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Heroes to Zeroes

Sam Turner

Hold on. This is not the time to ship Kobe Bryant off to the Big House. Not yet. Why, the armies of high-priced lawyers have barely begun to sprinkle 'round their business cards. The energy-drink bottlers and the $200-a-pair sneaker people and the weavers of jockstraps have not yet cleared their throats and, summoning up tones of righteous indignation, cut Bryant off from his endorsement millions. So far, Jim Rome has barely shouted.

So wait a minute, okay? The small-town girls who claim to be best friends with Kobe's accuser have not yet taped their giddy two minutes in front of the TV cameras, aglow in the sudden heat of attention. Listen. Why would anyone in his right mind choose to send the shamed and besmirched one off to his doom before the networks have deployed their first-string hairdos and the entire fleet of satellite trucks? Surely it's too early for a symbolic execution. Kobe hasn't agonized yet to Larry King's suspenders. His teammates aren't done sniping in the tabloids. For God's sake, the D.A. hasn't even selected his new wardrobe yet. Can't you see? Can't you feel it? The gate is still building. Just let it happen. Give the T-shirt salesmen time to set up on the courthouse lawn. Crank out that sensitive feature story about life in sleepy Eagle County. If you love justice, wait for Rush Limbaugh to weigh in.

Then slay the hero you once loved so well.

In a culture that ignores its poets and dishonors its teachers, there's nothing so valuable as a guy with a jumper from the baseline or a quarterback with a rifle. Celebrity worshippers eat this stuff up like french fries. Can't get enough. On their knees for autographs, some forty-something Americans would sacrifice their first-born offspring for a lunch with John Elway. They'd betray the wife and drive the Volvo over a cliff if it meant a smile and a nod of recognition from Peter Forsberg. But look out, all you disposable icons. Don't cork your bat. Don't take Cleveland and the points. Never snort coke. And whatever happens, make damn sure you don't sell yourself as squeaky clean and then come up smelling like the men's room at Mardi Gras. Because this is a moral Christian nation, after all -- or so the administration would have us believe -- and whatever we worship must be sinless or otherwise interesting. After all, the children are watching! Grandpa, too! If you're Kobe Bryant and you get caught up in whatever the hell it is you're caught up in (Adultery? Rape? In any event, a helluva mess), don't expect mercy. Americans embrace Celebrity itself -- in fact, they can no longer differentiate between hero and villain, between dawn and dusk -- but you got to be consistent. Don't go changin' that image. We can't handle it, the idea of two opposing ideas at work in the same body.

Convicted or acquitted, it doesn't much matter. Kobe's already off the radar, beneath the line. Even if he's done nothing more than have consensual sex with an uncertain nineteen-year-old, he's cooked. He better hope his game hasn't left him, because his rep now has an estimated street value of about five bucks.

At least he'll be in good company -- or bad company, depending on your point of view this morning. Herewith, a mini-sports hall of shame countdown, a selection of notable ex-heroes detested or banished by a fickle public. Bet none of them attended church regularly:

6. Pete Rose. To be or not to be in the Hall of Fame, that is the tired old question. At this point in the hand wringing, who really gives a damn, except for Charlie Hustle himself and a couple thousand baseball junkies who would do well to read Hamlet, or at least join a Tuesday bowling league. Did Rose bet on baseball? Yes. Other sports, too. I personally remember a Monday night at Candlestick Park when, leaning on the batting cage, he acknowledged having taken the Broncos against the Raiders. Hall of Fame, so what! The man struck more base hits than Ty Cobb, played all out in ever fiber of his being, every game of his life and forged a legend that will never pass. I don't know about you, but I like my heroes with warts, and Pete Rose's plain mug needn't be cast in bronze up at Cooperstown to measure his greatness. Now, about the 1919 Chicago White Sox. Eight of them (more or less), threw the World Series. If Pete Rose had been on the club, he would have kicked his crooked teammates' asses out of pure rage. Count on it.

5. Rae Carruth. Come now, prod the memory. The former University of Colorado wide receiver (1992-96) ranks second in school history for receiving yards and first in touchdown catches, but his legacy remains that he's the only CU player to go down for conspiracy to commit murder. He was convicted in January 2001 for the 1999 shooting death of Cherica Adams, who was eight months pregnant with his baby. He made his getaway locked in a car trunk. Carruth is now seeking a new trial, but he'll always have a spot on Murderers' Row, along with former lightweight champion Esteban DeJesus, who killed a man with a tire iron in Puerto Rico, and -- this just in -- Baylor University basketball player Carlton Dotson, who, even as we speak, is being charged in the shooting death of teammate Patrick Dennehy, whose body has only just turned up. Additionally, recall a pair of initials: O.J.

 

Seen in this light, ex-NBA star Charles Barkley wears wings and a halo. After throwing an obstreperous drunk through the plate-glass window of a street-level saloon, he expressed his regrets this way: "I wish we'd been on the third floor."

4. Denny McLain. If ever an athlete prostituted his gifts and squandered good will, it was the Detroit Tigers ace, McLain. In 1968, he won an astonishing 31 games for World Series-bound Detroit (since then, no one has reached 30), and he tacked on 24 more W's the following season. But the pitcher's personal habits soon got the best of him. He badmouthed his club to reporters, insulted teammates, showed up late for the All Star game and, ever the hipster, took to playing the electric organ in nightclubs in the wee hours of the morning. When his arm went bad in 1970, he hooked up with unsavory characters in business deals, and by April 1985 he was sentenced to 23 years for racketeering, extortion and conspiracy. Because of a judicial error, McLain served less than three, but the dark turn of his career had set the tone for the transgressions of Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, assorted NFL bad boys (good morning, John Mobley -- hope you like baloney sandwiches) and about a quarter of the current players in the National Basketball Association. Watch your step, LeBron James. Beware, Carmelo. Thirty-five years later, there's still no known cure for McLainia.

3. George Steinbrenner. The reign of the York Yankees' combative, meddlesome owner goes on and on -- like the plague in the Middle Ages or the Oakland Raiders' Al Davis. George fired manager Billy Martin, a stainless prince of a fellow, three times (or was it four?). He has dictated pitching moves, openly criticized his sparkling star shortstop, Derek Jeter, and, earlier this year, even messed with Yankees manager Joe Torre, who has done nothing more for him than to get his team into four of the last five World Series and win three of them. Detested for high-handedness, admired for winning, the Boss is the long-established model of the sports-executive-as-dictator. But maybe he's not so bad. At the close of the nineteenth century, after all, the crosstown New York Giants endured a violent, stingy tyrant named Andrew Freedman, who regularly attacked fans, umpires, other owners, even his own players -- until the National League ordered him out of the game in 1902. And while he was not a sports executive in the formal sense, Saddam Hussein's late son Odai deserves a special mention here. A soccer buff who operated his own prison at the headquarters of the Iraqi Olympic Committee, Odai was notorious for beating Iraqi team players who missed scoring chances, tossing them into vats of sewage and tattooing the soles of their feet with truncheons. Let's hope no one took note in the Bronx.

2. Tonya Harding. Roger Clemens beaned Mike Piazza and later threw a shard of bat at him, and the incident in which Giants pitcher Juan Marichal smashed Dodgers catcher Johnny Roseboro with his bat may be the ugliest in baseball history. But for sheer, unvarnished gall, we must enter to the placid, precious world of figure skating, where the triple Salchow is usually more evident than the left uppercut. But the wrath of a woman wronged -- or defeated at the Nationals -- knows no bounds. When, in 1994, skater Tonya Harding hired a thug to smash rival skater Nancy Kerrigan's knee with a length of lead pipe, she struck a blow for trailer-park vengeance and put a certain crimp in her world champion ambitions. In the aftermath, Harding signed on to skate topless in a Las Vegas ice revue, and of late she's fought a couple of bouts in the women's boxing ring -- sans pipe.

1. Mike Tyson. No one else even qualifies for the top slot. No killer. No drunkard. No abuser of 'roids. No cheat. The sum of all fears for white America, the brooding former heavyweight champion is a convicted rapist, a part-time cannibal (although he apparently spit out that chunk of Evander Holyfield's ear that temporarily cost him his boxing license), and he harbors a personality so self-destructive that he sometimes swears to devour his opponents' children and, in his more contemplative moments, publicly prays for a completely different life next time around, because this one is so miserable. If the eternal matchmakers had their way, Tyson would be pitted for the heavyweight title against Charles "Sonny" Liston, the belligerent, mobbed-up former champ who became addicted to barbiturates and other nasty stuff and who, during his years as a Denver resident, was sometimes seen leaping from his car so he could bark back at snarling dogs. If Liston proves unavailable, why not book Carlos Monzon (just a middleweight, but so what?) who went to prison for throwing the mother of his children off the fatally high balcony of their apartment house. Of course, there's also Denver's own favorite-son heavyweight, Ron Lyle, now retired, who once went eleven thrilling rounds with Muhammad Ali but spent his younger years in prison and offed his road manager.

 

All right. Step to the line, guys. Time for mug shots, er, the team picture. You, too, Kobe.


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