Is the old guy really better? I've pondered this question my entire life. It's almost impossible to watch any recap shows, Sportscenter or even live commentary in ANY sport without hearing comparisons between today's stars and stars of generations ago. The comparisons start off fair enough but usually end with the experts saying that the current star is great but that the old guy was simply more amazing than anything any of us could imagine and was hands down better. Ok, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit but are we sometimes prisoners of nostalgia? Was Michael Jordan really better than Lebron? Is Steffi Graf the best female tennis player ever? How about Joe Montana? Is he better than Brady and Manning? Are the stars of yesterday really better than the stars of today? Are the stars of today better than yesterday? Is it a bit of both? Let's see!
I do this feature every month and ask who is better between two stars in the same sport. The main factor I use is numbers but it's not limited to that factor. Sometimes my answer is obvious and sometimes it's the unpopular choice. This month will be a bit different though! I will use some numbers but a lot more has to be taken into consideration with stars from different eras. My main focus will be trying to find glaring differences between the stars of today and those of the past that go beyond just championships. I want to find out if the stars of the past were to face the stars of today in a friendly game...while both in their primes, who will win? Where do I start?
Basketball and Soccer are two sports in which there is some kind of consensus on who is the best to have ever done it. Michael Jordan and Pele are the figures that receive such high praise. In some cases names like Wilt Chamberlain and Diego Maradona get brought up but there is far less arguing in these sports over who the best of all time is than in other sports. In these sports we are also lucky enough to have young talent great enough to warrant consideration if not for now for the future. So how do the stars of today stack against the stars of yesterday in the world's two most popular sports? Lionel Messi has been tearing up La Liga for the past decade and he is considered the best of the current generation while Pele and Maradona are considered the 2 best to ever do it. Pele and Maradona have both won World Cups with their teams though and until Messi does the same he will not be given proper comparison by many.
Does Messi possess more talent though? Interestingly enough, Pele and Maradona played during what can be considered golden generations of soccer so we can't dismiss their time as being easier than Messi's. Messi has scored 233 goals in 267 games for Barcelona in his career...a stellar strike rate. He has also scored 37 in 83 for Argentina. Comparing him to Pele we see that Pele scored 619 in 638 games for Santos in 18 years and 77 in 92 for Brazil. While we cannot dismiss the talent Pele played against while with Brazil we cannot ignore that playing for Barcelona today should be considered tougher than playing for Santos in the 50s and 60s. It then becomes obvious that the main deciding factor between Pele and Messi may be the World Cup. Messi may win a World Cup in his time but it is highly unlikely that he wins 3 before he retires. Does that mean that Pele as an individual was by far better? I'm not so sure.
Michael Jordan compares to Lebron James a little easier as the eras in which they played are not too far apart. Again the biggest factor at first seemed to be championships but now that Lebron James has won a few it allows us to look at other factors. Lebron has averaged over 27 points a game in his career for example. That goes along with over 7 rebounds and 7 assists and almost a block a game. Jordan averaged 30 a game but with 6 rebounds and 5 assists. He also had almost a block a game and had more steals than Lebron. Those numbers are very close and for a lot of people Jordan's 6 championships break the tie when compared to Lebron's 2 (so far) but many other things need to be considered. For example Lebron James can play all 5 positions, something Michael Jordan couldn't. Does that push Lebron ahead though? If so, does that also mean that Magic Johnson was better than Michael Jordan?
There's a lot to consider in all these comparisons. We have to consider if a player was just a big fish in a small pond both when looking at his era and the team he played for and try figure out how much of a driving force he was in his teams success. Joe Montana springs to mind in this regard as he plays a team sport and achieved a lot of success. He is considered the greatest Quarterback ever by many, over players of his time who did not achieve a championship like Dan Marino and over players of the current era like Brady and Manning. Even in individual sports like tennis the historical favorites are given an edge but the current stars like Federer and Serena are able to do enough on their own to warrant fairer comparison and eventually the proper respect they deserve in that regard. To answer my original question, No! The old guy isn't better! The current stars aren't either. It's a bit of both. Numbers can't tell everything. Wilt Chamberlain would hold Jordan's position in the world of basketball if that was the case but Championships don't tell everything either.