On Tuesday, the world lost one of the most iconic sidekicks of all-time, Ed McMahon. Before he was peddling gold in Super Bowl ads, McMahon made his fame by sitting in the No. 2-guy chair next to Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show (and decades later in a bizarre talk show hosted by ALF).
Ed’s passing got us thinking about who are some of greatest sidekicks in sports history. In order to qualify as a sidekick, of course, there must be a clear No. 1 in the relationship, so there will be a few names missing from this list that you might expect to see among the best duos of all-time. For instance, we consider Stockton-Malone, Swann-Stallworth and Magic-Kareem to be fairly equal relationships.
By no means is this list comprehensive — we are simple-minded folks over here — but we like to think it is a pretty good collection of some of the best underlings the world of sports has had to offer.
Scottie Pippen (Top Dog: Michael Jordan)
With Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen was a key cog for six Bulls NBA championships. He will probably always be remembered as the quintessential sports sidekick.
Without Michael, Pippen did a good job of carrying the Bulls during the 1994 regular season… and then sulked on the bench when Toni Kukoc was selected to take the final shot with 1.8 seconds left in a playoff game. Clearly, he was never cut out for anything more than sidekickhood. But damn, was he good at it.
Tex Winter (Phil Jackson)
The Zen master implemented and perfected the Triangle Offense thanks to the guidance of his mentor and assistant coach, Tex Winter. It has led to 10 NBA titles. Winter was actually more like the Alfred to Phil’s Batman, but even though he’s the brains behind the operation, at the end of the day he’s still the butler. Actually maybe Winter is more like Lucious Fox to Phil’s Batman, he gave him the tools to go to war with.
Anyway, Tex was a successful coach in his own right. He was the head man for Marquette (1951-53), Kansas State (1953-68), the University of Washington (1968-71), Houston Rockets (1971-73), Northwestern (1973-78) and Long Beach State (1978-83). He had a career winning percentage of .674 as a head guy and clearly could have looked for more work running a team, but since he and Jackson teamed up in 1989, he’s been more than willing to reside in Phil’s spacious shadow.
James Worthy (Magic Johnson)
“Big Game James” was one of the best players in the NBA during his career but he was more than happy to serve as the second (and sometimes third) option when playing alongside Magic Johnson. While Kareem Abdul Jabbar held down the fort on the interior for most of Worthy’s early years with the Los Angeles Lakers, Magic Johnson was truly the man. Worthy and Johnson formed a chemistry that only the greats can have. On offense and defense Johnson and Worthy always knew where each other would be and worked together with a fluidity that even Magic and Kareem never achieved.
The No. 1 pick in the 1982 NBA Draft, Worthy was an All-Star seven times in his 12 year career, but he clearly sacrificed a chance to be a No. 1 option somewhere else in order to be Magic Johnson’s running buddy. It worked out beautifully for both as they teamed up to lead the Lakers to three NBA titles (1985, 87, 89).
Otis Wilson (Mike Singletary)
Samurai Mike was the heart of the ’85 Bears defense, but there is a strong likelihood that there would never have been a Super Bowl Shuffle without the help of Otis on the outside. (And for anyone who disputes Wilson’s importance, just remember that he is the only Bear with lyrics censored by a referee’s whistle in the Super Bowl Shuffle video).
Wilson was the primary blitzer in Buddy Ryan’s “46” defense, and finished the 1985 season with 10.5 sacks in addition to several additional knocks of quarterbacks on their asses, which is apparently called a “hurry,” but I like my terminology better.
John Taylor (Jerry Rice)
Taylor was a two-time Pro Bowler and elected to the NFL’s all-decade team for the 1980’s, but it was never a secret that he was Jerry Rice’s sidekick. The two formed one of the most formidable receiving duos in NFL history, as they teamed up from 1987 until Taylor’s retirement in 1995. During that time they helped the San Francisco 49ers win three Super Bowls (Rice only won titles with Taylor playing opposite him).
Though he only played for eight seasons, Taylor racked up 347 receptions for 5,598 yards and 43 touchdowns. In those eight seasons with Rice and Taylor catching passes from Joe Montana and Steve Young, the 49ers offense was virtually unstoppable.
Marvin Harrison (Peyton Manning)
Harrison’s days in Indianapolis may now be over but since being drafted with the No. 19 pick in the 1996 draft he’s been one of the best wide receivers in the NFL. Marvin’s career really took off in 1998, when the Colts drafted Peyton Manning. Over the next decade Manning and his sidekick combined for 965 completions, for 13,090 yards and 114 touchdowns.
While Harrison has been one of the league’s best players during his career, he was clearly the “other guy” in the Colts offense. Manning was always the star and Marvin was always his straight man.
Steve Stone (Harry Caray)
Only in movies do you have sports announcer relationships as glorious as the one shared between Steve Stone and Harry Caray.
Stone, a brainy Jewish former ballplayer, was the perfect foil for Caray’s over-the-top antics in the booth. Harry was the loud, brash voice of the fan, who if he wasn’t drunk at least gave off that impression at all times. Stone, on the other hand, countered with a calculated analysis that truly made you understand the game at the same time that Harry was making you love the game.
Plus, Stoney was always good for reminding Harry what he couldn’t do in the booth, like make fun of Hideo Nomo for having slanty eyes. Well, after the fact, anyway.
Pat Summerall (John Madden)
While Madden has become an entity unto himself, George Allen “Pat” Summerall made his broadcasts (slightly) bearable. The two worked together on CBS and then Fox’s NFL coverage for 22 seasons, with Madden being the lively, “verbose” color guy and Summerall acting as the straight man. The two also teamed up on Madden’s video games for years. Summerall seemed to be the only guy who could make Madden’s repetitive, Favre-based in game commentary seem somewhat less grating.
While he is a Hall of Fame broadcaster in his own right, Madden always garnered the headlines. Summerall’s straight forward, bland broadcasting style is what most sports fans want from their play-by-play announcers.
Jari Kurri (Wayne Gretzky)
Kurri loved playing with Gretz so much, he even followed him to Los Angeles after Wayne was traded to the Kings. Kurri was a pure sniper who was on the receiving end of countless assists from Gretzky for roughly eight seasons in Edmonton, and five more in Los Angeles. The duo won four Stanley Cups together, all in Edmonton.
What Kurri did for Gretzky was force defenders to respect another player on The Great One’s line. He finished his career as the highest scoring European-born player in NHL history with totals of 601 goals, 797 assists and 1,398 points. He also retired with 106 playoff goals and 233 playoff points, third all-time behind only Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. Kurri is clearly a Hall of Famer in his own right, which likely makes him the NHL’s version of Scottie Pippen.
Lou Gehrig (Babe Ruth)
Make no mistake about it, Gehrig and Ruth were never the best of friends, but they formed one of the most formidable tandems in the history of sports. The New York Yankees finally gave Gehrig his shot to play in 1925 and for the next decade (until Ruth left the Yankees after the 1934 season) the two hitters dominated baseball like no duo has before or since. Ruth belted 424 home runs in that stretch, while Gehrig hit 347. Ruth knocked in 1,316 RBI, while Gehrig drove home 1,436. And Ruth recorded a .338 average while Gehrig’s was .343. During that time they led the Yankees to three World Series titles (1927, 28, 32).
Despite outpacing the Babe in several statistical categories during their time together, Gehrig was always in the big fella’s shadow. Ruth was baseball’s star and his outgoing, affable nature made him a star almost as much as his tremendous talent did. Gehrig couldn’t have been more different than Babe off the field. He was quiet, reserved, polite and dedicated. Over time Ruth and Gehrig grew apart and rarely spoke on or off the field in their final years together. But what they did between the lines will certainly never be forgotten, or (likely) duplicated.
Leo Mazzone (Bobby Cox)
One of the most successful coaching tandems in baseball history, Mazzone and Cox were both elevated to their positions (pitching coach and manager respectively) with the Atlanta Braves in 1990. For the next 15 years the two did nothing but win, largely based on the incredible strength of their pitching staff.
Mazzone had a simple but effective approach to pitching: simplify mechanics, throw more on the side between appearances to build strength and try to hit the corners. Under that guidance Mazzone and Cox’s pitchers won six National League Cy Young Awards. The Braves also won 14 division titles, were National League Champions five times and won the 1995 World Series.
Though Mazzone was always recognizable for his constant rocking back and forth, he always seemed to be the guy behind the scenes for the Braves. It was Bobby Cox’s team, Leo just wrangled the pitchers. He seemed happy with that role and never tried to go manage somewhere else. He finally departed following the 2005 season and spent one year as pitching coach for the Orioles. It just wasn’t the same. He was canned after one unsuccessful season.
Don Drysdale (Sandy Koufax)
There may never be a better 1-2 punch than Koufax and Drysdale, who led the Dodgers to three world titles. Drysdale, a Hall-of-Famer in his own right, was the 1962 Cy Young winner and twice finished in the Top 5 in MVP voting. However, he was no Koufax.
Think about this. Koufax finished with an ERA below 2.00 three different times. And he inspired Walter Sobchak to describe Judaism as “3,000 years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax.”
So I’d say that is a definitive top dog if there ever was one.
Billy Martin (George Steinbrenner)
These two were a match made in a very disturbing area of heaven. Yes, Martin played for the New York Yankees and won four World Series with them as a player, but he’s far more famous for his multiple stints managing the team, and his “interesting” relationship with owner George Steinbrenner. Martin had five different stretches as the manager of the Yankees (1975-78, 1979, 1983, 1985, 1988) and during each one he butted heads with “The Boss” in one of the most controversial and entertaining partnerships in sports history.
Steinbrenner always had the final say in this arrangement and no one could possibly be bigger than Big George. But Martin never backed down from him, as the two would often snipe at each other in the press. Martin got The Boss his first World Series title in 1977, after losing in the Series in 1976. Martin’s firey on-field demeanor was the Yin to Steinbrenner’s laid-back, cocky Yang. The relationship even spawned an excellent ESPN mini-series.
Martin may not have been the most successful sidekick of all time, but it’s hard to think of a more entertaining one.