If he was not a figure from the pantheon of athletes as were such historical figures as Ali and Robinson and Johnson, men whose racial travails were at least as compelling as their athletic deeds, then what the average fan was left with was something less than a series of remarkable images of him as an athlete: a human comet who, miraculously enough, did repeat performances, and whom we were privileged to see flash through the night again and again and again, the most charismatic player ever in his sport--brilliant, balletic, and, of course, fierce. He possessed in the highest proportions all the requisite qualities for greatness; in addition, it was as if some geneticist had injected a magical solution for supercompetitiveness into his DNA, and he came to represent, more than any athlete of recent years, the invincible man, someone who simply refused to be defeated.
He seemed sometimes to be as much explorer as athlete, explorer in terms of going beyond previously accepted limits of what was humanly possible, and somehow by dint of physical excellence and unmatched willpower, pushing those limits forward that much more. That, for the millions who watched him over the years, was no small gift.
Excerpted from Playing for Keeps by David Halberstam. Copyright© 1999 by The Amateurs Limited; Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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