Last week, Sports Illustrated announced LeBron James as their Sportsperson of the Year, the second time in five years he has received that honor.
Though we’ve got several years left in the 2010s, LeBron is clearly the front-runner to be the decade’s defining athlete and therefore the unofficial Sportsperson of the Decade. That got us thinking: If there were actually a Sportsperson of the Decade award, who would have won it in each decade? Who would have been the runners-up?
We’ll start with the 1960s because that’s when the NBA came into its own, the first Super Bowl was held and the sports landscape began to more or less resemble the modern one.
Note: Yeah, yeah — a decade technically starts with a year ending in 1 (i.e. 1961-1970). But that’s not how anyone thinks about it, so that’s not how we’re going to think about it. For these purposes, a decade begins with a year ending in 0.
Sportsperson of the Decade: Bill Russell
Runners-up: Muhammad Ali, Sandy Koufax, Jim Brown, Willie Mays, Vince Lombardi, Wilt Chamberlain
There were a lot of directions we could have gone here, but ultimately Bill Russell stands out. Obviously, Russell had amazing accomplishments on the court — nine titles, 10 All-Star appearances, five MVPs in the 60s — but he also exemplified the decade’s spirit of social activism. He vocally spoke out against racism in Boston and elsewhere, and in 1967 attended the famous Ali Summit as part of a coalition of black athletes.
Russell’s rival, Wilt Chamberlain, put up bigger stats and was likely the better player, but Russell’s rings and his activism made him the 60s’ defining star. Other candidates for Sportsperson of the 60s include Jim Brown, who was the best football player of the era and, like Russell, vocal about racial injustice; Sandy Koufax, who dominated over a five-year stretch like no one had before; Willie Mays, who expanded on the superstardom he had established in the 50s; and Vince Lombardi, who remains a larger-than-life figure in coaching.
Then there’s Muhammad Ali…
Sportsperson of the Decade: Muhammad Ali
Runners-up: Jack Nicklaus, Billie Jean King, O.J. Simpson, Hank Aaron, Pete Rose, Pele, John Wooden
Ali’s legacy is split pretty evenly between the 60s and 70s, but it was his post-exile comeback that was most compelling and, ultimately, memorably. In the 70s, Ali cemented his title as The Greatest by winning classic bouts against Joe Frazier and George Foreman and reclaiming the heavyweight title belt. Add in his political and social impact, and he’s got a case for not only Sportsperson of the Decade, but also Sportsperson of the Century.
The other sporting figures who best defined the 70s were an eclectic bunch. Jack Nicklaus was the best golfer of all time. Billie Jean King was a great tennis player and a true trailblazer. John Wooden led perhaps the greatest dynasty in sports history. Hank Aaron broke the all-time home run record amid oppressive racism.
Pete Rose and O.J. Simpson show that you can be iconic athletes one decade and, well, something else in later ones. It’s easy to forget now that Simpson was once an incredible football player and one of the first athletes to embrace celebrity culture. And Rose exemplified the scrappy try-hard archetype that has become cliché in the decades since.
Sportsperson of the Decade: Wayne Gretzky
Runners-up: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Joe Montana, Martina Navratilova, Carl Lewis, 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team
This was a deeeep decade.
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird energized the NBA with a thrilling rivalry. Joe Montana built a dynasty in San Francisco and became the best quarterback in NFL history to that point. Martina Navratilova staked her claim as the greatest tennis player of all-time, of any gender. And Carl Lewis dominated the Olympics like no one had before.
Then there was the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team, which famously upset the Soviet Union in the Olympic semifinals at the height of the Cold War and won the gold medal a game later. They were the story of the decade, without a doubt.
But our Sportsperson of the Decade is another towering hockey figure, arguably the most dominant team-sport athlete in sports history. Wayne Gretzky won the Hart Memorial Trophy for the NHL’s most valuable player NINE times during the 1980s. He played in the All-Star Game every year. He won four championships.
Basically, if you earn the nickname “The Great One,” you get to be Sportsperson of the Decade.
Sportsperson of the Decade: Michael Jordan
Runners-up: Ken Griffey Jr., Derek Jeter, Brett Favre, John Elway, 1999 U.S. Women’s Soccer Team, Pat Summitt
This was the easiest one on the board. Jordan was the biggest athlete, maybe the biggest celebrity, in the world, with six titles, numerous accolades and some iconic endorsements. No one has ever dominated a decade, start to finish, on and off the court, the way Jordan did the 90s.
Other than Jordan? Neither Ken Griffey Jr. nor Derek Jeter were the best baseball players in the 90s (that’d be Barry Lamar Bonds), but they were the ones who most captured America’s fancy. And Brett Favre, Troy Aikman, Steve Young and John Elway led an impressive crop of quarterbacks.
Meanwhile, the 90s wrought a breakthrough in women’s sports. Thanks in part to the legacy of Title IX, women’s college basketball went mainstream, the WNBA launched and Steffi Graf dominated a deep field of tennis stars. And then in 1999, the U.S. Women’s National Team won the Women’s World Cup behind compelling stars like Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly and Brandi Chastain and engaged millions of Americans with women’s sports for the first time.
That’s not enough to displace MJ, but it certainly left an important legacy.
Sportsperson of the Decade: Tom Brady
Runners-up: Peyton Manning, Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Roger Federer, Serena Williams
In a decade full of stars dominating their respective sports, Brady gets the nod. From 2000 to 2009, he burst onto the NFL scene, won three Super Bowls and an MVP, led the Patriots to an undefeated regular season and became an international celebrity.
Though Peyton Manning was statistically superior in this decade, it was Brady who was playing deep into the playoffs every year and staking out a spot in the national consciousness with his unassuming origin story and tabloid lifestyle.
Lance Armstrong could have had a claim to Sportsperson of the Decade if he were scandal-free, but alas. Roger Federer and Serena Williams became all-time greats during this decade, but Serena’s peak didn’t come until the 2010s and Federer was a bit too vanilla to reach decade-defining levels.
In April 2008, Woods had this one locked up. He had just won the U.S. Open on one leg and looked like a sure bet to break Jack Nicklaus’ record for Major victories and officially earn the title as greatest golfer ever. But Tiger had a rough final couple of years of this decade and blew his shot at this super-important title.
So on second thought, maybe we shouldn’t hand the 2010s Sportsperson of the Decade award to LeBron just yet.