|Legends or frauds ... or both?|
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist
In light of the recent and coming exposure, so to speak, of Michael Jordan's sexual peccadilloes, one can ask if, by keeping some trim on the side, he has made fraudulent his many accomplishments.
Is he joining a Hall of Fame & Shame, which includes Thomas Jefferson, both Roosevelts, all the Kennedys -- notably John F. -- and Martin Luther King Jr., not to mention Huey Long, Jesse Jackson, Clint Eastwood and ... (Can somebody move that mirror? Not that mirrors bother me. It's just that I see no reflection of myself there).
Do all athletic Legends somehow have feet of clay?
We can make a good guess. Yes.
So what if his passing rating is a lifetime 107.0, or whatever? Who even knows what that means? I follow the NFL, know the history of it, have studied it loosely, and I don't know what it means. If it means the likes of Warner, his current nemesis Marc Bulger and Jim Zorn are among the 10 best quarterbacks ever to play, then maybe the NFL quarterback rating is the real Fraud here.
There's plenty of fraud left for Warner. The purist would point out Warner amassed big stats by being the happy beneficiary of a 1970s secret experiment of having pronghorn antelope, impala and bighorn sheep recombinant DNA injected into the ovum of the mothers of men named Holt, Bruce, Hakim, Proehl, Faulk and Canidate. Once assembled in St. Louis, they ran crazy, Martzian pass routes, catching Warner's passes, then using them like relay batons, staging a track meet in always perfect conditions on an artificial surface Jesse Owens would've run an 8.3 on. Under those terms, my grandmother would have a rating of 100.3, and she's dead. Warner's "rating" is the best of all time. Bulger's rating of 106.7 is second-best all time, yet he's only played five games.
Fact or Fraud?
A purist would point out that of the three biggest games of Warner's career, he won the first two, including an 11-6 squeaker over Tampa Bay in the 2000 NFC Championship Game. Eleven whole points, on that fast track, with that menagerie! Purists in Tampa point out Proehl bailed out Warner with a great end zone catch. (Tampa purists wonder if it was a catch at all, and say if it was a catch, then it surely was a catch Bert Emanuel made when they were driving for the winning TD a few minutes later; and yet Shaun King is nobody's Legend. Except at Tulane, where they still think highly of him, for some reason.)
In that year's Super Bowl against Tennessee, the Volunteer State purists say the Rams only won the game when Warner heaved up a prayer with less than two minutes left that the impalalike Bruce waited on for days to come down, then cut back underneath coverage, then cut back around a dazed safety Anthony Dorsett to complete the play. Warner got MVP for that?
But then, of course, Steve McNair wasn't as fortunate, and the Titans came up a yard short. This gave Dick Vermeil a Super Bowl ring after 20 years of walking in the wilderness, and set in motion his departure from St. Louis, then his arrival in Kansas City, with Trent Green, a QB who'd legitimately beaten out Warner, but who then lost his job because of a terrible knee injury. Warner was in no mood to give the job back to him, and neither was head coach by ascension nee offensive coordinator Martz, who ascended into Heaven, and sitteth on the the Right Hand of God the Father Almighty, upon Vermeil's departure. You would not think that a WR such as Bruce making a National Geographic quality play would cause all those dominoes to fall, but it is so.
And we all know what happened in the last Super Bowl, when Mike Martz put the ball in Warner's hand. He made Boston's day. By then Martz had bought it ... that Warner was John Elway or somebody.
Worse, there is this whole hangdog-mutt thing that somehow seems to emanate lately from Warner, this unspoken, "relate to me, feel sorry for me ... feel sorry for me ... feel sorry for me ..." that bored into your brain whenever Warner discussed whether he should get his job back, which he gave up to Bulger after going 0-4, and looking bad doing it, to start the current season, before sustaining a broken finger. He had thrown one TD and eight picks without the broken finger, so one shudders to think what will happen now.
Worse, instead of saying, "Well, Marc's doing great, I'll stay ready, I guess what goes around comes around," Warner said, "If Brett Favre gets injured, and comes back, he gets his job back, that's just the way it goes." Well, yeah, that's the way it goes, if you're Brett Favre or somebody. Now, is Warner, twice adjudicated NFL MVP (over the sound of gnashing teeth from Field Marshall Faulk and Ray Lewis), in a class with Brett Favre? Trust me ... no. He already tried out up there. Was fifth string. Then he got cut.
Currently, Rice is conning everybody -- especially the corners and safeties and commentators and slobbering analysts -- into believing he's still this great receiver. He is the fourth-leading receiver in the AFC. That makes him Steve Largent, Al Toon or some possession receiver. Not Jerry Rice. The argument could be made that, in his prime, Jerry Rice was the greatest football player who ever lived. His on-field presence was absurdly demi-godlike; as a blocker from his position, he had no peer; he escorted Dwight Clark, John Taylor and Roger Craig into the end zone many times. Could've escorted Colin Powell into Iraq, if Colin had made that call.
As a runner, Rice was Seabiscuit. He ran for 10 touchdowns on reverses in his career, which is a career unto itself for many RBs, much less WRs. He caught TD passes from 10 different 49ers QBs (including Matt Cavanaugh, Guy Benjamin, Steve Bono, Jeff Kemp, Mike Moroski, Steve DeBerg, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Jeff Garcia) and caught one from a fullback, Harry Sydney. Not only that, many of these TD passes were dinks over the middle, short slants he turned into 75-yard breathtaking works of art. The beauty of Jerry Rice was, every ball he caught was headed to the House. If he caught a ball and didn't score on it, he got mad. He was looking to hit it out every time. He was Babe Ruth.
Now, this 40-year-old Jerry Rice has a surgical knee, courtesy of Warren Sapp, who bent him backward in a game at Tampa a few seasons ago. He rehabbed his way back, changed squads, and now finds soft spots in zones, catches it and covers up around it like an armadillo, dives for the sticks, and if you can pop him before he gets down, he might give it up, like he did against Kansas City.
Worse, he forgot all about the team when he undertook a bedside vigil after his lovely wife, Jackie, nearly died after giving birth a few years ago. He openly cried, and prayed, and during this time he didn't practice very well or put the team first. That may be why the Niners let him go. After all, what had he ever done for them?
This latest hubris of Jordan makes his legend all shadowy around the edges. Forget the 63 dropped on Celticdome in the '86 playoffs, forget the laying waste to the Cleveland Cavalier franchise, forget not only the six NBA championships, but the fact they were won in sets of three on two separate runs, against five different teams. Forget that he kept the likes of Charles Barkley, Gary Payton, Mailman Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning out of the winner's circle. Forget he was the finest physical and mental competitor the game has seen. That's all water under the bridge now that Karla Knafel has charged that she had the awful duty of being his fluffer -- in a pillow-fighting, mud-wrestling sense. What kind of man would make a woman suffer the mental anguish of sliding her 250 large? Surely not the word of a Legend. Karla Knafel is the vic. Jordan perpetrates a Fraud.
He should have studied the example of A.C. Green, who abstained from any sexual peccadilloes, and from any sex, period, for 20-odd years, or his entire career. (If you believe that, Karla Knafel's got vials of Michael Jordan's old bathwater she can sell you.)
Worse still is Jordan on court these days, where he doesn't remind us of Michael Jordan anymore, but of Muhammad Ali at age 38 in 1980, against Larry Holmes, eating jabs like he was bobbing for apples, getting both eyes blackened and beaten within an inch of his life. MJ reminds of us Willie Mays in 1973, when Mays, who made more putouts with more grace than any center fielder in the history of baseball, wound up stumbling like a drunk around the outfield against the Oakland A's in the World Series. Worse still is Jordan out there now, berating refs for not calling bailout fouls for him, or for calling any fouls on him when he slaps at the ball and nearly takes some guy's arm or head off or eyeball out, because he can no longer elevate defensively to contest jump shots. NBA refs could call techs all night on Jordan, but they decline and let him rant and rave because they respect the Legend, not this Fraud.
The once slick-backed hair has thinned and gone grayer; the cool demeanor isn't fooling anybody anymore. What a run he had, though. Even Red Auerbach or John Wooden ... even Phil Jackson ... never had a run anything like it. New York and Los Angeles and Miami, baby. And rings? Got taken care of on the first stop, when he replaced Paul Westhead as the Lakers coach. (Westhead couldn't complain either. He was a Fraud who's still somewhere trying out for Legend status. And with what has happened to Hubie Brown, who knows? Could still happen.) But Riley fell into a soft bed. As someone I know has recently pointed out, Riley had four No. 1 picks in his lineup in L.A. Not four first-round picks ... four No. 1 picks in the entire NBA draft -- Kreemy, Magic, Worthy, Mychal Thompson. Poor Bob McAdoo had to wait around until the second pick.
"Magic, get it to Kareem. Watch out for Worthy rubbing off."
This is Legend? Well, yeah, kind of, just as much as Phil Jackson is Legend. Now, the Celtics won three titles in the 1980s because they had three No. 1 picks (Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish in a two-for-one sale in the 1980 draft; let's not quibble, Joe Barry Carroll was the No. 1 pick, but Parish and the rights to McHale were traded for that pick. To whom? It shames me to say it. I lived in Oakland). Yet the Celtics won their titles under a revolving door of coaches. The players play. The coaches sit there and sometimes become Legend. And there is something to surviving the egos of the best ballers on the planet, making them believe in you, because of your personal code of honor, your strength, your innate knowledge of the game, and mostly because you run all your stuff for them. So in a sense, Riley's not to blame. Coaches are teachers, one way or another -- at least the Legends are. The rest are Frauds. But some are Charming Frauds and we like having them around, just in case blame needs shifting off the backs of where it most often belongs -- players.
Riley turned down an acting role eventually taken by Goldie Hawn's sexual peccadillo, in a movie called "Tequila Sunrise." The part was tailored for him by screenwriter Robert Towne ("Chinatown"). I love how they ID movie people with their credits like that. Suppose athletes did that -- Barry Bonds (Five MVP awards, Single-Season Home Run Title ...). Riley passed on the role. I don't know why. He was acting like a coach, wasn't he?
But no, he was a Legend. Four rings say so, but actually it was when he went to New York that he really got happy.
Riley became a Legend when he adjusted and tried to have Ewing and Charles Oakland bully the Knicks to the title. This made him a Legend because he almost pulled it off and provided Jordan with the best overall competition of his career. What were they going to do, outskill Michael Jordan? Riley put the Knicks in a position to win, which is seeming more and more like a legendary feat with each passing day of the Allen Houston/Latrell Sprewell era. In the end, John Starks, though he played well at times, gets the blame, if one can be blamed for not beating Jordan, or Hakeem Olajuwon. Hmm. Perhaps Starks is not to be blamed either. OK, so he was not Michael Jordan. He might be glad of it, right about now.
It all comes back around to Michael Jordan, in the end.
Legend or Fraud? Once his path is chosen, what's it say about us?
We go to games featuring grown men playing in their pajamas, framed in timeouts by dancing, gyrating, high-kicking scantily clad young women with stars in their eyes (though they are not so blind that we know we'd never have a chance with them). So we sit there and record the score ... even though everybody knows it at the same time we do. For color, we say what kind of day it was and hear quotes and make a few wild extrapolations and try to start crap by running with one quote (which we massage first) over to somebody else for another quote. Nobody means any of it. It's like a game. A little con. We do, in other words, exactly what you do at home on your couch and at the watercoolers of your offices. But we're not Frauds. Oh no.
Occasionally one or two of us can make it like you were there yourself, where you can feel the event on your skin; or tell you something about the game or those who play it that you can use. Mostly, like lawyers or state executioners, we are there to throw the switch, make a living, and start arguments that have no end.
Sportswriters bring our inexplicable tastes, prejudices, foibles and petty torments to all our coverage, and our proliferation of Judge shows, without admitting it. We swear what we say is gospel. We could give new meaning to sexual peccadilloes, if anybody cared enough to listen, or, better, participate. For us, there are very few takers. Except for the guy at the Examiner. He got Sharon Stone.
The Legend is, it's all about the fans. The fans pay the freight.
And yes, in some ways, those statements are quite true.
But what else are the fans, and what else do they do? The fans try to attack players and coaches on the field, often with disastrous results for the fans. Yet they continue. What is causing people to run out and actually try to mock, if not outright attack, the players and coaches these days? Legendary fans, the ones who merely booed the manager or coach's strategy, never threatened to come onto the playing fields to attack players and coaches before. If anything, the players and coaches had to go up in the stands after them, if they were particularly effective hecklers. But fans now are coming on the field to attack players and coaches. It's like a trend.
The fans used to be Legends themselves. There are old black-and-white photos of them slapping their heads, tossing their hats and roaring, "He got it! Way to go, Willie!" as Mays caught Wertz's drive at the Polo Grounds in 1954. Over 50,000 packed an indoor dome to see UCLA and Houston in 1968. Over 62,000 packed an indoor dome to see Carolina and Georgetown in 1982. Fans used to be younger -- kids, many of them -- and not jaded old men. Now they have to be the kids of the players, owner or the manager or coach to get into the facility. It used to be a game. Now it's a business.
Fans say they hate the players because the players don't love the game -- except for the players who remind them of themselves. Those are the good players who love the game and "play it right." This means they play it some stodgy, less-effective way that was effective before players started sculpting their bodies like Rodin and flying. Go back and look at some of that vintage tape, even from as late as the 1980s, when even Hall-of-Famers looked like Double-A rejects. Do you really think the same stratagems and givens from those days would still work today? But fans fraudulently put forth this blanket lack of vision as some kind of relevant nostalgia. If fans love the game, no matter how you slice it, you also love the business of the game, and business always looks to capitalize.
Look at the fans in the best seats in the house. The legendary fans of old are now captains of industry. Above them, in the lower bowl, are the lieutenants of industry. In the upper bowl are the non-commissioned officers of industry. And inside the luxury boxes ... well, talk about laying plans for sexual peccadilloes! Aieeeee!
What used to be the Knothole Gang, the kids finding a way to see the game, are now the Sportswriters. Enlisted men and women are shut out from going to games, so they stay at home, watch on TV, grumble because they are not out in the fresh air, and plot revenge.
None of these fans have any sexual peccadilloes.
Right? Well, none they're being sued for 5 mil over, anyway.
To be human is to be both Legend and clay-footed Fraud. Success and Failure are the same imposter. It's hard, but it's fair.
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."