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Letter from America: Glory belongs to Gretzky

There is a game that you can play in bars across America now, after a few beers, and it takes a few beers for it to make much sense. The game goes like this: who was the best, John Elway, Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky?

It is not a very smart game, and the conclusion usually depends (unsuprisingly) on whether you are an American football, basketball or hockey fan. The answer is pretty obvious, actually, but we'll let that pass for the moment. The point is that a nation has just lost three of its sporting heroes, all of them pre-eminent in ways that few individuals could ever dream of in their chosen careers, within the space of a few weeks. In a country where heroes get built up very big, the sports media have chewed over little else.

The latest to go was John Elway, 38, the quarterback for the Denver Broncos and one of the greatest players of the decade. Elway won more games than any other quarterback in history, and his clean-cut looks made him a favourite for those who didn't follow the Broncos, or even football. In the same way Wayne Gretzky, late of the New York Rangers, was an icon for the game, the best possible advertisement; and Michael Jordan made the Chicago Bulls not just the leading team in the NBA but one of the greatest sporting formations of any kind, anywhere.

The retirement of these three greats has, of course, spurred interest in the next faces on the scene: not just in the sports bars of middle America, but in the boardrooms. For these are the figures who will keep sport booming, keep the value of franchises accelerating by 20 per cent a year and make sure there are names to sell everything from phone cards to chewing tobacco. Given that it takes decades to build the kind of skills, loyalty and character that these three could summon, it is in some ways pernicious to pick names early, but that hasn't stopped anyone.

The easiest place to start speculating is football. Following in Elway's footsteps, probably the greatest quarterback in the game today is Troy Aikman, 33, of the Dallas Cowboys. But amongst the younger generation, the brightest star is 29-year old Brett Favre of the Green Bay Packers. He was the first player in NFL history to win three consecutive Most Valuable Player awards and his 110 touchdowns over the last three years leads all NFL quarterbacks. He may be a little cocky, but he's good and he has years to go.

Of the three sports, the one that most badly needs to build up new stars is basketball. When Jordan's retirement broke up the Bulls, that was bad enough; and few have shone for the last year in a game that is slightly tarnished in the fans' eyes. The player's strike helped rip a lot of the guts out of the season, and it is hard to pick any single individual as the obvious heir to "the Air". For some time, the media has tried to push Grant Hill of the Pistons, but it doesn't quite work. Kobe Bryant of the Lakers has a big following, but has had a run of weak games. Tim Duncan, 23, of the San Antonio Spurs is worth keeping an eye on. But none is Jordan, which is hardly surprising: they are younger, less experienced and far, far less rich.

The NHL decided (apparently collectively) that Gretzky had handed over to a Jaromir Jagr, the Pittsburgh Penguins' 27-year-old right wing from the Czech Republic, against whom Gretzky played his last game. He is a perfect skater with the most intricately developed sense of gravity and balance, his long hair flying out from under his helmet. He was the NHL's leading scorer in 1998, though a persistent groin injury has laid him low again this season.

But is he a Wayne Gretzky? Because in the end, he has to be the greatest of the three retirees in purely sporting terms. Elway was a remarkable player, one of the greatest but not the greatest by a long chalk. Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins, Joe Montana of the 49ers or Joe Namath of the Jets all get higher billing from the critics. Indeed, Elway was once best known for his inability to win a Super Bowl.

Jordan has a very plausible case to make for his place in sporting history with his six NBA championships, 10 scoring titles and five MVP awards. But still there are plenty of others to claim the title of the best hoops player ever - take your pick from Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird or Magic Johnson. He will be hard to follow, but there will be another Michael Jordan.

There may not be another Gretzky - ever. He loomed over his sport in a way that neither of the others can claim. He is the NHL's all-time leader with 2,857 points, 894 goals and 1,963 assists with four teams. When he scored his 1,072nd goal in March, he beat Gordie Howe's record to become the all-time leading goalscorer. And it was his trade from Edmonton to Los Angeles in 1988 that helped open up hockey for audiences who had previously preferred to spend their winter evenings elsewhere. It is unlikely that anyone will emerge who is close to Gretzky: alone of the three, he was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. He gained (as was his due) instant access to the Hall of Fame.

Which of the three is the likeliest to still be remembered in a decade's time outside their own sport? Not Gretzky, whatever his achievements. Mr Jordan is still racking up millions in endorsements and ad campaigns, part of a mini-economy that is worth billions. And it might be worth remembering that one of the Presidential candidates this year, Bill Bradley, started out life with the New York Knicks. Jordan has dropped $1,000 (pounds 620) Bradley's way as a campaign donation, a sign that his ambitions may stretch a little further than his own basketball team. Senator Jordan sounds fine; President Jordan might just sound even better.