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Tuesday, December 19, 2000
Updated: September 13, 6:14 PM ET
Prima donnas I've known

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

In a sense, every pro athlete and team owner is something of a prima donna. Had to be in order to get there, unless they inherited wealth -- either economic or genetic.

Joe Montana
Joe Cool was deified by fans in the Bay Area.
Still, some people tend to get carried away with themselves and their own celebrated (though to them never celebrated enough) greatness. Have I met many prima donnas? Other than myself, you mean? Oh, you bet. Some I know. Others I know by rep.

Carl Lewis
Sprinters in general are insufferable prima donnas. (See, 2000 Olympics gold medal-winning men's 4 x 100 relay team.) None of them ever met a full-length mirror he didn't like and couldn't admire himself in, like Madonna modeling her nylons to herself. Ooo, my calf was ridging out much nicer last week. This damned quad better act right.

Carl had an agent who thought he'd be bigger than Michael Jackson, singer and backslider, some kind of life goal, if you stop and think about it. For all his magnificent Olympian achievements, for some reason the lasting image is not of him running or even jumping, but on a billboard, waiting in the starting blocks, in red stiletto heels, for some great celebratory party in his honor that never actually occurred.

Charles Oscar Finley
A weird gene-splicing of Branch Rickey, George Lincoln Rockwell, P.T. Barnum and the Wizard of Oz. Knew what color the ball should be (orange), what colors themselves should be named (Fort Knox Gold, Wedding Gown White). Brought in the DH. Sold off players once he sniffed free agency coming and saw the reserve clause, like chattel slavery, was doomed.

His A's won three straight World Series and five straight divisional titles in the early '70s. In the late '70s, he ran the team on a combination of spare change, bus fumes, a bunch of Triple-A players, and a local lad named ...

Rickey Henderson
A grunt. That was his public explanation of himself. What he was, was a run waiting to happen. The rest was just (your) conversation. Don't take his frown personally. He's asking himself why you are alive. Stole more bases than anybody. Scored more runs than anybody other than Ty Cobb, no shrinking violet himself.

First saw Rick as a rook in the Cactus League with the A's. The Mariners were in Tempe. Sat on the bench with the 21-year-old kid, spitting sunflower seed hulls at blue-green iridescent horseflies. He said, "Think I'll hit one 450 feet first time up." Yeah. Sure. Right. Went up and hit it 450 feet. Came back and sniffed. And the way he picked at his uniform when he blasted one out, then that exaggerated home run trot ... got his money's worth. As far as the green light goes, don't try to tell Rick when to go, unless your name is ...

Billy Martin
Billy was the No. 1 manager in baseball. And if you didn't like it, you could step outside, where Billy would introduce you to his sucker-punching ability as soon as you turned your head.

Reggie Jackson
When he got into the batter's box at Yankee Stadium, he was the best, and you weren't, which he was only too happy to tell you. Loved to put on a show in batting practice. He could beat a team in batting practice just by the way he swaggered into the batter's box and hit laser beam after identical laser beam into the lower deck of Yankee Stadium's short porch. Saw him do it to the A's in the '81 playoffs.

The straw that stirred the drink. Other sluggers and all pitchers and one manager (see above) hated him the way Salieri hated Mozart, another prima donna. The virtuoso three dingers on three pitches in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series, followed by curtain calls, bows, the doffed cap, the basking ... wouldn't Reggie have made even Marie Antoinette green with envy? Let them eat Wade Boggs.

Rick Barry
Could drop 40 on you in a heartbeat back in the late '60s and early '70s. Enabled by his friend and ex-teammate Al Attles, former coach of the Golden State Warriors, who won the NBA title with Barry in 1975. The next season, Rick pouted through the playoffs after Ricky Sobers of the Suns and hard-scrabble NYC threatened to kick his fifi ass, and none of Rick's teammates came to his aid, saying he always had to have things his way, so keep it that way now.

Rick has three sons with NBA experience right now; one of them won the All-Star dunk contest one year, another is one of the league's better long-range shooters -- and the thing is, they might have turned out even better if they'd had Rick's attention as much as his genes. Rick left a lot of minutes in the mirror.

Joe Montana
People didn't know how great he was. He was a Notre Dame quarterback who won big games, could dunk with two hands and picked up the 49ers' West Coast offense like it was checkers. He was supposed to get the magazine covers, commercials, Big Sky state towns named after him. Didn't you know that, his look always said.

Later on, he had to share the spotlight with Jerry Rice, which he took to about as well as Bette Davis took to her understudy in All About Eve. When asked about young Rice, Joe turned away and said, "I don't know if there's anything he can't already do." His look said, "But I already know there's nothing I can't do." At least he deigned to speak on the record about Rice. Joe acted as if Steve Young didn't exist, often saying "Which?" when people mentioned ...

The anti-Joe: Steve Young
The most ego-free great athlete. After he signed out of BYU with the USFL's L.A. Express, he told me he "would've sprinted backward naked" to play in the NFL. A blind amputee can count on his missing arm the Christmas cards Steve got from Joe.

O.J. Simpson
King of the Prima Donnas, he'd roam bars on South Beach and tell tall willowy blondes he'd just starred in Naked Gun XX, neglecting to add that his stand-in was a crash dummy. Superb running back, but stopped being that, oh, 20 years ago? It's pathetic when a man tries to trade on what he can no longer do.

Hiding in the backseat of a Ford Bronco just doesn't get it done, not after a 68-yard-run against UCLA as the band played "Conquest." Still hungers for your adulation. Now gets it by getting into road-rage scuffles with the same equally tired middle-aged men that were once his market, and hiding behind his children, who are just liable to turn around one day and see their infamous Daddy for what he truly is.

Dennis Rodman
Prima Donna? Well, did Ma-donna, so who am I to judge? Ungodly rebounder. That alone would've gotten him nowhere in primadonnaville. But he took off -- in more ways than one -- when his head went technicolor and his body went tatted and tagged, and he started kicking photographers and marrying actresses. No man can subject himself to such abuse for long and stay sane.

Tonya Harding
Didn't know her, luckily, but a contract kneecapping speaks for itself. In this case the contract was put out on rival figure skater Nancy Kerrigan. Can't really lock her in, because to have been the prima in prima donna, it helps to have been first at least once. She was a second banana-donna.

Deion Sanders
Must Be The Music himself. Deion is No. 1 with a bullet on the sporting prima donna playlist. From the buck-&-wing hippy-hop dance he did after one of his lightning punt returns to his proclamations that the Georgia Dome "is my house! It's my house. I built this!" after he came back with 49ers and beat the Falcons to a pulp during his first Super Bowl year of '94-'95.

He'd already let an overmatched corner named Charles Dimry get toasted for five touchdowns in one game by Rice, while he -- the young Deion -- played the other receiver, held his chin and studied the situation. A couple of seasons later, when he was ready to come out, Deion held Rice without a touchdown.

Deion also once said he was so fast only he could catch himself. I found out later Deion was one of the shrewdest and most effective of the sporting prima donnas. The reason he affected and eventually assumed a prima donna identity is DBs weren't getting paid much, and by Deion's accounting, giving himself the image of the bling-blinging, rap-singing, dancing swashbuckler of the secondary, he drove up his market value. Can't argue with the man. Marketing counts for something. But so do civil rights, not to mention human rights advancements. Deion got paid and, say, Jim Thorpe didn't. Who's to say who or what had more to do with it, Pete Rozelle, hip-hop or Martin Luther King Jr?

Anyway, that brings us to Deion's real legacy: He inspired more copycat prima donnas than anyone who ever lived.. Take a look at that cornerback from the Rams, what's his name, Dexter McCleon? Well I call him Toy Deion for short. Samari Rolle, the All-Pro corner of the Tennessee Titans, he's a Deionite. There are more. We'll have to see if Deion's successor in athletic ability, Charles Woodson of the Raiders, can come up with his own prima donna underground.

Prime Time, once the greatest showman in ball, established a prima donna shazam so well that Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, a would-be prima donna, got him paid in 2000 even though it was obvious the once-great Deion, King of the DBs in the Rap '90s, was now playing on two flat tires. He had been cut by both his former baseball team and football team, which, to most evaluators of talent, might have been a clue.

It was kind of sad, when the Cowboys came to Washington, to see Deion hug Jerry Jones, another prima donna, on the field before the game, with Snyder standing there, waiting for his hug, waiting to be acknowledged, to be a part of the prima donna club. Finally, Deion turned around with an expression that said, "Oh, yeah, right," and hugged Snyder too. It was a Dangerous Liaisons moment for all of them.

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," "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."