Frank Deford was on NPR this morning talking about how stupid it was to try to compare Michael Phelps to competitors from other sports, and while he obviously has a legitimate point, I can't help but think of Amare Stoudemire when I watch Usain Bolt. It's the irrepressible swagger in the starting blocks, the preternatural cool under pressure, and more than anything, the sheer physical dominance over his opponents. Like Amare, Bolt manages to look like a man among boys, while at the same time seeming himself to still be a child. It's this rawness that prompted NBC announcer Ato Bolden to proclaim that, although he had just pulled off a astonishingly commanding victory in the 100 meters, Bolt had horrible technique. Or to lament to millions of viewers before the 200 final that Bolt was "still clownin."
For anyone who thinks I'm insulting Bolt--already one of the greatest sprinters of all time--by comparing him to a mere three-time All-Star who's never advanced past the Western Conference Finals, remember back to the 2005 playoffs. At the age of 22 (the age Bolt turns tomorrow), Amare was clearly the best player in a Suns-Spurs series that featured two former MVPs still in their prime. Bolt is that Amare Stoudemire, the pre-injury Amare for whom the sky was literally the limit. He put together STAT lines like 42 points, 16 rebounds, and 4 blocks, and seemed like he was only scratching the surface of what he could be. Even Lebron has failed to exhibit that kind of almost casual supremacy, and despite his youth, King James has always seemed much older and wiser than his years (see Wednesday's tie picture).
And don't even think about mentioning the name Jordan. For today's sports fan, Michael Jordan is the standard to which we hold all other athletes. Tiger Woods is the "Michael Jordan of golf" or Roger Federer is the "Michael Jordan of tennis." It's gotten ridiculous. Deford is tearing his hair out. And, anyway, the "Michael Jordan of track" is clearly Carl Lewis: the greatest of his generation, transcendent all-around talent, loved by all, but who hung around a little too long. While he may yet scale the same heights as Jordan, Usain Bolt is something different.
Bolt, like Amare before the microfracture, has the kind of talent and presence that make a non-believer like me want to get religion. I'm reluctant to suggest in any way that Bolt doesn't train as hard as Phelps or anyone else, but there is something about him that makes me want to use words like "blessed" or "predestined." Or, better still, Bolt is beatific.