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Monday, July 7, 2003
Updated: July 18, 7:42 PM ET
The List: Biggest falls from grace

By Jeff Merron
Page 2 staff

Oh, Kobe. You're 24. Lots of folks think you're the best player in the NBA. You're married, you have a child, you've reconciled with your parents, you're -- well, it looked like things were going pretty well for you, even though the Lakers didn't four-peat. But now there's this "suspicion of felony sexual assault" thing. As far as we know, a crime has yet to be proven. For all we know, this could be just a minor speed bump on your path to the Hall of Fame.

Kobe, Vanessa Bryant
Vanessa isn't the only one hoping this is all a big fat lie.
We hope it turns out to be nothing. But our hopes (and illusions) have been shattered all too often, as we see in this list of 10 sports greats who fell from grace, whether they were proven guilty or innocent in the court of law or public opinion.

1. O.J. Simpson
You know the story -- O.J. had it all, then was charged with the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman. Found not guilty in criminal court, he was found liable for Goldman's death in a civil trial. Also, as CNN put it, the Superior Court jury "effectively found Simpson liable for his ex-wife's death."

2. Joe Jackson
One of the greatest players in baseball history, forever banned at age 30 for his murky role in the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Did he help throw the World Series or not? Doesn't much matter now, except in the continuing controversy over his absence from the Hall of Fame. "Say it ain't so, Joe" will endure forever as a phrase that stands for any American hero's fall from grace.

3. Kirby Puckett
Beloved by Twins fans and baseball partisans everywhere, Puckett was voted Baseball's Best Role Model and Friendliest Player when Baseball America surveyed fans in 1993. He won all kinds of awards for his off-the-field contributions: The Branch Rickey Award for service to his community, the Roberto Clemente Man of the Year Award, etc. Then last October, Puckett was charged with felony false imprisonment and gross misdemeanor sexual conduct. Plus both his ex-wife and his mistress accused him of cheating on them.

And there was violence. His ex-wife told SI, "Over the years ... Puckett had also tried to strangle her with an electrical cord, locked her in the basement and used a power saw to cut through a door after she had locked herself in a room. Once, she said, he even put a cocked gun to her head while she was holding their young daughter."

Puckett was found not guilty on all charges in his trial, but the damage to his reputation may be irreparable.

Pete Rose
If the Hit King wants to see his Reds play, he has to buy a ticket.
4. Pete Rose
Even if you weren't a Pete Rose fan back in the day, you had to admit he embodied some of baseball's most admirable qualities. He really was all about winning and earned the "Charlie Hustle" nickname the hard way. But he allegedly committed what many consider to be the second-greatest baseball sin possible (fixing games would be the first). He bet on his own team. And it's been 14 years of purgatory.

5. Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry
Doc and Darryl owned New York in the mid-1980s. They were young. And great. And they were leading one of the best teams in baseball history. Gooden was quiet and modest and his image filled the biggest billboards in Manhattan. Darryl was flashy and oozed on-field grace and enormous potential. Then came the drugs. And Strawberry's sordid arrests down in Florida. Just two sad, sad stories.

6. Tonya Harding
If she hadn't arranged for her husband and his band of hooligans to whack rival Nancy Kerrigan in the knee, Harding might have won gold in women's figure skating in Lillehammer. She might have become the ultimate Horatio Alger story. Instead, through her many travails and a pathetic celebrity boxing career, she's become our greatest renewable resource of schadenfreude.

7. Lance Rentzel
The All-America Oklahoma running back became a flanker in the pros, with a great pair of hands. He was married to knockout starlet Joey Heatherton, who set hearts aflutter with her suggestive mattress commercials. He was the Cowboys leading receiver in the late 1960s. Unfortunately, the all-pro wide receiver also had a proclivity to expose himself to young children; he pled guilty to one charge in 1966, then was convicted of another charge in 1971. Suspended from football for nearly a year, Rentzel had a few more good seasons with the Rams before retiring. He also wrote a great memoir, entitled "When All the Laughter Died in Sorrow."

8. Ben Johnson
Ben Johnson was Canada's great Olympic hope in 1988, and his dream came true when he defeated archrival Carl Lewis and set a world record of 9.79 in the 100 meters to take the gold in Seoul. Then it all came crashing down. He tested positive for steroids, was stripped of his gold medal, and suspended from competition for two years. During a 1990s comeback attempt, Johnson tested positive again and was banned from track for life.

Mike Tyson
Tyson's spectacle with Evander Holyfield was only one chapter in his tabloid life.
9. Mike Tyson
Tyson was going to bring heavyweight boxing back. He had charisma. He had a great rags-to-riches story. He was endearingly literate and soft-spoken one moment, brutally fierce the next. Tyson was the future of boxing, and even after his embarrassing loss to Buster Douglas in 1990, still looked like gold.

Then came the rape conviction, the ear-biting, and all the other craziness that followed his release from prison. He coulda been great in the greatest way. But instead ... well, to be continued.

10. George O'Leary
When you're appointed head football coach at Notre Dame, you have entered the ultimate state of grace. O'Leary entered and exited in less than a week after it was discovered, and he admitted, that his résumé falsely claimed a master's degree from NYU and three letters in football at New Hampshire. Truth is, he never played in a game.

Also receiving votes:
  • Paul Hornung
  • Alex Groza
  • Ralph Beard