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Babe, Vonn in the mix for best female athlete ever

Jerry Sullivan

Column as I see ’em:

• I’m sure readers will quarrel with some of the choices in our current “Buffalo’s Best” series, which is part of the fun. What sports fan doesn’t relish a vigorous, subjective debate about the greatest athletes?

Last month, I suggested that tennis star Serena Williams could be making a case as the greatest female athlete ever. I got quite a few responses from readers who asked me if I knew about Babe Didrikson Zaharias.

I know Babe, all right. She’s hard to beat. Didrikson won two gold medals and a silver in track and field at the 1932 Olympics. She won 10 events on the LPGA Tour and is in the World Golf Hall of Fame. She was a basketball all-American. My wife read her biography when she took up golf and named our dog Babe in her honor.

How about skier Lindsey Vonn? Last Saturday, Vonn won a record 20th World Cup crystal globe, which are awarded to the winner in each of the five Alpine disciplines after the Cup season. She broke the record of Swedish legend Ingemar Stenmark, who won 19 globes from 1975 to 1985.

Early this month, Vonn won a downhill for her 76th career World Cup win, extending her own women’s record. She’s 10 behind Stenmark’s record for overall World Cup wins. Annemarie Moser-Proll of Austria had held the women’s overall Cup record of 73 since the 1970s.

Vonn is the most successful American ski racer, male or female, in history. And to think, she missed all of the 2013 season and much of 2014 after knee surgeries, which prevented her from competing at the Sochi Olympics and adding to the gold and bronze she won at Vancouver in 2010.

She’s not afraid to make a spectacle of herself, either. Vonn was one of the female athletes featured in the recent Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. She was seen smashing her skis with a hammer on a Facebook video last weekend, an emotional outburst for which she later apologized.

Could Vonn be the greatest female athlete ever? Her achievements rival Williams’. It’s hard to make a fair comparison with Didrikson, who competed when there was far less competition for women. Nowadays, it would be near-impossible to excel across several sports as Babe did 70 to 80 years ago.

By all means, discuss. And any bets on who will be the No. 1 Buffalo female athlete?

• Mel Kiper, the ESPN draft guru, held a one-hour conference call Monday. Kiper said Mississippi’s Laquon Treadwell, considered the top wide receiver prospect in the draft, could fall to the second half of the first round if he doesn’t run well at this week’s NFL Combine.

It’s hard to imagine the top wideout falling to 19, but that means he might be there for the Bills, who lack a true No. 2 option. There’s talk that they might go for a receiver to complement Sammy Watkins.

I wouldn’t advise it. This draft is loaded with defensive talent, especially pass rushers, and Rex Ryan needs immediate help with his D. Can you believe the Bills haven’t drafted a viable edge rusher in the first round since Bruce Smith in 1985?

The Bills have fallen for the flashy offensive guy too many times during the playoff drought. Doug Whaley was ascendant in the front office when they reached for EJ Manuel in 2013. Then Whaley used his 2014-15 first-rounders so he could get Watkins to help Manuel succeed.

What, now they take the top wideout to help Sammy? Bad idea. While they were loading up on offense, the defensive front regressed. Job One this week is identifying the best defensive stud to take in the first round.

• Zach Bogosian was talking about the Sabres’ recent run of solid play and team bond after practice Saturday. He said the players were “a little more emotionally invested” and not trying to worry about things beyond their control.

I asked Bogosian if they needed a greater emotional investment from their fans. “I’m not going to speak on that,” the veteran defenseman said. “I just know, as a team, it’s our job to get excited for games.”

It sounded as he didn’t want to get drawn into criticizing the placid atmosphere in First Niagara Center, which has become known as the “library” and can’t be terribly inspiring for players.

• I’m puzzled by the monolithic thinking of the college basketball voters (football, too). In last week’s AP poll, top-ranked Villanova had 44 of the 65 first-place votes and No. 2 Kansas received the other 21.

In a sport when half the top six teams can lose on a single night, you would expect more diversity of opinion. Not one voter felt Oklahoma, which is ranked third and beat Villanova by 23 points, was the best team. How about Virginia, which was No. 8 and beat Villanova by 11?

I’m not saying Villanova isn’t the best team. But it’s a subjective exercise. Are there really no independent thinkers covering the sport?

• Patrick Kane has responded to his difficult summer with the best season of his NHL life. Kane has 84 points and is 17 points ahead of his closest competition, Jamie Benn, in the race for Ross Trophy for leading scorer.

Kane is four points shy of his career high of 88, set in 2009-10. His 35 goals are a career high. The Buffalo native has developed a strong chemistry with his Russian linemates, Artem Anisimov and Artemi Panarin.

At his current pace, Kane would finish with 120 points. Only one Blackhawk, Denis Savard, has scored more than 120 points in a season. Savard had 131 points in 1987-88 and 121 in 1982-83.

• Anthony Davis had 59 points and 20 rebounds for the Pelicans on Sunday, becoming only the third NBA player since 1974 to hit the 50 point/20 rebound mark in a game. The other two were Shaquille O’Neal and Chris Webber.

Bob McAdoo did it for the Braves at the Aud on Feb. 22, 1974 – exactly 42 years ago Monday. McAdoo scored 52 points in a 116-109 loss to the Celtics. Imagine if they had a three-point shot in those days.

• Ryan Miller has a 2.60 goals-against average and .917 save percentage this season. His career numbers are 2.59 and .915. He’s the same guy he was for much of his Sabres career – a middle-of-the-pack NHL goalie.


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