Commentary

The least cool athletes in sports history

Originally Published: February 9, 2011
By Patrick Hruby | Page 2

Colin Montgomerie, Alex Rodriguez, Kurt RambisESPN.com Illustration

GQ magazine recently published its list of the 25 coolest athletes of all time, a compendium of the usual suspects: Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Joe Namath, etc. All in all, a perfectly fine idea. Except for one detail.

The magazine took the easy way out.

Here's the thing about talented athletes: They're generally cool by default. Throw a football 60 yards? You'll be admired. Soar through the air with the greatest of ease? Sprint as though your shoes contain nitroglycerin? Society's unconditional approval awaits. Indeed, physical prowess is a first-class, all-expenses paid ticket to Coolville, population you. This is true for Tom Brady; it's true when picking teams in elementary school; it means that the real challenge for gifted jocks isn't being cool but rather finding a way to screw up said coolness.

That's where Page 2 comes in.

We're celebrating the dorks. The tools. The iconic athletes remembered and -- quick, what's the opposite of "revered?" -- for being uncool. The ones who lacked élan. Who were clumsy. Who rankled. The ones who tried too hard to be cool (and invariably failed); the ones we never wanted to emulate and wouldn't trade places with; the ones born with a social silver spoon who nevertheless ended up eating belly button lint.

Uncool is like obscenity: You know it when you see it. With that in mind, Page 2 presents a dozen of the least cool athletes of all time.

(Do you think we missed someone? Click here to send us your suggestions. We'll be adding to our list next week.)


Alex Rodriguez

Believe it or not, A-Rod was once considered cool. Not Derek Jeter cool. But kinda sorta cool. Young and fresh, at least. Hip enough to be featured on ESPN The Magazine's very first cover with a caption reading "next."

Then came the Texas Rangers cash grab.

The flubbed trade to Boston.

The Bronson Arroyo glove slap.

The public denial that he ever used performance-enhancing drugs.

The shirtless tanning in Central Park.

The New York Post's "STRAY-ROD" cover.

The World Series contract opt-out announcement.

The public admission of performance-enhancing drug use (complete with Cousin Yuri and a good-boy sweater).

The Madonna-dating rumors.

The clubhouse nickname "A-Fraud."

The mirror-kissing magazine photo shoot.

We could continue. But why pile on? Thing is, Rodriguez has always been hyperaware of his image. He strives to be cool. Only that's the problem: As anyone who ever survived high school can tell you, the whole key to coolness is not having to try. When network cameras caught Cameron Diaz feeding A-Rod popcorn during the Super Bowl on Sunday -- We told you we could continue, right? -- the slugger reportedly was annoyed. He wasn't alone.


Mark Madsen

Can't dance. Like, really can't dance. And that's OK. As fellow members of Rhythmless Nation 2011, we can overlook Madsen's inability to shake his moneymaker in a way that doesn't invite comparisons to Kate Gosselin's performance on "Dancing With the Stars." What we can't overlook is this: Madsen is a cyber-squatter.

Which makes him a dweeb.

Madsen played professional basketball. He's a millionaire. A Stanford alum. The world is essentially his oyster. Yet in his free time, he reportedly works as an Internet domain name speculator, a guy who buys names, then attempts to flip them for a profit.

¿Como?

According to the Los Angeles Times, Madsen has sold or tried to sell domain names ranging from carbohydrates.com to -- no joke -- registeredsexoffender.com. But wait. There's more! Fanhouse reported that Madsen cleared $21,000 in 2008 by hawking dozens of Canadian domain names -- including menstrualperiods.ca.

As such, we stand corrected. Madsen isn't a dweeb. He's a dweeb's dweeb. Even when he's eventually running Google -- make that google.ca -- his fundamental dorkitude will never change.


Carl Lewis, singer

Start with a caveat: On the track, Lewis was a cool as it gets, a sprinting, leaping, gold-medal-winning kinetic marvel who once earned a lyrical shout-out from rapper Eazy-E. But off the track and holding a microphone?

To quote esteemed late-20th-century philosopher Scooby Doo: ruh-roh.

Like countless other athletes, Lewis believed his physical gifts were transferable to the world of music; unlike most, he didn't know when to quit. (Hint: before he began). A more self-aware man might have (a) prevented "Break It Up" from ever escaping a recording studio; (b) called in a tactical nuclear strike on said studio, from orbit, just to be sure; (c) at least had the good sense to not dress like Grace Jones in the epochally campy video for the song. Lewis, on the other hand, was just getting warmed up -- witness his subsequent 1993 performance aural vivisection of the national anthem.

The upshot? Not caring what other people think is practically the working definition of cool. Unless, of course, you're a dictator. Or a customer service rep. Or Lewis, stubbornly foisting his vocal gift upon an ungrateful, uncomprehending world.


Roger Clemens

What makes the Rocket uncool? Better question: What doesn't?

Clemens threw his wife under the HGH bus in a nationally televised congressional hearing. He threw a bat shard at Mike Piazza. He's neck-and-neck with Brett Favre -- and easily outpointing Hamlet -- for vacillating, narcissistic retirement drama. He's been linked to PED use and Mindy McCready, made a mockery of basic agricultural and biomedical science. He foisted this image upon an unsuspecting public. In case somebody somewhere ever has the sheer temerity to forget what Clemens did best -- act bullheaded and bray about being a baseball martyr throw strikes -- he has given each of his children first names starting with the letter "K." He counts Jose Canseco as a character witness.

To put things another way: Among John Dean, Oliver North and Clemens, only one man has seen the MRI scan of his buttocks abscesses become a congressional talking point.


Colin Montgomerie

With apologies to Arnold Palmer, golf generally doesn't lend itself to cool. Enter Montgomerie. A man whose temper tantrums, rabbit-eared penchant for on-course distraction and Droopy Dog demeanor seemingly conspire to inform everyone that golf is designed for maximum frustration and minimum joy, as opposed to the other way around. A man who had the European Ryder Cup's team room sound-proofed to prevent American eavesdropping, as if Celtic Manor were the old American Embassy in Moscow. A man who once wrote in the London Daily Telegram that, "I hate hotel pillows with a vengeance. They are the first things I examine when I go into a hotel room, and my heart sinks when I discover that they are too soft or too hard." My heart sinks? Granted, Monty deep down just wants to win. But so what? Everyone deep down just wants to win. Coolness Rule of Thumb No. 47: When in doubt, ask yourself a simple question. What would Clint Eastwood do? Safe to say that when staying in the sort of first-class digs provided to elite touring golfers, Clint would not fret about the pillows.


Peyton Manning

Eleven Pro Bowl appearances. Four NFL MVP awards. One Super Bowl title. Numerous passing records. All well and good. Still, when Manning retires, his lasting legacy won't be measured in touchdown passes and fourth-quarter comebacks but rather in a once-unthinkable cultural shift.

Namely, the rise of quarterback as dork.

Make no mistake: Manning is a dork. A huge football nerd, single-minded and studious, a bit awkward and goofy. It's nearly impossible to imagine Manning prowling the sideline in a full-length mink coat, a la swashbuckling playboy Joe Namath; it's almost too easy to picture Manning as an office IT guy with buzzing PDA holstered to his khaki-clad hip.

In retrospect, maybe we should have seen this coming.

Quarterbacking once epitomized swaggering American high school cool, all insouciant alpha male macho; today, it revolves around pattern recognition and making quick decisions based on complex environmental variables. In other words, data processing. Perhaps it's fitting that Manning's supposed rival in the pre-millennial 1998 NFL draft -- gunslinging lunkhead Ryan Leaf -- flamed out. Leaf was old-school, analog. Manning is digital, the perfect quarterback for the information age -- the era of Gates and Zuckerberg, of Wall Street quants, an era in which the nerds are too busy winning every contest in sight to care about being cool.


Bryant Reeves

Pro athletes aren't just bigger, faster and stronger than you and me. They're physically better, too. They perform jaw-dropping, head-shaking feats -- toe-dragging catches; midair, hand-switching layups; balance-defying pirouettes -- that are as ineffable and inspiring as a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo, forcing us to rethink the limits of human possibility.

Then there's Reeves.

Never mind the buzz cut. Forget the unassuming manner and the slightly pudgy cheeks. The former NBA center was a stiff. A big stiff. No disrespect intended. After all, the basketball world needs stiffs, the same way the real world needs dump trucks. Someone has to set screens, grab rebounds and eat up space in the paint; someone has to take a knee, give a shoulder and get back to work. In this sense, Reeves wasn't exactly unique. Yet he remains archetypal -- a stand-in for every big dude who's out there largely because he's large and willing, plugging away without élan, both essential and essentially uncool. The sort of player who never will star in a highlight video. The sort of player no child spends countless hours under a driveway hoop pretending to be.

And his nickname was Big Country.


Kurt Rambis

He turned his awkward shot, gangly gait and all-elbows, all-the-time style into competitive assets, becoming the down-and-dirty junkyard dog of the Showtime-era Los Angeles Lakers. He inspired a cult following of teenage boys in goofy glasses, the self-proclaimed "Rambis Youth," paying sincere, unironic homage to their dorky idol. In a way, Rambis pulled a Jedi mind trick on the 1980s professional sports scene, being so profoundly uncool that he actually became the opposite.

Or not, judging by the following quotes:

"Who invited the geek in glasses to camp?"
-- Jerry West, the first time he saw Rambis at Lakers training camp.

"I thought he was terrible. Awful. Ran terrible. Looked awful. The crowds in the Forum would go wild when he would stumble in for a layup after all those gazelles."
-- Former NBA coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, on the first time he saw Rambis play

"When he spots up for that jump shot, it's the ugliest thing in the world."
-- Former Phoenix Suns guard Kevin Johnson

"I've never been poetry in motion."
-- Rambis, on himself

"He was this total nerd."
-- Linda Zafrani, on meeting her future husband


Doug Christie

Google matches for "Doug Christie" and "whipped": 6,030.


Lucy Van Pelt

In her defense, she might not be the worst teammate in the history of organized athletic competition. But she's on the short list. Skim her résumé, and it's easy to see why Lucy from the comic strip "Peanuts" makes Terrell Owens look like Steve Nash. She's a reluctant and hapless right fielder, largely responsible for Charlie Brown's bloated ERA, a chronic loafer prone to distraction and/or Canseconian fly balls off the noggin. She has thinner skin than Daniel Snyder yet constantly berates and emotionally bullies her teammates, including her own little brother. Her repeated romantic overtures toward her team's catcher, Schroeder, are inappropriate and distracting, setting back the cause of rational, coed sports.

And to think, we haven't even mentioned football.

Lucy isn't a bad holder. Lucy is a bad holder on purpose. And that makes all the difference. In forever yanking the football away from Charlie Brown, she isn't just failing to do her job. She's committing the cardinal athletic sin, putting her own selfish desires ahead of the common good. I before team. Once, Lucy even cost her gang victory in the homecoming game -- then let Charlie Brown take the blame!

Still, maybe we're being unkind. Maybe Lucy's football pulling makes her an apt metaphor for existential futility, the cosmic joke and Sisyphean struggle that constitutes life on Earth as we know it.

Nah. On second thought, it just makes her uncool.


Ivan Lendl

Once upon a time -- think "Star Wars," the fall of the Shah of Iran, the ill-fated air traffic controllers' strike -- tennis was the coolest sport on the planet. From fist-pumping Jimmy Connors to tortured artiste John McEnroe to leonine Bjorn Borg, the game's top players had rock star cachet.

That is, until Lendl showed up.

Tennis' answer to Ivan Drago, Lendl was immortalized on the cover of Sports Illustrated as "the champion that nobody cares about." Why the public antipathy? For starters, Lendl's dark features and deep-set eyes made him appear brooding and dour. His postmatch interviews didn't help, partly because he spoke with a Cold War-invoking accent, partially because his childhood in communist Czechoslovakia left him deeply distrustful of the media (which in turn dubbed him "Darth Vader").

Most of all, Lendl played a grinding style that could charitably be labeled boring. The father of the modern power baseline game and a physical fitness pioneer, he outworked and outhit opponents with machinelike consistency, dominating tennis one metronomic match at a time. In doing so, Lendl unwittingly helped make tennis unhip -- and although he later revealed himself to be thoughtful and humorous, the perceptual damage already was done.


Reggie Evans

To the list of life's unwritten rules -- No. 28: Never eat the yellow snow; No. 71: Never assume "beef" and "meat filling" are the same thing -- add the following:

Never grab 'n' yank another man's jewels.

Ever.

To do so is a violation of the natural order. A crime against coolness, to be sure, but also against humanity. Which is why Evans' inexplicable pouch squeeze of Chris Kaman in a 2006 NBA playoff game -- What shall it profit a man to gain a rebound yet lose his soul? -- can be neither forgiven nor forgotten.

Uncool, man. Now and forever.


Patrick Hruby is a freelance writer and ESPN.com contributor. Contact him at PatrickHruby.net.


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