We're living in a golden age of basketball when, after getting through a two-month slog of meaningless playoff games, the two greatest teams in the sport will have their NBA Finals rubber match, with two of the best players of their generations competing for another title. So much talk is centered around whether LeBron is better than MJ or if the Warriors could beat Jordan's Bulls and it got us thinking: Is this is best NBA era in history?
We took it further to answer not only that question, but the same one for every major sport in America. You have to be a little creative when differentiating eras - there aren't any hard and fast rules for what constitutes one. Kobe Bryant's career overlapped with Charles Barkley's. Terry Bradshaw's career overlapped with John Elway's, but nobody would ever consider those athletes to be of the same era. So, in each of our selections we'll tweak the definition of eras and the convention of generations but, in the end, here are the peak epochs for every sport.
MLB, the 1950s (give or take)
Baseball is the lone sport in which the past is more romanticized than the present. Ask an NFL fan about the best players ever and it might take a while to get to Jim Brown or Johnny Unitas. A knowledgable NBA fan might throw in Russell and Wilt in between LeBron, Steph, KD and guys who were on the Dream Team. But the best baseball players? Some have been gone for decades but still roll off the tongue. The Babe. Gehrig. Mantle. DiMaggio. Berra. And those are just the Yankees.
This is mostly because, for years, baseball was the only team sport that mattered. Boxing and horse racing were big while tennis and golf had fans too, but baseball was first the only team sport and then, for a while, the only team sport worth paying attention to. It was as ubiquitous with America as democracy and apple pie. There's a reason Ken Burns didn't make Football.
I imagine most people would idealize the halcyon days of Sandy Koufax rather than stop to notice that Clayton Kershaw is doing things Koufax never did. Ditto with Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle in a rare sporting nod toward the old days. We're also ignoring that Mike Trout is a modern-day Mantle.
If you want to go by one of the only reliable metrics for evaluating eras - the Hall of Fame - players from the 1920s and 1930s have the most men in Cooperstown (56) for any modern two-decade stretch while the 1980s and 1990s have the lowest (34). The era in question is somewhere in the middle. We'll ignore this, for multiple reasons:
1. There are still players from the '90s who will get into the Hall. They haven't been on the ballot long enough to work their way up like non-first timers usually do. Thus, any comparison from this era to those eras are inadequate.
2. Expansion has made the HOF field so much bigger and Hall voters have never accounted for it. Back in 1960, there were 16 teams and 400 players on rosters at any given time. In 2000, there were 30 teams and 750 players on rosters. Almost doubling the player pool should, if anything, give recent players a bigger wing in Cooperstown but it hasn't because voters still are picking players like it's 1960. The idea that only X players can make the Hall per year has been largely extended into today's vote and thus is keeping HOF-worthy players out.
3. The veterans committee was a bastion of cronyism that allowed mediocre players from the 1870-1930 without anything resembling Hall credentials.
Thus, it's still the 1939-1955 generation, one that had overlap from Gehrig to DiMaggio to Williams to Musial to Mays to Mantle, that is, and always will be, the greatest.
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NBA, Dream Team era
The Dream Team. It's right there in the name!
The '80s and '90s made the NBA, which was built on the backs of Magic, Bird, MJ, Isaiah, Hakeem, Barkley, Ewing, Clyde, Stockton, Malone, David Robinson, Scottie, Shaq and dozens of others who helped turn the game from a slipping sport that existed in rumor and tape delay and elevated it into one of the biggest on the globe.
There shouldn't be an argument but because NBA Twitter is the most annoying, and unerring Twitter, there might be votes for the current era of LeBron, KD, Steph, Westbrook, CP3 Harden and late-career Dirk, Kobe, Wade, Garnett and Duncan. Could it ever change?
Jordan is the key. If he gets taken down as the greatest player ever - realistically, that vote will never be unanimous but any reasonble person would have to give LeBron the nod with seven titles (which almost certainly isn't happening, but stay with me) - then there's a window for the LeBron era to be considered the greatest.
Pick a Sunday in the fall, 25 years ago. On any given day, you could have seen Joe Montana, John Elway, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Brett Favre, Troy Aikman, Lawrence Taylor, Jerry Rice, Reggie White, Emmitt Smith, Bruce Smith, Ronnie Lott, Deion Sanders, Eric Dickerson and Barry Sanders - former stars, current stars and future stars - on a football field, playing in the biggest sports league in the world. There have been greater players (Manning, Brady, Brown, Graham, Unitas) and bigger moments but those men, coupled with a Hall of Fame coaching fraternity in Bill Walsh, Joe Gibbs, Jimmy Johnson, Bill Parcells and others make this era the NFL's primetime.
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NHL, end of Original Six/start of expansion era
Of the 10 men who were given the hockey equivalent of the NFL's All-Pro designation in 1969-70 (they call it "All-Star Teams, hence the potential confusion), six were Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Tony Esposito and Stan Mikita. Recency bias might want to say the early Gretzky era or the Gretzky/Lemieux era or the Crosby/Ovechkin era had more star wattage but none can top those exciting early days of the modern NHL.
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This might be different depending on where you live. After all, in three straight World Cup finals from 1966-74, there were star turns by Pele, Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton, and Gerd Müller. But here in America, where Pele made soccer a thing, the '94 World Cup made it a "real" sport and increased coverage of the World Cup, Euro Cup and UEFA have made the game more easy and fun to follow than at any other time. Add the international superstardom of Messi, Ronaldo and (before them) Beckham, it's hard not to say we're living in soccer's golden era (for now).
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This is the easiest one on the list: Even though there have been deeper eras where more players won multiple majors ('80s - Chrissie, Martina, Steffi, Johnny Mac, Borg, Connors, Lendl, Becker, Wilander and Edberg), nothing can top the current era of Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. In the past 48 majors, at least one of those players won the title (and in many cases, it was Serena and one of the men).
Golf, Nicklaus-era 1970s
Starting in the early 1970s and extending into the '90s, there was a stretch in which 24 of 42 majors were won by either Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Gary Player, Tom Watson or Seve Ballesteros. Throw in the fact that Arnold Palmer was still around, even though he wasn't winning majors, and that means any big tournament might have had four of the 10 best players in history (Nicklaus, Palmer, Player, Watson) teeing it up.
The only era that can compare is the 1950s when Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson were competing for majors against fields that were far less impressive than the ones compiled in the '70s. And, sure, if you want to take a larger view and say that the fame of Tiger Woods in the early 2000s was so much brighter than any collection of golfers from another point in history - that he was a golfing supernova - then maybe you could say that time period was the most luminary. But stretches of majors won by Rich Beem/Mike Weir/Jim Furyk/Ben Curtis/Shaun Micheel (those were the actual winners of five-straight Slams from 2002-03) manage to dim Tiger's star, among other things.