“Gotta be somebody real old, like maybe Jim Brown. You know, way back when.”
“I think you have to go back further than that. Back when guys were natural athletes, before all these weight programs, and drug stuff. Jim Thorpe, Bobby Jones, guys that did it on their own. Ever heard of "The Manassa Mauler?"
The dealer had finished shuffling and dealt, dealing me two Jacks. I was the first to bet and since I was uncomfortable leading out with a pair of Jacks, I bet only $5 to get the betting started, hoping to hit a set, three Jacks on the flop. Everyone around the table called.
The dealer dealt the Flop, three cards on the table. Damn, no Jack. It came 7 of clubs, 8 of hearts, 6 of spades.
“I think it's Lance Armstrong,” said the man next to me. “You know how tough it can be to bike ride through the alps, all those mountains. Takes a real athlete. I know bike riding. Plus he was fighting cancer.”
The dealer looked at me. The two ahead of me had checked. So I checked to see how the others would bet. Somebody might already have a straight.
“How about Babe Ruth,” said a man in a cowboy hat. “He was not only a good batter, but he could pitch. Offense and Defense.”
Kid with his Angel cap on backwards, “Kobe's the best, can take LeBron, Carmelo too, both I think. Kobe's a better shooter. Last sec, all net! Whoosh!”
“This is the best American athlete of all time, son,” said a man in a suit. “You gotta go way back to Jim Thorpe, you want the best, Olympic medalist in BOTH decathlon and pentathlon, pro-football player, pro-baseball, pro-basketball.
Kid with his cap on backwards looked confused.
A young lady in seat 5 said, after checking, “How about Wilma Rudolph, Bonnie Blair, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Jenny Thompson, and Mia Hamm. Women are athletes too, you know. My vote goes to Rudolph, by the way.” She stared sternly around the table.
“Jim Thorpe, I guess, but you gotta look at what Jim Brown did. All-American in two sports, Football and Lacrosse. Competition was a lot tougher for Jim Brown the it was for Thorpe.”
“Bobby Orr, was pretty good on the ice,” said a man in a thick sweater. “He changed the face of hockey, drafted at the age of 14.”
Man in dark glasses at the far end of the table. “Bob Mathias was good too. Two time Gold medal in the decathlon. That's a true test for an athlete, the decathlon. Plus he was All-American running back at Stanford.”
“Remember the Rumble in the Jungle? Comes to raw sports, it's boxing, and the best was Ali. He'd be good at anything he did. He was the original rapper, by the way. 'Float like a butterfly, Sting like a bee.'”
“Muhammad Ali was not only a boxer but part of American history. Like Joe Lewis. More than boxing. He was a major part of a time in our history.”
From the young lady, “Babe Zaharias? Chris Evert? Althea Gibson?” Her face was getting a tad red.
Well, everybody checked around, so the pot now was $45 or so. The dealer pealed off the Turn card, the fourth card. It as a 5 of hearts. My two Jacks now looked a lot less attractive. I could lose to one card now. Any 9 would make somebody a straight.
I had to be careful. I wanted to win but I didn't want to lose too much either. So I checked, a weak play. I would just call if someone else bet.
“I like Mike! Jordan was a pure athlete. And a big time gambler is seems on the golf course, a plus in my book.” He laughed.
“The greatest of all time, Jim Brown. He is in 3 Halls of Fame, two times Lacrosse All American. And with the Browns. Supposed to be the best player to ever play lacrosse. That's almost 50 years ago! He STILL looks like he can play.”
A man who was highlighting textbook passages as he played chimed in. “I am definitely thinking it is Michael Phelps. He has to be the most adroit athlete in American history, because who else could have won all those gold medals that he has won.” He adjusted his glasses. “I can only surmise, but will he not win more?”
“Ted Williams, greatest hitter of all and fought in two wars. He'll be back in uniform, once they can fit him with a new body. They'd thaw out his head first...you know.”
“Come on. Baseball players are way overpaid. Three weeks on the DL for a hang nail. Stay above the Mendoza Line, and don't miss practice, you're in the starting line-up. I'll go with Ali. Or Pele, but he wasn't an American.”
“I'm from Boston,” said the man in the sweater. “How about Larry Bird? Not that he was born in Boston...”
The dealer knuckled the table, silence, then dealt the River card, the fifth card. It was a 10 of diamonds.
YIKES! There was a straight now on the board. Everyone had the straight, unless someone had a Jack, LIKE ME, making a higher straight. No possibility of a flush or a full house. So, how could I loose? Only one way. If someone had a Jack and a Queen.
“What about Mary Lou Retton, Sonja Henie, Cheryl Miller?” said the young girl. “And where is Kristine Lilly on your list?” That vein in her neck was sticking WAY out.
“Ali,” said another. “He was fearless in and out of the ring. Still is.”
“I like Bo Jackson,” said a young man wearing a basketball jersey, waving a bottle of beer. “Heisman, and he played in both the All Star Game, and in the Pro Bowl. Seen videos of him on Sports Central. Not many did that. But, I like Kobe too.”
An older gentleman wearing a fedora, looked up. “Show me an athlete, who was more historical than Jesse Owens. Four Gold Medals, with Hitler staring down at him. He tied the world record for the 100 in HIGH SCHOOL! He couldn't go to practice after school because he had to work. Only whites got scholarships back then so he had to work to pay his way. Black only restaurants, and hotels. Crap like that. Man was more than an athlete. It was us against them in Berlin. Jesse was us. Like Schmeling and Lewis.”
“The best athlete has to be the best at more than one sport. Jordan, Tiger Woods, Jim Brown, Phelps, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams. The Best Athlete, has to be Jim Thorpe. Decathlon and pentathlon, football, and baseball.”
The kid with his cap on backwards again had that, 'Who is this Jim Thorpe guy?' look in his eyes.
Then I piped up, “I'm thinking Rocky Balboa? He fought the likes of Apollo Creed, Ivan Drago, and Clubber Lang, was in his prime for over 25 years, overcame a speech problem, a badly cut eye, raw eggs for breakfast, and an over dramatic Burgess Meredith. And, for all I know, he could be working on comeback right now.”
“Stanley Matthews. Look him up. English soccer. SIR Stanley Matthews. Played bloody well 'til he was 55.”
“Billie Jean King, Lynette Woodard, or Emma-Jayne Wilson,” said the young girl. Her face was becoming distorted.
Then the dealer rapped his knuckles, and pointed at me. The five cards were on the table and it was my turn to bet. I had the Jack high straight. I had to bet. The chances I was beat were slim. So I bet $25. Small enough for others to bet who were playing the lower straight on the board. I didn't want anyone to fold.
The three to my left bet. Then an older lady on the far end of the table, woke up out of her coma, and in a loud voice, “I raise,” and pushed in $200, most of what she had.
Everyone looked at her, then at the board.
Was she bluffing? Did she also have a Jack? If so, we'd split the pot. I could live with that. Or did she have the Jack Queen, the nut straight, a better straight than mine?
The two players on my right called her raise. I had to bet, I had no choice. But just as I touched my chips, she said. “You know, I think Secretariat was the best American athlete ever.”
I stopped. Where did that come from? That was a good answer. Too good. She had been thinking about an athlete, not about the game. This meant her raise was either a stone cold bluff, or she had a Jack and a Queen, and didn't have to think much about her hand.
I stared at her, and felt her confidence. She looked so relaxed. She could think about athletes, not the game. Plus she was betting most of what she had left. My instincts said fold.
So I folded. It was the best or the worst fold I had ever made.
Turned out to be one of my best.
The pot was close to $1200. She got five callers, and sure enough she showed Jack and Queen of diamonds.
It's been awhile since your Triple Crown, but it seems Secretariat, you're still a winner.
That's my take. Who is America's best Athlete ever? Or is this one of those sports questions that will be argued until the Raiders win another Super Bowl? (Argued forever is what I'm saying).