When it comes to defining greatness, there are countless measures. Many will cite induction into a sport’s Hall of Fame as adequate proof, while others may dismiss election as nothing more than a flawed popularity contest. Some will cite the advanced metrics that are becoming so widespread in sports today, while old-school observers will dismiss those numbers in favor of the “eye test.” In the sports world, defining greatness is often a difficult proposition that sparks quite a bit of understandably contentious debate.
There is one way to measure greatness that is hard to disagree with, however, as there have been only a few athletes in sports who have been so dominant or so revolutionary that they ultimately forced the rules of the game to be changed. In some cases, these athletes possessed athletic gifts that made it nearly impossible for them to be stopped without a rule change -- though it is just as often the case that these athletes simply possess the gift of innovation, and in more than one instance these athletes creatively bent the rules in their favor.
The athletes appearing on this list contributed greatly to their respective sports and inspired rule changes to ensure that the playing field was effectively leveled among teams and competitors. The changes these players inspired range from the minor to the radical, and they include rules that have been tossed aside with relative speed and rules that remain central to the sport as we know it today. In any case, the following 12 athletes were either so great or so innovative that they inspired their sport to alter the rules of play.
12 Shaquille O'Neal
As one of the greatest and most dominant big men of all time, it should come as no surprise that some rule changes were adopted to quell the big man's dominance in the NBA. The most sweeping change was the elimination of the illegal defense rule, which penalized team's for playing the type of zone defense that could help neutralize an athletic big man or wing player. Phil Jackson, Shaq's coach at the time, was in favor of the change to allow zone despite acknowledging its effect on the then-Lakers center, saying to the New York Times in 2001, "I'm totally O.K. with the zone. It's going to hurt Shaq, but it's still part of what the game has to be.''
11 Ed Walsh
Walsh was one of the most dominant pitchers of the early 1900s, retiring with a minuscule 1.82 ERA that remains the lowest in the history of MLB. Walsh was able to so thoroughly dominate due to the use of a spitball, a pitch that was notoriously difficult to hit due to its unpredictable flight path. Walsh popularized the pitch and many other pitchers of the era adopted its use, leading baseball to outlaw the pitch altogether in 1920.
10 Darryl Dawkins
The colorful character known as “Chocolate Thunder” inspired one of the most unbelievable rule changes due to his incredibly powerful dunks. During the 1979 season, Dawkins, then with the 76ers, shattered the backboard glass after a dunk. He did it again just a few weeks later, leading the NBA to announce that breaking the backboard glass was now against the rules and the offending player would be subject to a fine and a suspension. By instituting the rule, the NBA was effectively telling Dawkins to stop dunking so hard. Ultimately, the NBA began using breakaway rims to ensure that “Dr. Dunkenstein” of “Planet Lovetron” could not destroy any more backboards.
Dawkins relayed the details of both incidents in a 2004 article published in the New York Times, saying, ''The first one was an accident, but I wanted to see if I could do it again when I got back to Philadelphia. All the fans were hollering, 'You've got to do one for the home crowd,' so I went ahead and brought it down. Everybody was in awe. Fans were running out grabbing the glass. People's hands were bleeding. I felt like I was doing something no other human could do.”
9 Tiger Woods
It may seem like forever ago given his recent struggles, but Tiger Woods dominated the game of golf so thoroughly that the Masters committee at famed Augusta National had to institute many serious changes to the iconic golf course following dominating performances in 1997 and 2001, the first of which saw Woods lap the field on the way to a 12-stroke victory. The course underwent “Tiger-proofing,” which included adding significant yardage to the course, planting trees along several fairways, narrowing the fairways and allowing the rough to become overgrown.
While Woods has won the Masters on two occasions since the changes, players on the PGA Tour have made it clear that the so-called Tiger-proofing has only made the course tougher for everybody. Of the changes, Jim Furyk told ESPN.com in 2011, "Quite honestly, it's not a fun golf course to play right now. It's hard. It's very demanding, both physically and mentally. It has a feel of more of a U.S. Open type of struggle, rather than going out there, blaze of glory, shooting at pins and making a birdie or bogey.”
8 Candy Cummings
Cummings dominated the early years of baseball and earned election to the Baseball Hall of Fame due to his mastery of a pitch that he had invented: the curveball. Batters had never seen the pitch before and since other pitchers had not yet learned how to throw the pitch, it was incredibly difficult for batters to get any practice hitting the pitch that Cummings had already mastered. This caused some consternation in the game of baseball and the pitch was briefly outlawed because it was considered “dishonest.” Obviously the ban on the curveball was ultimately lifted, and it remains an important weapon in any pitcher’s arsenal.
7 Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita
The so-called “banana blade” was the result of a mishap that occurred during a practice session in which Mikita broke his stick but kept on shooting for fun. After seeing that the broken stick gave the puck some additional velocity and bend, Hull and Mikita began experimenting by significantly curving their blades. This resulted in shots that curved and even knuckled in an unpredictable fashion. Ultimately the NHL had to step in to limit the amount of curve a blade could legally have.
6 Bob Gibson
Gibson so thoroughly dominated hitters in 1968 that the season is forever known as the “Year of the Pitcher,” as the St. Louis Cardinals right-hander posted a microscopic 1.12 ERA on the way to the Cy Young Award. Gibson relied on just two pitches – an intimidating fastball that was often up and in, and a curveball that buckled many a hitter’s knees – and was so unhittable that Major League Baseball took corrective action to stimulate the offense in the national pastime. Baseball lowered the mound following Gibson’s historic season by five inches, bringing it down from 15 inches to 10 inches for the 1969 season.
5 Martin Brodeur
Brodeur’s superior stick-handling ability as a goaltender allowed him to serve as a sort of third defenseman during his time in the NHL, but the league put an end to that in 2005 by limiting the area in which the goaltender is allowed to handle the puck. The league put in a trapezoid behind the net that designated the area in which the goalie could handle the puck outside of the net.
Brodeur was none too thrilled with the rule change when it was announced, telling the New York Times in 2005, “You can't be happy, taking away something I've worked on all my life to do and help my teammates and help my defense. It's just part of me, playing the puck. So, definitely, you can't be happy. It's just the fact that the NHL wants to show the talent to their fans and stuff. And I think this is not doing it. I think it goes the other way around. It goes taking away a talent from guys. There's a lot of guys that can't play the puck, and that doesn't affect them.''
4 George Mikan
Mikan, one of the first true big men to play professional basketball, inspired a number of rule changes due to his size and ability. While still in college at DePaul University, Mikan would routinely position himself in the center of a zone defense to swat away shots before they reached the rim, leading the NCAA to institute a rule against goaltending. This was not the only rule change Mikan's dominance would inspire, as once he reached the professional ranks, the lane had to be widened from six feet to 12 feet to keep Mikan from posting up so close to the basket. The rule changes ultimately decreased his scoring output, but he remained one of the game’s greatest players and was ultimately inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1959.
3 Wayne Gretzky
Wayne Gretzky and his Oilers teammates were so proficient at exploiting the open ice in four-on-four and three-on-three situations that the NHL instituted a change in which teams would continue to play full strength following offsetting penalties. The so-called “Gretzky Rule” was heavily criticized and did not last very long, as the league reversed course in advance of the 1992-93 season. Gretzky was so displeased after the introduction of the rule that he held a press conference to chide the NHL for punishing players like himself by instituting the rule change.
2 Wilt Chamberlain
Like Mikan before him, Chamberlain was a dominant big man who inspired a number of rule changes (the NBA widened the lane again because of Chamberlain) due to his astounding physical prowess. One of the rules he inspired was the rule preventing a free-throw shooter from crossing the foul line before the ball touched the rim. This was due to the fact that Chamberlain could simply leap from behind the line to either dunk the ball or simply lay it in from close range. The rule change would lead to one of Chamberlain's few deficiencies, as the legendary big man shot just 51 percent from the foul line over the course of his career.
1 Lew Alcindor
During his years at UCLA and before he became known as Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, Alcindor was the dominant force on the most dominant team in the history of the NCAA. Alcindor was able to tower over opponents and easily dunk over them, leading the NCAA to ban dunking in advance of the 1967-68 season. It may seem completely preposterous, but the rule actually lasted until the 1976-77 season, and Alcindor is certain that he was the inspiration for the ban on dunking.
Incidentally, legendary UCLA coach John Wooden believed the rule change would be a good thing for Alcindor and he proved right. The dunking ban led Alcindor to work on the sky hook that would become his go-to move throughout his NBA career, helping him to a wildly successful 20-year career that would see him score the most points in the history of the league (38,387).
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