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The primo prima donnas
By Robert Lipsyte
Special to Page 2
|Athletes, like test pilots, opera divas and surgeons, are supposed to be prima donnas; their confidence makes us brave. You want a shaky hand on the throttle, the scalpel, the ball? There's a reason it isn't over 'til the fat lady sings.
Without a single call from agent Scott Boras, this Swedish prince constructed the all-time deal for his winner-take-all bout with Grendel, who was sacking Denmark. Beowulf got a kingdom, nothing deferred! Then, he had to do it all over again with Grendel's mother, who, as they say in Olde English, was a mother. Fifty years later, the Wulf Man, the ultimate free agent, was called back to slay a dragon. He died a winner, a first-rounder in every mead hall of fame. D'artagnan
This swordsman never dodged anyone, and was famous for aggressive play. The currently abused term "warrior" was coined for him; as a kid, on his first day in the Show, he challenged three of his future teammates, Athos, Porthos and Aramis. With that kind of preseason, he was signed by the Musketeers and remained their go-to guy for the next 20 years. He also led the league in scoring with ladies in waiting. The Babes
The Babes are usually separated by size, geography, sport, gender and sexual orientation, but George Herman Ruth and Mildred Ella Didrikson were really the same loud, profane, lusty, greedy professional. Ruth saved baseball; he never threw to the wrong base and had better numbers than Wilt. Didrikson won two Olympic gold medals, created women's pro golf and kept her husband and girlfriend happy. Joe DiMaggio
DiMaggio was such a prima donna he almost seems like a parody: Maria Callas in the outfield, hitting high notes and pining for a lost love (Aristotle Onassis or Marilyn Monroe). The Clipper was obsessively protective of his legend: He wouldn't play in old-timers games lest he erode memories. He had the sobriquet "greatest living ballplayer" written into all his appearance contracts. Announcing it made it so.
Robinson was a college star in four sports, and as a World War II Army officer was court-martialed for refusing to move to the back of the bus at a segregated military base. But the price of being The First in Major League Baseball was to suppress affect, to appear cool, act humble. Even though he let it all out after one season, his early death was hastened by the terrible emotional cost of denying his prima donna nature. Howard Cosell
Cosell was such a prima donna he actually thought he was bigger than the athletes who played the games he commented on; he was such a prima donna, he was right. Who else, derided as "a legend in his own mind," could declare himself worthier of attention than that beau ideal of studliness, Frank Gifford? Cosell was so sure of himself he could share his stage with his equal as a narcissistic prima donna, The Greatest. Muhammad Ali
If the Louisville Lip had really thought he was The Greatest, he would be on our lunatics list. He was merely the greatest self-publicist, provocateur and prince of principle in sports. When he was shut down and exiled for refusing to quarrel with them Vietcong, the slogan for future prima donnas became the safer "Show me the money." That's why Ali is sui generis. Even now, shuffling, the face a Parkinson mask, the voice a whisper, he is still the primo prima donna. Billie Jean King
Consider chubby-legged, flat-chested Sissie Moffitt, the tomboy daughter of an Avon Lady and a fireman, ejected from a team picture because she was wearing homemade shorts instead of a skirt. Revenge is a prima donna motivator. Billie Jean became the muscle of feminism, the catalyst for professionalism and the only great champion in any sport who could be both entrepreneur and stand-up guy. As a national coach, she is engaging in that prima donna turn, the master class. Arnold Schwarzenegger
Without a single call from agent Scott Boras, this Austrian cop's son pumped himself into the all-time single-unit money-making import in sports history. Using guile, relentless determination, shameless hucksterism, confidence and steroids, even while speaking what sounded like Olde English, this prima donna completed a cycle by becoming the celluloid Beowulf. The lesson he seems to be teaching, that anyone who tries hard enough can be a prima donna, is bogus. Without talent, luck and a freak gene or two, forget about being a test pilot, opera singer, surgeon or big-league athlete. You'll end up a bus driver, wedding singer, turkey carver or a league bowler. But some of them are prima donnas, too. Robert Lipsyte is a longtime sports columnist for the New York Times and the author of several award-winning books. He insists he is not a prima donna.
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