"It has to be Jordan," I kept insisting to anybody within earshot in the months preceding the 1996 Summer Olympics.
A frequent parlor game for Atlanta sports reporters that year was to debate who would take the last leg of the Olympic Torch Relay and light the cauldron. As a native Chicago sports junkie embarking on a career covering many fields, I couldn't conceive any alternative to the two-time gold medalist Michael Jordan. After all, in addition to leading his 1984 amateur team and 1992 Dream Team to gold medals, M.J. had also just reclaimed his 4th NBA Championship after a sabbatical on the baseball diamond. Who else could it be?
Many Atlantans were pushing for local heavyweight boxing great Evander Holyfield, who fell just short of bringing home the gold in 1984. Swimmer Janet Evans, who won a total of four gold medals in 1988 and 1992, was also a name frequently mentioned. Nobody even suggested The Greatest.
When Muhammad Ali emerged on the big screen in a sports bar a few miles from Centennial Olympic stadium, grizzled reporters standing around me began to weep. While I thought I understood and appreciated the gravity of the moment at the time, I still couldn't help thinking that my guy was robbed.
Those born in the mid-seventies or later were not yet alive to witness Ali's greatest triumphs, nor could we fully appreciate the depth of his convictions and the sacrifices that resulted from them. My first memory of Ali was during his 1979 guest appearance on Different Strokes (which had a strikingly similar plot line to Joe Namath's Brady Bunch cameo six years earlier). I loved the Billy Crystal impersonations as well.
While I always enjoyed watching Ali on television, his accomplishments outside of the boxing ring didn't resonate with me until years, if not decades, later. I thought Jordan's scoring titles and the Bulls championship run were more important than Ali's activism and decades-long run as a heavyweight humanitarian.
I'd like to think that my view of the world at 41 is different from how I saw things at 21, and that the last 20 years were not wasted. As penance since Ali's death, I'm reading Robert Lipsyte, watching documentaries like When We Were Kings, and smiling at dozens of personal reflections from those who shared a brief moment with the man. Learning, or understanding anew, each new detail of Ali's biography is simultaneously inspiring, humbling, complicating and laugh-inducing.
While it is true that we can never compare the on-the-field accomplishments between athletes from one era to another, we can - and must - measure the impact that elite athletes carry over into other aspects of their lives.
When we hear of athletes making sacrifices today, they are usually in the form of negligible "hometown discounts" from contracts that can still enable generational wealth. Pat Tillman made the ultimate sacrifice, but when he enlisted in the army in 2002 he was far from a household name. Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Joe DiMaggio left baseball to serve in World War II, along with hundreds more that made their sacrifice the rule rather than the exception.
I don't begrudge Jordan, and will always celebrate and boast about the 1990s Bulls run of championship perfection (especially in the company of Knicks fans). Yet I can't help but think of the lost opportunities not realized off of the court. This is true for Tiger, Serena, Jeter, Peyton and countless others.
The job description for athletic superstardom cannot and must not include a commitment to social consciousness. Yet I still can't help but wonder who is left to carry the torch.