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Who are the top 50 Boston athletes of past 50 years? Curran ranks 10-1 originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
This is it. The top 10 greatest Boston players of the past 50 years in my very subjective opinion.
The whole list is testament to how fortunate we've been in our sports-consuming lives to witness, cheer for and -- in my case -- cover and get to know some of the greatest performers in the history of American sports.
Thanks for following along and for all the conversation. Next week I'll put out a list of all the people I hosed who didn't get on here. It's mind-blowing
Editor's Note: Tom E. Curran ranked the top 50 Boston athletes of the past 50 years this week, counting down from 50 with 10 players per day. Check out the previous lists in the links above.
10. John Havlicek
Hondo was born in 1940 about a week after my dad. As a result, I viewed him as impossibly old as he played out his final seasons with the Celtics when I started watching. And since my dad was a fairly round 5-foot-6 and not the most athletic fella, I found Havlicek to be a marvel.
He ran and ran and ran and was still playing 35 minutes a night even at the end of his career. He’d been drafted by the Cleveland Browns too, I was told, so he checked the boxes in my two favorite sports, and the reverence for the guy in the winter of his career made him seem like a demigod. And he kind of was.
Take a look back at his stats: He played fewer than 75 games once in his 16-year career. He played all 82 in his final season, averaging 16.1 per game, which was his lowest average since his rookie year. The guy easily could have played another five seasons and probably continued to be an All-Star.
He was a ridiculously good mid-range shooter and a phenomenal athlete. Even though he came into the league before the game made its late-70s transition to an age when guys actually dribbled with both hands, you can see there are aspects of his game that would travel to 2022.
Gronk is the youngest guy on the list and he’s here because he was a complete and utter force of nature on the field and an imitable and genuine character (and Boston icon) off of it. If I had to imagine three different images that captured Gronk, it would be Minion Hat Gronk, Little Nutcracker Dude Gronk and Diving Catch in SB53 Gronk.
Here are 50 Gronk plays with the Patriots. There are probably another 50 on the cutting room floor that would fit.
8. Carl Yastrzemski
Yaz played 41 seasons with the Red Sox. Actually, 23. But it just seemed like he was a Red Sox since ancient times. Like Hondo, Yaz was basically the same age as my dad (born in August 1939) and unlike Hondo he just kept playing and playing and playing all the way into the early 80s. So Yaz was part of my consciousness from the year I was born (a month after the Impossible Dream World Series loss to the Cardinals) until I was 16.
Yaz wasn’t as dynamic as so many of the other guys on this list but he was a fixture, a constant, part of everyday life growing up in New England. Do you know how drastically the world changed from 1961, when Yaz took over for Ted Williams, until 1983 when he retired? It’s chaotic now, sure. And scary. And there’s a lot of talk of existential threats.
Imagine how it felt living through the Cold War, the assassinations of JFK, RFK and MLK, the violence, riots, unemployment, inflation, war, invasions and hostage crises of the 60s and 70s? Sports lent a little ballast. And Yaz was at the center of Boston sports.
7. Jim Rice
Personal preference ranking. Sorry, not sorry.
Jim Rice in 1978 submitted as dominant a season as anyone on this list did in their best year. I didn’t even have to look up his numbers: .315, 46, 139. Played 163 games (one-game playoff vs. Yankees). In a three-season span from 1977 to 1979 he had 124 homers and 383 RBIs with 1,157 total bases. He missed six games. He also -- bizarrely -- had 15 triples in both 1977 and ’78.
The size, speed and Bunyanesque power of the guy was mesmerizing. Watch this. Tell me it doesn’t look like he’s hitting golf balls.
6. David Ortiz
It’s pretty amazing to think that Big Papi never fell off. Even in his final year with screaming pain in his Achilles, he had 626 plate appearances, led the league with 48 doubles and 127 RBI and had 38 homers. He had 35 or more in each of his final three seasons.
So he was an amazing and dominant performer in addition to being incredibly clutch, being a major force on the Sox teams that broke The Curse in 2004 and added two more titles after that.
The reciprocal love between Ortiz and Boston exhibited in his "This is our f****** city!" speech after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing was obvious. When we’re talking about excellence, importance to the region and being a captivating performer, Ortiz had all of it.
5. Pedro Martinez
Why do I have Pedro ahead of Ortiz? Pedro at his best may have been the greatest practitioner of the art of pitching in the history of the sport. And we were lucky enough to witness it, as I said when I started this list. Appointment viewing. I can link the highlights. Or I can link the SportsCentury episode. Let’s go with the SportsCentury.
4. Marvin Hagler
It’s really hard now to fathom the grip that Marvelous Marvin Hagler had on the region from 1979 to 1987. Fighting out of Brockton, he was a major sport unto himself, as important as the Red Sox, Bruins, Celtics and Patriots.
On the nights he fought, there was a Game 7 atmosphere to the event. There was also a regional pride at play that was unique in that Hagler was fighting internationally. He won the middleweight title at Wembley over Alan Minter, knocking Minter’s mouthpiece into the crowd and then being showered with bottles and debris by racist British fans. That outrage coming months after Hagler was robbed of the title in a draw with Vito Antuofermo made Hagler more loved because of what he’d gone through.
Boxing was different 40 years ago. It still held the world’s attention, especially the middleweight division, with Hagler presiding and soon to be joined by Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran as they moved up in weight class. Hagler also fought every two months or so with the biggies being the rematch with Antuofermo in 1982 at Boston Garden, a 1983 dispatching of Duran and his April 1985 bout with Hearns which would rank as possibly the most furious nine minutes of action over the past 50 years. (There is a lot of competition … maybe we list those next summer).
It all ground to a terrible halt in April of 1987 when Hagler -- after fighting just once in 1986 -- lost a controversial decision to Leonard. The region mourned. Hagler never fought again. Destruction and Destroy.
3. Bobby Orr
Hagler may have held the region’s attention in a wholly unique way when he fought, but Bobby Orr changed behavior and created INDUSTRY. He came to Boston at the age of 18 and exceeded every impossible expectation and dream laid out for him that began when the Bruins signed him at 14 (!!).
His arrival and the Bruins’ ensuing success touched off hockey madness in New England. Everybody wanted to play hockey. Rinks went up all over the place and a generation of kids started staggering around on skates.
It was no coincidence that the 1980 Miracle On Ice gold medal team was chockful of New England and Massachusetts kids. Orr wasn’t here for a long time. But he was here for all-time. One of the greatest performers in any sport, his spot here is a layup.
2. Larry Bird
Like Orr, Bird presided over a franchise renaissance. Like Hagler, he was ours and representative of our view of ourselves -- relentless, hardworking, ready to fight, substance over style -- in contrast to the flash and sizzle of soft Magic and the Showtime Lakers.
Larry Bird was the best player in basketball from 1984 to 1986, winning three straight MVPs. He took the Celtics from being the least likeable team in Boston when he arrived to the most embraced. He led the C’s to three championships and every day of the 13 years he was here he was inimitably true to himself and Boston.
Look at the other guys up in the top 10. Yaz could be prickly. Ortiz could be whiny. Pedro could be a diva. Havlicek was kinda boring. Gronk shot his way out of town. There was nothing -- absolutely nothing -- to dislike about the way Larry Bird did his business.
Honestly, one of the crowning moments in Bird’s tenure here was when he defused Isiah Thomas’ racial comments about Bird only being celebrated as a great player because he was white. Boston flipped. The media flipped. Swords were figuratively drawn. And what does Bird do? Sits down for a press conference with Isiah and says, “If Isiah tells me it was said in a joking manner I think we should leave it at that.” More of that now and forever. Larry Legend.
1. Tom Brady
Tom. Flocking. Brady.