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Locker Room Talk: Your greatest athletes of all time look like mine — almost

Readers offer their suggestions for the five best athletes ever

A little more than a week ago, I posed a challenge to readers and you responded.

As The Undefeated rolled out its 50 Greatest Black Athletes list, I asked you to choose just five. Imagine that you had been challenged to a winner-take-all, do-or-die athletic competition. You wouldn’t know the rules or the nature of the competition. All you’d know is that the competition would be grueling and would require the attributes associated with greatness: strength, toughness, determination, competitiveness and skill in a number of areas.

I was careful to stick to athletic ability and not veer into issues of valor and standing for principle. Not in this competition. A number of you chose Muhammad Ali and explained the selection on the basis of his sense of valor outside the arena. While I’m convinced that Muhammad Ali is the greatest fighter of all time, I am not convinced that he is the greatest athlete of all time. My Undefeated colleague Jason Reid argued that Ali would have made an excellent tight end and further argues that boxers may indeed be the best athletes.

The five athletes I selected possessed a convergence of skills that would translate in any generation: heart, courage, toughness and versatility.

I’m confident that My Five would prevail in any competition in any generation.

  1. Jim Thorpe
  2. Jim Brown
  3. Serena Williams
  4. Wilt Chamberlain
  5. Tom Brady

Now, here’s what several of you had to say. The names are listed 1-5 unless otherwise noted:


  1. Jim Brown
  2. John Mackey
  3. Jim Taylor
  4. Deacon Jones
  5. Dick Butkus

William Hult

  1. LeBron James
  2. Tiger Woods
  3. Lawrence Taylor
  4. Carl Lewis
  5. Michael Jordan


  1. Bill Russell
  2. Jim Brown
  3. Ronnie Lott
  4. Bo Jackson
  5. Michael Jordan


  1. Jim Brown
  2. Ronnie Lott
  3. Michael Jordan
  4. Ora Washington
  5. Babe Didrikson


  1. Jackie Joyner-Kersee
  2. Jackie Robinson
  3. Jim Brown
  4. Ora Washington
  5. Babe Didrikson

Len Elmore

  1. Jackie Robinson
  2. Bill Russell
  3. Bob Gibson
  4. Serena Williams
  5. Michael Jordan

Tomas Myer

  1. Jim Thorpe
  2. Jesse Owens
  3. Michael Jordan
  4. Muhammad Ali
  5. Serena Williams

David Jonathan

  1. Michael Phelps
  2. Deion Sanders
  3. Michael Jordan
  4. Bo Jackson
  5. Wayne Gretzky

Maximillian Hamilton

  1. Kobe Bryant
  2. Mark Messier
  3. Florence Griffith Joyner
  4. Walter Payton
  5. Reggie Jackson

Alison Gibson


  1. Jack Roosevelt Robinson – overcame virulent racism to break MLB’s color barrier. He couldn’t fight back for three years, but he changed baseball. He brought speed to the game and made pitchers and catchers nervous when he was on base. He also campaigned for blacks to get front-office jobs. Nos. 5 and 3 share my last name, but I got none of their athletic talent.
  2. Wilma Rudolph – overcame polio to become one of America’s greatest track stars. She and the Tennessee State Tigerbelles and their coach, Ed Temple, ruled the Rome Olympics.
  3. Althea Gibson – and not because we share the same last name. A great tennis player AND golfer. Without Miss Gibson, there would be no Zina, Lori, Venus or Serena. The Pioneer of #blackgirlmagic
  4. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – developed the hook shot when the dunk was outlawed by the NCAA. Also a scholar and great writer.
  5. Bob Gibson – he was so bad, baseball changed the height of the mound to slow him down.

Joseph Simmons

  1. Jackie Robinson
  2. Roberto Clemente
  3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  4. Arthur Ashe
  5. Michael Schumacher, Formula One great


  1. Jackie Robinson. Not just for the baseball and the history and what he carried with him as he played, but he was clearly an amazing athlete, maybe the best all-around athlete this country has ever seen, and he’s only known for the baseball.
  2. Muhammad Ali. Clearly people who rise above their sport is big with me. But he also changed his sport with speed and precision, and made it an EVENT. Even though I am not a fan of that sport, I get it.
  3. Babe Didrikson. She could have put up Mark Spitz-like medal totals in track if she had been allowed to try. And then ended up being a basketball and golf star, too. Not bad.
  4. Michael Jordan. It’s that winning thing. Can’t say he rose above his sport, but that doesn’t matter because he FLEW above his sport.
  5. Billie Jean King. She dominated her sport while, essentially, founding her sport.


  1. Ralph Branca
  2. Gus Williams
  3. Ray Williams
  4. Ken Singleton
  5. Rodney McCray, who I still am reminded of each day by my black and blue marks on my body

Joe Mir

  1. Jim Thorpe
  2. Michael Jordan
  3. Jim Brown
  4. Serena Williams
  5. Muhammad Ali

Jeremy Nadel

  1. 5. Wayne Gretzky
  2. 4. Derek Jeter
  3. 3. Bo Jackson
  4. 2. Lawrence Taylor
  5. 1. Michael Jordan

B. Cates

  1. Muhammad Ali
  2. Michael Jordan
  3. Willie Mays
  4. Rafer Johnson
  5. Tiger Woods
  6. Jim Brown in a class by himself

Edward Davis

I found it necessary to view my selections according to century: the 20th and the 21st.

Five greatest athletes of the 20th century

  1. Jim Thorpe
  2. Jim Brown
  3. Wilt Chamberlain
  4. Babe Ruth
  5. Michael Jordan

Five greatest athletes of the 21st century

  1. Michael Phelps
  2. Serena Williams
  3. Tiger Woods
  4. Tom Brady
  5. Usain Bolt

Ronnie Perry

  1. Muhammad Ali
  2. Sugar Ray Robinson
  3. Joe Louis
  4. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  5. Usain Bolt

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.