Aught Lang Syne mercifully comes to a close today, 33 days after it started so grandiloquently with that maudlin eulogy to the Aughts. We finish by counting down our top three athletes of the decade. You can find Part I of the countdown here.
5. Torry Holt (157 G, 868 rec, 12,504 yds, 68 TD, 7 Pro Bowls)
4. Tony Gonzalez (158 G, 828 rec, 9,939 yds, 67 TD, 9 Pro Bowls)
3. LaDainian Tomlinson (140 G, 2,878 att, 12,489 yds, 138 TD, 5 Pro Bowls, 1 MVP)
2. Peyton Manning (159 G, 65.9% comp, 42,159 yds, 314 TD, 9 Pro Bowls, 3 MVPs, 1 SB MVP)
1. Tom Brady (128 G, 63.3% comp, 30,658 yds, 225 TD, 5 Pro Bowls, 1 MVP, 2 SB MVPs)
By far the toughest choice on the board is between Brady and Manning. Manning’s stats add up to the greatest single decade by a quarterback in NFL history; he may very well go down as the greatest to ever play the position. But when we think about the Aughts, we think about the Patriots and Tom Brady. We think about Brady leading two game-winning drives in the last minute of a Super Bowl. We think about Brady throwing 50 TD passes during a 16-0 regular season. We think about Brady winning his first 10 playoff games as a starter and never losing a playoff game at home. We think about what Brady might have done had he played with two All-Pro wide receivers in Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne inside a dome for 10 years. We think about Brady coming up with the big drive time after time in the postseason. If we had one game to win this decade, we’d want Tom Brady to start it.
Brady is the Montana to Manning’s Marino or Elway, and any conversation about Peyton Manning’s legacy must include an aside about Tom Brady.
5. Steve Nash (753 G, 16.2 ppg, 9.1 apg)
4. LeBron James (472 G, 27.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 6.7 apg)
3. Shaquille O’Neal (658 G, 23.2 ppg, 10.7 rpg)
2. Tim Duncan (766 G, 21.5 ppg, 11.7 rpg)
1. Kobe Bryant (743 G, 28.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg)
This is the only sport, I think, with three players who can legitimately claims to be the Player of the Decade. Shaq was the most dominant post presence since the days of Wilt in the first part of the decade (I mean, 30 and 15 in back-to-back playoffs?), Duncan was the decade’s most consistent contributor and winner, and Kobe was its highest scorer and four-time champion.
Of course, I wanted to give it to Duncan, whose team never missed the playoffs, won four titles, and who will almost certainly go down as the single greatest power forward in NBA history. But the rub is that as far as superstars go, Tim Duncan is about as uniconic as they get; it’s hard for a power forward—especially one with a propensity to use the glass and who has earned the terrible nickname “The Big Fundamental”—to really capture our imagination. I can honestly say that I have never seen someone wearing a Tim Duncan jersey outside of the context of a San Antonio Spurs’ game. And for better or worse, the guy that has been at the center of the NBA narrative in the Aughts is Kobe Bryant. He started as the begrudging sidekick on a three-peat champion, became the “callous hired gun,” was accused of rape, and re-emerged as the league’s most vicious competitor and the lead dog of another champion and, perhaps, another dynasty. He has gone 30-5-5 in three different playoff years (btw, best postseason belongs to LeBron in ’09, when he went 35-9-7 and still couldn’t get the Cavs to the Finals), and he became the unquestioned leader of the Redeem Team. He is, without doubt, the most competitive player in the NBA today.
Bryant is not the next Michael Jordan, but he’s come far closer to approximating MJ in the Aughts than most expected him to. And when he does finally hang them up, he won’t go down as the best at his position, but one of the best at any position.
5. Martin Brodeur
4. Michael Phelps
3. Usain Bolt
2. Roger Federer
1. Tiger Woods
Forget every little thing about what’s transpired in Tiger Woods’ life over the last month and a half and focus instead on what Woods did on the course and how he transcended his sport more than any other athlete since Muhammad Ali.
Heading into the last major of the 1999 season, Tiger Woods was something of a disappointment. He had yet to follow up his earth-shattering 12-shot victory at the 1997 Masters with another major, and there were some (12-year-old Tim leading the charge) wondering if he would ever amount to what had been promised.
Woods won that 1999 PGA Championship, and then four of the first five majors of the Aughts, including the Tiger Slam in 2000-01. He set the scoring record in three of the four majors—he already held the one at The Masters. He won the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 shots in the single most dominating athletic performance of the Aughts (and it isn’t close). He won nine tournaments that year alone by a combined 46 strokes. He made 142 consecutive cuts and won six straight tournaments at the turn of the century. He was PGA Player of the Year eight times in 10 years. He dominated his sport so thoroughly that the idea of a serious rival became more or less laughable.
In doing all that, though, Tiger Woods kept golf in the headlines. Every major tournament this decade was built around Woods: Tiger v. The Field seemed a 50/50 proposition. By taking over Michael Jordan’s role as the key sponsor for Nike, Woods became the face of sports to a whole new generation. “Be Like Mike” was replaced by “I Am Tiger Woods.” He won ESPN’s “Who’s Now?” contest in 2007, and it’s hard to reasonably say he wouldn’t have won in almost every other year this decade. He also replaced Jordan as the surest thing in sports; until the Aughts’ final major, Woods had never blown a 54-hole lead in a major championship. It was typically a moral victory if his playing partner could remain in contention. Woods became the most psychologically intimidating athlete in recent memory.
In the next decade, he will almost certainly pass Jack Nicklaus and become golf’s all-time leader in major championships; he will probably shatter Nicklaus’ current mark of 18. It’s not out of the question that Woods will reach 30 by the time he retires.
Tiger Woods is the Athlete of the Aughts.