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Commentary: Sports is like no other

We don't spend a lot of time at the water cooler or on bar stools trying to figure out which band is putting together a strong enough body of work to eclipse the Beatles as "Greatest of All Time."

We don't come up with lists of the Top 10 Authors and then get into arguments about whether Ernest Hemingway really belongs or if modern writers got snubbed.

We don't use empirical data to compare eras and try to prove that Tom Hanks or Denzel Washington are better actors than Marlon Brando.

We certainly don't expend energy on whether any president from the past 100 years deserves to have his face etched in a new wing on Mount Rushmore.

But we can't help ourselves with sports. Lifelong allegiances to teams and athletes and the sports themselves create a passion and, for some reason, a need to dissect and rank. The Greatest of All Time conversation has been particularly loud over the past week or two in several different sports.

Sometimes it's all about numbers.

Can LeBron James lead the Miami Heat to the NBA title, thus securing his second championship and moving him up the ranks of the best ever, perhaps en route to the six titles needed to catch Michael Jordan?

Can Tiger Woods win the U.S. Open, thus securing his 15th major championship to pull within three of Jack Nicklaus, knowing full well that the only way he'll be universally hailed as the greatest ever is to finish with at least 18 majors?

Sometimes it's about perception.

For some reason, no one seems to give much thought to Tim Duncan and his place in history, even though he is going after his fifth NBA title. No doubt, it's because he isn't dynamic enough, not flashy on the court or off.

On another type of court, Serena Williams is as dynamic as we've ever seen. After she won the French Open last weekend, it suddenly became en vogue to theorize that she is not just the greatest women's tennis player of all time, but possibly the greatest female athlete. This, despite the fact that five women have won more Grand Slam titles. In fact, you'd have to combine her 16 with sister Venus' seven to get past Steffi Graf - who actually only ranks second, anyway.

Championships seem to mean everything. That makes a lot of sense in individual sports - Phil Mickelson can blame no one but himself for his five runner-up finishes at the U.S. Open - but playing the championships card in team sports should hold far less weight than it does.

Bill Russell is widely called the greatest champion in team sports history, but he did play with a half-dozen other Hall of Famers, for a Hall of Fame coach, and started winning titles when the NBA had only eight teams.

Meanwhile, Dan Marino, the first to throw for 5,000 yards in a season and for 60,000 yards in a career gets zero traction in the "best quarterback" debate because he never won a Super Bowl. The fact that Joe Montana played on teams with a better running game and a far superior defense never seems to be mentioned.

Baseball, of course, is the ultimate comparison sport. Stat geeks turn to advanced metrics to show exactly how Babe Ruth compares to Barry Bonds and Willie Mays and whether Roger Clemens was as good as Walter Johnson.

But we rely way, way too much on all of this data, whether it's championships or league MVPs or records or rankings or even Wins Above Replacement.

And way too little on actual observation.

We wouldn't say U2 is better than the Beatles just because Bono and the boys own three times as many Grammy awards. We wouldn't call John Grisham the greatest writer of all time just because he has sold 250 million books. We don't say Daniel Day-Lewis is the greatest actor ever just because he has three Best Actor Oscars. And we've seen plenty of evidence showing there's no need to expand Mount Rushmore.

It should be all about the eye test. And the great part is, everyone's eyes are different.

I don't care how many championships he has, I've never seen a better quarterback than Peyton Manning and it doesn't matter one bit to me who the all-time rushing king is, Barry Sanders was the best.

I don't care that she has fewer Slam titles, I believe from a lifetime of watching that Serena Williams would overwhelm the likes of Steffi Graf or Chris Evert and, similarly, I don't care that Roger Federer has the most Slam titles among men, I've seen Rafael Nadal whip him too many times.

I don't care that he won only 219 games, I'm still utterly amazed by what I saw Pedro Martinez did to the American League during the height of the steroid era, and I don't care how many more points or MVPs LeBron winds up with; he's not Michael and that's because of the way they play the game, not because of the six titles.

Finally, I don't care if Tiger Woods never wins another Masters, U.S. Open, British Open or PGA Championship any more than I care that he'll retire with the most PGA Tour wins, the most Player of the Year awards and by far the longest stint at No. 1 in history.

He's the Greatest of All Time because of the way he played at his best, dominating courses and players at a time when the game has never been deeper with talent from all over the globe both with his superior physical talent and his superior mind.

Got to admit, though, the argument would be a lot stronger around the water cooler or atop a bar stool if he'd win a few more majors.

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