The measure of greatness
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - May 18, 2019 - 12:00am

The definition of power is strength over time. The fifth successive Philippine Cup championship of the San Miguel Beermen is a testament to power. In the fluid world of basketball, where trades routinely happen, consistency is a painfully rare commodity. Strings are made to be broken. History is made to be rewritten. Excellence is the product of intelligent work, producing results that stand the test of time.

On a current project, this writer has been constantly seeking the definition of greatness. It seems both clear and nebulous, definite and relative at the same time. We have a sense of what it is, but have difficulty pinning it down with precision. What are the factors that determine greatness? Is it a matter of scale or transcendence? Is it a one-time occurrence, or a test of longevity? If someone breaks your record, does that mean that it was not as worthy?

Let’s examine the factors that determine our definition of greatness.

Achievement. This is the primary separator which clears the wheat from the chaff. The record-holder, the best, fastest, strongest, the most, and so on. Success has a thousand fathers, while failure is an orphan. In any sport, you’d be scrambling to list all the runners-up. But the champions, MVPs, the unbeatable all are ingrained in our memories. The only exceptions are our favorite teams and players. But that is personal preference, like Golden State Warriors fans before this recent renaissance.

Pioneering. As the saying goes, there can only be one first. That’s why there are many sportsmen looking for new sports to launch, a development the Philippine Olympic Committee has graciously acknowledged in recent months, as it has magnanimously accepted new member sports from sikaran to floorball to tchoukball. Being first (first Olympian, first champion, and so on) guarantees you will be in the history books. Succeeding champions will inevitably be replaced, but the first one will always be the reference point. It’s like being an eternal runner-up, the one everybody learned winning from. All these new sports are adding to the rich breadth of Philippine sports history.

Longevity. Sustained excellence makes it easy to acknowledge an athlete or team. Even if you don’t win it all every time, being in contention consistently means you and your organization are doing something right. For over a decade, people said that the San Antonio Spurs were old and past their prime. But that kept making the playoffs and doing well. They earned universal respect for how they did things. They did the work, and became a constant in the NBA landscape. And that is not easy to come by.

Individual achievement. Always a good measuring stick, individual achievement puts you in the conversation. If you can do both and also win, you are truly exceptional. The argument against Wilt Chamberlain was that he didn’t “win enough” whatever the heck that means. But how many finals did he lose by other factors like weaker teammates and poor coaching? And how many of the NBA’s 50 Greatest did not win a championship in the era of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan?

Integrity. This is, perhaps, the greatest differentiator. With everything being equal, the one with the cleaner name is always more revered. Doping and other forms of cheating – even just the perception of it – can be irreparably damaging to one’s reputation. Pete Rose’s damning gambling issue as a team manager seriously decreased the respect for him as a player, even if the two have no palpable connection to one another. That’s why many boxing fans have trouble acknowledging Floyd Mayweather Jr. as an all-time great. Some feel he has taken shortcuts, picked opponents at their weakest, not fought as often, or has somehow bent the rules in his own favor. People point to the New Year’s Eve fiasco in Japan and the Victor Ortiz fight as examples. But has he broken any rules? No. Standing up for your own rights or even larger issues, while not an athletic achievement, add to judgment of the individual as a person. When Mona Sulaiman was being coerced to undergo a gender test because she performed so well, she refused. When Muhammad Ali was stripped of his boxing license for refusing enlistment into the Vietnam War, he didn’t cave. There are bigger things than sport.

One of these ingredients doth a champion make. Greatness is a combination of them, emerging in at least one extraordinary moment when lesser folk shrink.

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