas became the first African-American woman to win a gold medal in individual all-around gymnastics competition and the first American woman to win gold in both the all-around and team competitions. The then-16-year-old gymnast leapt her way to history, yet all some could pay attention to was her hair. Haters took to Twitter to criticize her, which baffled Douglas. “Really?!” she asked her mother, Natalie Hawkins. “I won two gold medals and made history, and my hair is trending?” Despite the unwarranted shade, Douglas responded by making the U.S. women’s gymnastics team for a second time to compete at the 2016 Olympics, where she again faced negative comments about her hair. Douglas, however, took the hate like a G, telling reporters, “I’m actually grateful for having this hair on my head.” In 2016, Douglas helped the U.S. team win gold at the Rio de Janeiro Games, before which she debuted her own Barbie doll, with hair as beautiful as that which flows from her head.
Gold medals in the individual all-around, vault, floor exercise and team events, and a bronze medal for the balance beam, at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, plus 10 gold (all-around, floor, balance beam, team), two silver (vault) and two bronze (balance beam, vault) medals at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships from 2013 to 2015. All 19 of these medals are owned by 20-year-old Simone Biles, who in 2016 surpassed Shannon Miller as the most decorated American gymnast in history. Before dominating in Rio, where she claimed the most medals by a female American gymnast in a single Olympics (five), Biles became the first African-American all-around winner at the World Championships in 2013, although she believes her accomplishments transcend race. “I never think of it as, ‘Oh, I’m the first African-American to win,’” Biles told The Undefeated of her feat. However you want to categorize it, Biles is an absolute winner — well, except on Dancing with the Stars, where she placed fourth during the show’s 24th season in 2017.
Four games into the 1974 Major League Baseball season — and 27 years after Jackie Robinson broke the league’s color barrier — Henry “Hank” Aaron did what many weren’t ready to experience from an African-American ballplayer. The Atlanta Braves outfielder launched his 715th career home run, knocking George Herman “Babe” Ruth, baseball’s longtime “Great White Hope,” off his pedestal as the most accomplished slugger of all time. Yet, Aaron’s historic blast didn’t quite deliver a fairy tale ending. Breaking Ruth’s 39-year record resulted in hate mail, death threats and unfavorable media attention. “There were so many other things that were involved in life,” he said of the feat’s aftermath. Though the Hall of Famer still holds league records for RBIs (2,297), total bases (6,856) and extra-base hits (1,477), his record of 755 home runs is no more. “My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams,” Aaron said in 2007, when Barry Bonds broke the record.
When Serena Williams won the 2017 Australian Open, the 35-year-old superstar made history with her 23rd Grand Slam title in the 50-year history of the Open era. In seven matches, she failed to drop a single set. Oh, yeah, and she played the entire tournament while two months pregnant. If that’s not greatness, show us what is. Since turning pro in 1995, Williams has put on endless displays of athleticism and toughness, while establishing herself as the greatest female athlete the world has ever seen. Yet, throughout her career, she has endured body-shaming, accusations of doping, racist and sexist comments, and challenges of her skill. “If she played the men’s circuit, she’d be, like, 700 in the world,” John McEnroe said in June, to which Williams responded with admirable grace: “Dear John, I adore and respect you but please please keep me out of your statements that are not factually based.” Moral of the story: If you come at the queen — on or off the court — you best not miss.
It’s been called the “greatest 45 minutes ever in sports,” a performance of inexplicable proportion when James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens first established his worldly athletic dominance. At the 1935 Big Ten Championships, the star Ohio State athlete tied the world record for the 100-yard dash while setting world records in the long jump, 220-yard dash and 220-yard low hurdles. Owens wasn’t done, though — he had another performance in him that would transcend athletics by affecting both race and global politics. At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, in front of German dictator Adolf Hitler, who had asserted that no dark-skinned person could athletically match the white “Aryan master race,” Owens won gold medals in the 100 and 200 meters, the 4×100 relay and the long jump. Yet, upon Owens’ return to the United States, racism subjected him to the harsh reality of being a black American hero in the early 20th century. “I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the president, either.”
Hit for average, hit for power, run, throw and field — those are the required skills of a coveted “five-tool” player, who are few and far between in Major League Baseball. Yet, when this type of athlete comes around, there’s no question that he’s built in the image of Willie Mays, the greatest five-tool player to ever grace a diamond. Mays finished his 22-year MLB career with a .302 batting average, 660 home runs, four National League stolen base titles, 12 Gold Glove Awards and 24 All-Star appearances (from 1959 to 1962, there were two All-Star games). “They invented the All-Star Game for Willie Mays,” longtime Red Sox great Ted Williams once said about the man nicknamed the “Say Hey Kid,” a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1979. The seminal moment of Mays’ legendary career came in the 1954 World Series, when the New York Giants center fielder robbed Vic Wertz of a deep base hit with his trademark basket grab. The play, known simply as “The Catch,” is one of the purest displays of defensive prowess in baseball history.
Born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1942, Muhammad Ali became a household name after a gold medal display at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. His outspoken nature endeared him to millions, but he made enemies out of nearly as many. His victories over Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman became singular moments of the past century. Where Ali became a larger-than-life icon, though, was outside of the ring. He’d sacrificed the prime years of his career (1967–70) in a battle with the U.S. government over his refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Ali also served as one of the most visible athletes during the civil rights movement of the ’60s and black liberation battles of the ’70s. Parkinson’s disease robbed Ali of his most powerful weapon: his voice. Yet, as his health waned, his legacy proved to be not just of sports, but of the world. He forever changed the role of athletes in activism. And more than any name on this list, Ali changed the world by forcing it to realize ugly truths about itself — and challenging it to change.
Jackie Robinson wasn’t asked to break the Major League Baseball color barrier because he was the Negro Leagues’ best player. Others were more talented. Robinson was chosen because he had the temperament to handle the hostility he’d face from opponents, fans and even some of his teammates. Not that Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey wanted a black player who was afraid to fight back. Rickey told Robinson he desired a player with “guts enough not to fight back.” Robinson was more than a guy who could maintain calm through adversity. The only UCLA athlete ever to letter in baseball, basketball, football and track, Robinson could ball. The 1947 Rookie of the Year was, in 10 seasons, a six-time All-Star, a two-time stolen base leader and a batting champion. As his baseball career ended, Robinson continued to break barriers: He became the first black vice president of a major American corporation when he assumed that position at Chock Full o’Nuts. Robinson died of a heart attack in 1972. He was 53. A short life for a man who left an everlasting legacy.
What does it take to be deemed the greatest of all time? A perfect combination of dominance, impact and inspiration — which Michael Jordan has surely possessed throughout his career, from the time he was cut from varsity as a sophomore in high school to building his own billion-dollar brand. In 15 NBA seasons, Jordan was nothing short of dominant, claiming six NBA titles in six trips to the Finals, with six Finals MVPs. After his playing career ended, his impact on the court and in the sneaker industry gave Jordan the means to become the only African-American majority owner in major professional sports, yet another step on his journey to eminence. There’s often debate as to whether Jordan is still the greatest of all time (GOAT) in NBA history, but even the league has made the distinction. Larry Bird once gave him even higher praise, saying, “I think he’s God disguised as Michael Jordan.” When you’re compared to God, you must be the greatest, right?