Commentary

Defining perfection across sports

From bowling a 300 game to tossing a no-no, there are many ways to measure it

Originally Published: December 1, 2010
By LaRue Cook | ESPN The Magazine

Getty ImagesDallas Braden threw a perfect game this past May, just one of many definitions of perfection across sports.

Often perfection is no more than a moment.

That particular Albert Pujols home run swing.

The best LeBron James drop-step.

A precise Landon Donovan put-away.

Sometimes, though, the measurable nature of our games etches them in eternity: a pitcher's perfect game, a bowler's 300, an undefeated season. One way or another, in one sport or another, it's there if you know what you're looking for. What follows are some representations of perfection. If we didn't nail the bull's-eye every time, that just confirms the elusiveness of the quarry. And that's okay, because there's one thing we do know for sure: It's the pursuit that matters.

The NBA

An 82-game season pretty much erases any chance of season-long perfection. The best-ever Chicago Bulls had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and they still lost 10 times. In 1971-72, the Lakers won 33 in a row, and they finished with 13 losses. From a player's eye-view, Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game could seem perfect. (That number does have that kind of effect on people.) But, seriously, he missed 27 shots that night. On the other hand, in the 1966-67 season, Wilt shot 15-of-15 or more from the field three times as a 76er, including one 18-for-18er. That's the record for FGs in a game without a miss. And perfect from the line? A couple of years ago, Raptor José Calderon came close; his 98.1 percent for the season included just three misses in 154 attempts. And speaking of mistake-free: perfect = no turnovers. Two teams have flirted with that: both the Bucks in 2006 and the Cavs in 2009 finished a game with just two apiece.

Boxing

We can all agree there is a purity to a one-punch knockout. Can we also agree that if that punch is the first one thrown, it just ratchets up that purity? Welterweight Aurele "Al" Couture scored the fastest one-punch knockout -- 10.5 seconds -- on Sept. 24, 1946, against Ralph Walton. It is a mark that will never fall; boxers are now sent to a neutral corner before the 10-count begins. Another stainless mark likely to last forever is the 490 record of heavyweight legend Rocky Marciano. The Rock, in fact, is the only heavyweight champ to have retired unbeaten. Still, his perfection is not without its skeptics. "I'm not taking away from Marciano's record," says Larry Merchant, Hall of Fame boxing analyst. "But in the post-Joe Louis era, there was a decline in competitive heavyweights. And in boxing it's who you fought, not how many you won without losing." Killjoy.

College Basketball

We say NCAA hoops perfection and you say ... UCLA's streak of 88 wins in a row. (Okay, some of you say the UConn women's 81 and counting; fair enough.) But when it comes to unblemished individual performances, we direct you to Duke star Christian Laettner's game against Kentucky in the 1992 Elite Eight. He went 10-for-10 from the field and 10-for-10 from the line -- and hit that heroic last-second game-winner for the Blue Devils. But conceivably even that may be outdone someday. Here are two streaks that won't be: UNLV and D2's Kentucky Wesleyan hold their divisions' records for hitting at least one trey in every game since the three-point line was standardized on the hardwood in 1986. At press time, the Rebels' streak stands at 775; Wesleyan's is at 632. Hope we haven't jinxed them.

MLB

A perfect game -- 27 up, 27 down -- gets all the headlines, but even perfect games can be ranked if you really try (see page 104). Here's a clean sheet you can't argue with: striking out the side on nine pitches. That minimalist feat has earned a catchy term of its own -- the Immaculate Inning -- and 44 of them have been tossed. Only three pitchers have done the deed twice: Lefty Grove, Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax. What does perfection look like from the batter's box? Well, the MLB record for home runs in a game is four. And while that has happened 15 times, Carlos Delgado is the only man who hit one out in each of his plate appearances.

College Football

Undefeated is a ho-hum accomplishment on the college gridiron. There have been 11 perfect FBS teams in the past decade. As of Thanksgiving there were still four this season. But no D1 squad has ever put together a run of dominance to match that of D3's University of Mount Union (Ohio). The Purple Raiders have had nine undefeated seasons in the past 20 and won 95.2 percent of their games overall. And they haven't been shut out in 366 consecutive games, dating back to Nov. 7, 1981. Mount Union finished this past season 100, then won its first playoff game 49-0.

Bowling

Ten frames, 12 consecutive strikes, 120 downed pins, 300 points -- that's the unsurpassable single-game performance at the alley. On the PBA Tour, it has happened 3,915 times since 1964, when the organization began to record them. But how many bowlers in Tour history have rolled three 300 games in a row? Exactly one, Norm Duke, who strung all those strikes together over two qualifying rounds before the 1996 Brunswick Johnny Petraglia Open. "No one has ever been on a run like that," says the 46-year-old Duke, who has actually stroked 58 300s since joining the Tour in 1982. "The crowd understood what they were witnessing more than I did." Clearly, Duke was in a zone that day, but it's only a matter of time before his accomplishment is topped. Perfect 300 games have been coming faster since the 1980s, when alleys began to go high-tech. Today, synthetic surfaces have replaced wood, which tends to warp, and oiling machines keep lane conditions consistent, insuring better accuracy.

NHL

For a hockey goalie, no number is more perfect than zero, so no goalie in NHL history has been more perfect than Martin Brodeur. In 18 seasons, all with the Devils, the nine-time All-Star has put up 112 zeroes. Vancouver's Roberto Luongo is the active goalie closest to that mark, and he isn't even halfway there (52 shutouts). On offense, the great ones use 50 as their barometer. The only players to score that many goals in their team's first 50 games form a list of NHL elite: Maurice Richard, Mike Bossy, Mario Lemieux, Brett Hull and Wayne Gretzky, who did it three times. In the 1981-82 season, it took him just 39 games.

Golf

Now, here's a sport in which perfect is measurable: 18 holes, 18 holes-in-one, 18 on your scorecard. Good luck with that. (Fun fact: Andrew Magee drove a ball 332 yards into the hole during the 2001 TPC Scottsdale, the longest hole-in-one in PGA Tour history.) So how low can they go? This past spring, then-18-year-old Ryo Ishikawa shot a 58, the lowest score in a major-tour event. The PGA Tour record is 59, first posted by Al Geiberger in the second round of the 1977 Memphis Classic. It has since shown up on the cards of four other PGAers.

Peers consider Geiberger's round the most sublime 59. The old pro sank 11 birdies, one eagle and six pars at the Colonial Country Club, which at 7,200 yards was one of the longest and most difficult courses on the Tour at the time. And he did it on a scorching 102° day. "People asked, 'Would you rather have won the PGA or shot 59?' " says Geiberger, who did win the PGA Championship in 1966. "Ahead of time, I would have said the PGA. Now, I'd say the 59. It has stuck more."

Sure has. Golfers still have a name for the 73-year-old pro: Mr. 59.

NASCAR

In stock car racing's top series, a driver has led every lap of a race, start to finish, 92 times. The last time it happened was on Sept. 17, 2000, when Jeff Burton dominated the Dura Lube 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. NASCAR drivers don't need to lead every lap to win, but they do need to win to attain the optimal driver rating -- an eight-category measure of performance that maxes out at 150.0 (think QB rating for racers). That hallowed score has been achieved only 11 times since the series started keeping track of loop data in 2005. And here's a shocker: Kurt Busch, not Jimmie Johnson, has the most, with four.

Bull riding

Yes, 8 Seconds is the name of the movie, but in real-life rodeo the scoring begins only after the cowboy has held on for the count. Four judges rate both cowboy and bull on a scale of 1 to 25 each, and all four scores are added together and divided in half, for a score of up to 50. The bull's and the rider's scores are then totaled for a max ride score of 100. It's an elusive number. Four times in PBR history a cowboy has scored 96.5 points. Legend Chris Shivers was in the saddle for two of those. Ask him if a perfect ride is possible, and he gives no bull: "I doubt it."

NFL

Two examples of pro football peerlessness are indisputable. The 1972 Dolphins 17-0 (including their Super Bowl victory) and linebacker Mike Vrabel. Didn't see that one coming, did you? Vrabel, who now plays for the Chiefs, is the game's most perfect scoring machine. He has scored a TD on each of his 12 catches as a moonlighting tight end.

Here's something else that may surprise you. There is no such thing as a perfect passer rating. "It's a maximum rating," corrects Steve Hirdt, of the Elias Sports Bureau. Technically speaking, he is correct, but try convincing Saints fans of that. They have seen what they believe to be perfection: Drew Brees going 18-for-23 for 371 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions in a win over the Patriots on MNF last season. That perfect, uh, "maximum" performance of 158.3 marked the 23rd time in NFL history a passer with a minimum of 20 attempts had achieved the highest rating attainable from that convoluted formula.

Getty ImagesMike Vrabel, a stud LB, is also a perfect pass-catcher, as seen here with the Patriots.

Hirdt reads the list of those passers and grits his teeth. He says the QB rating was created in the 1970s to capture a signal-caller's full season, not one four-quarter roll. "Over time, people learned the formula and started doing with it what they wanted," he says. "But giving a quarterback a single-game rating is the same as using a one-game batting average to evaluate a hitter." Case in point: Former Tampa Bay QB Craig Erickson earned a 158.3 in a win over Indy on Sept. 11, 1994. The fourth-round pick never threw a postseason pass in his eight-year career, and certainly will never make anyone's list of go-to throwers. "This being America, there's no federal law against using the passer rating to judge something it's not meant to judge," Hirdt says. Maybe so, but labeling Erickson a perfect passer is a bit of a crime.

Soccer

When does the beautiful game elevate to masterpiece? Fans might mention shutouts or hat tricks or a guy named Pelé. But the World Cup, the sport's signature competition, has graced this earth 19 times, and only once did a team make a flawless march through it to victory. In 1970, the Brazilians -- led by, of course, Pelé -- went 60 in qualifying, then 60 in the Cup. Then again, the streak wasn't totally spotless: Seleção gave up nine goals along the way.

Archery

Nothing says precision with more zing than an arrow shot from long distance into a 4.8-inch bull's-eye. An American, Braden Gellenthien, set the standard for competitive archers by drilling that center circle with each of his 12 arrows from 70 meters in one round at the 2009 Archery World Cup in Copenhagen. Impressive, right? Okay, now imagine sending 36 arrows true from each of four distances: 90, 70, 50 and 30 meters. Because that's what it would take to achieve a peerless score in archery's most daunting format, the 144-arrow FITA event. Peter Elzinga of the Netherlands came closest of any man to a perfect score of 1,440 (10 points per bull's-eye) when he registered 1,419 in a 2009 tournament in his home country. Jamie Van Natta of the U.S. set the women's record, 1,412, at a 2007 tournament in Michigan (women shoot from 70, 60, 50 and 30 meters).

Five-time U.S. Olympian Butch Johnson is convinced the mythical 1,440 is a dream that will never come true. "No way you get a perfect score," says the archer known as The Legend, with a record 46 national titles and a career best of 1,353 points (at the 2001 nationals). He doesn't believe the word "perfect" should even be uttered on the range: "You have shots that feel that way," Johnson says, "but it's something you strive for, an idea that keeps you going."

Surfing

The highest score an ASP surfer can earn for riding a single wave is 10. So in the typical two-wave format, the top score per heat is -- c'mon, you can do it! -- 20. But to get those 10s you have to impress a majority of the five judges. After scoring each ride, they drop the highest and lowest among them, then average the remaining three. But to earn the vaunted perfect 10, all five have to flash that sacred number. Kelly Slater, the 38-year-old legend who became the oldest surfer to win the championship on Nov. 6 in Puerto Rico, is one of two surfers to rate a 20 in a heat. (He did it in 2005; Joel Parkinson followed in 2008.) Slater scored one 10 in the final in Puerto Rico to help him clinch his 10th title, albeit the mark was just less than perfect: four 10s, one 9.8.

LaRue Cook is a writer and researcher for ESPN The Magazine and Insider; you can find his full online archives here.