You get to a certain level of performance in any endeavor, and by definition there are few to compare one’s self to. Yesterday Alex Ovechkin became the 43rd member of the “500-Goal Club” in NHL history, and I’ve struggled as a fan with making a comparison to any other athlete I’ve seen.
It finally occurred to me, the comparison literally under my nose, or more precisely on a cup I keep on my desk. It is a cup commemorating the 1979 NCAA Men’s Basketball Champions from Michigan State University, which happens to be my alma mater. I spent a lot of time sitting in Jenison Field House that season watching a young man who, like Ovechkin, was a highly sought after talent as a teenager and who, like Ovechkin, had the promise to take over games and remake the sport in his own image.
They also shared the same sort of infectious joy that they brought to the court and to the rink. Not to mention the fact that they seemed just as happy making a pass and seeing a teammate score as they were when they did so themselves.
To me, one can draw a bright line from the Earvin “Magic” Johnson of that 1978-1979 Spartan basketball team to the Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals hockey team who is still scoring goals and celebrating each one as if it was his first in what is now his 11th season in the NHL.
Both players possess a flair for the dramatic and an appreciation for the elements of showmanship that bring fans into the play. Every time they had the ball or the puck, you paid attention. But each has a respect for their craft, able to remake and improve their games as necessary to sustain their level of excellence. Johnson made himself a better shooter, Ovechkin has made himself a more responsible defender, to the point where he can be "a pain in the ass.” And each remade their respective positions, Johnson with the size of a power forward who remade the position of point guard, and Ovechkin a power forward in the body of an NFL linebacker who could skate or stickhandle around as much as drive through opponents.
Johnson’s amateur and professional careers included more by way of team achievements, but part of that is the lack of depth around Ovechkin in previous years in a sport that not only prizes it, but requires it for championship success. It is no longer fantasy to think that Ovechkin will join Johnson in having tasted a championship before his career comes to an end.
Nevertheless, for sheer star magnitude, uncommon skill, the durable nature of their excellence, the tenacity to persevere in making themselves better with time, and the joy with which they play the game and that they share with their fans, this fan who had the special privilege of seeing both play in person sees one in the other. Of each it could be said that there were none before them quite like them, and none since.