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
11 Ed Walsh
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.
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.
8 Candy Cummings
7 Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita
6 Bob Gibson
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.
4 George Mikan
3 Wayne Gretzky
2 Wilt Chamberlain
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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