Thursday, March 3, 2005 Updated: May 31, 2:30 PM ET
Who is the U2 of sports?
By Bill Simmons Page 2
Editor's note: This column appears in the March 14 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Ever play the musician/athlete game? You just pick a band or singer and then decide which sports star they'd be. For instance, Springsteen is Larry Bird, the workingman's hero. Guns N' Roses are Doc Gooden, the prodigy who flamed out too fast. The Stones are Ali, the greatest until they hung around too long. The Police are John McEnroe -- gifted, tortured, ultimately unable to keep it together.
You can easily kill an eight-hour car ride this way ... as long as you keep U2 out of it. Trying to find a match for that band will make you crazy. Kareem and Roger Clemens had similar longevity, but nobody liked them. Ditto for Barry Bonds, although Bonds' head and Bono's both have grown exponentially over the years. Nolan Ryan was breathtaking in moments, but never transcendent. Gretzky and MJ didn't dominate long enough. The closest comparison? Jack Nicklaus. Big splash in the '60s, superduperstar in the '70s, stunning revival in the '80s -- it's a similar arc, right down to the success of "Vertigo" and the 1986 Masters. But can you compare U2 to a golfer? Of course not.
In rock and in sports U2 has no equal.
Here's the point: bands just don't do what U2 have done. They don't stay together for 26 years without even a token separation (or 20). They don't continue to pump out quality albums and concert tours (sorry, I don't count the Dead, who haven't been nearly as popular). And they don't resonate with three different generations.
There hasn't been nearly enough made of these guys. Unlike what we do with our sports heroes, few of us consider the overall body of work of musicians. It always comes down to what they did most recently, or who died at the optimal time, or whose music aged best. Fact is, there is no black-and-white way to judge them. How can you prove Jimmy Page was a better guitar player than Eric Clapton? Instead of statistics and awards, we rely on emotions and memories, on what a particular band meant to us. It leads to some deceiving outcomes -- like how everyone forgets that, when Kurt Cobain killed himself, Nirvana had been eclipsed by Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins. Had he lived, there's a 90 percent chance Cobain and Courtney Love would be starring in a reality show on VH-1 right now. You just never know. That's why people rarely argue about music ... well, unless they're stoned.
With sports, there is nothing to do but argue about this stuff. If music were sports, Kornheiser and Wilbon would be fighting to the death over "Who's better: Franz Ferdinand or The Killers?" But we don't approach music this way, and so U2 never get their due. Take everything you ever read or heard about MJ, then double it -- that's what we'd have if U2 had played ball. What would their rookie card be worth? How many covers would they have graced? What formula would Rob Neyer have concocted to legitimize their run?
Maybe I'm biased. Some people have photo albums; I have U2. When I listened to them as a kid they were belting out angry diatribes about growing up in Ireland, so who could have imagined they'd provide a soundtrack for my life? There was "The Unforgettable Fire" for my moody years, and "The Joshua Tree" for when I began to put it all together. When "Rattle and Hum" came out, I was also taking myself a little too seriously. "Achtung Baby"? We were both running on all cylinders. "Zooropa" and "Pop"? We were both figuring out where to go next. We finally crossed paths with "All That You Can't Leave Behind." I was covering my first Super Bowl and U2 was singing at halftime of the eventual Pats upset, and yes, it was a "Beautiful Day." With their most recent, "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb," I'm in a good place, and so are they. They're E.T. to my Elliott.
Throw in the unintentional comedy and general weirdness -- how Bono doesn't age (much like David Robinson); how you can't call "The Edge" just "Edge"; every delightfully absurd minute of the Rattle and Hum documentary (my favorites: The Edge's extended mullet, the Graceland trip and every conversation between Bono and B.B. King); Bono's pompous concert speeches; even Adam Carolla's idea that we should deport Bono so he can annoy Ireland instead of us -- and there has never been another band like this. At the recent Grammys, they were still as strong on stage as anyone else, even though I'm pretty sure The Edge died about three years ago and they're just propping him up. Against all odds, they keep plugging away.
They have no peers in the business, and no sports equivalent. So if you ever play the musician/athlete game, save some time -- skip U2 and go right to a band like Van Halen. (They were Sugar Ray Leonard, but that's a whole other story.)
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.