Pro athletes are sports fans, naturally, but if they didn't get into most events free, whom among their peers would they pay to watch? From mid-October to early November--just as baseball was finishing up, basketball was revving up and football was heating up--SI posed that question to 625 pros from those three sports, using a hypothetical $1,000 ticket price for NBA and major league players and $500 for NFL players, who are less highly compensated. (After all, those sums are roughly equal to the $100 the typical fan often has to pay for a ticket.) ¬∂ The question wouldn't have been as intriguing during the 1990s. The overwhelming answer surely would've been Michael Jordan because he was still the choice of more than a dozen of our polled athletes, even though we begged them to name an active player. But it seemed especially pertinent now as we contemplate a sports firmament that is not exactly bereft of star power but is certainly not glowing with it. ¬∂ At any rate, the athlete who got the most votes was ... well, hold on a bit. Not just yet.
We would have polled players in the NHL too, had that league been in session. Whether the lockout kept hockey stars from getting their props is hard to say, but Calgary Flames rightwinger Jerome Iginla, Pittsburgh Penguins center Mario Lemieux and New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur were the only NHLers selected--with a total of five votes. Which pretty much sums up hockey's major problem, doesn't it?
That some athletes have actually paid to see an event or a particular athlete was surprising. "Heck, I paid $1,000 this spring to see Roy Jones fight Antonio Tarver in Las Vegas," said Boston Celtics backup center Michael Stewart. "We weren't on the floor or anything, but it was great to be there." And Houston Texans safety Eric Brown laid it down for floor seats at Game 1 of the San Antonio Spurs--Los Angeles Lakers playoff series last May. Less surprising was that many wouldn't consider reaching into their wallet. "I wouldn't pay one thousand dollars to see nobody," said Denver's Carmelo Anthony, who nevertheless expects Nuggets fans to pay upwards of a hundred bucks to see him. Said Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants, "I'd put that money in the stock market and go to the event on somebody else's ticket." That kind of attitude pretty much sums up Bonds's personality, but the sad thing is that Anthony seems headed in that direction.
Almost as interesting as which athletes were selected was how the voting patterns broke down by sport (page 91). NBA players, for example, named more boxers and tennis players than baseball players; the basketball players liked NFL guys the most, but not nearly as much as football players liked NBA stars. And major leaguers, who didn't like boxers at all, liked no one as much as they liked themselves.
Some of the choices were shockers. Densely tattooed tough guy Kenyon Martin, a power forward for the Nuggets, chose tennis's Andy Roddick because "I just like his intensity." New York Giants wide receiver Amani Toomer made it clear that he wouldn't pick "any football players or basketball players," but would pay to watch seven-time Formula One champion Michael Schumacher of Germany. Schu was chosen by six other players as well, but the only NASCAR drivers mentioned were Dale Earnhardt Jr. (twice) and Tony Stewart (once).
the pros' appreciation for other pros goes way beyond the mainstream. The Miami Heat's Shaquille O'Neal would spend his jackquille on Ultimate Fighting champion Randy Couture ("the Shaq of Ultimate Fighting," O'Neal calls him), while Los Angeles Clippers forward Zeljko Rebraca went for another Ultimate Fighting stalwart, Royce Gracie. San Diego Padres outfielder Ryan Klesko and Oakland A's pitcher Barry Zito chose surfers, though, dude, it sounded as if they wanted a road trip out of it. "I'd spend the money to go to Hawaii and see Rob Machado or Taylor Knox surf the Pipeline," said Klesko, while Zito would "pay my way to Tahiti to see Garrett McNamara, Laird Hamilton and Andy Irons surf Teahupo'o." Staying at the beach, Klesko's teammate, infielder Ramon Vazquez, selected Mike Lambert ("He's the young beach volleyball player who has teamed with Karch Kiraly and given Karch a second career; he's an incredible athlete"), while Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Hugh Douglas and San Diego Chargers wide receiver Tim Dwight went, less surprisingly, for the statuesque sand goddess Gabrielle Reese. Douglas gave his reasons as "her body, her body, her body, her body, her body." We get it, we get it, we get it, we get it, we get it.
Rangers third baseman Hank Blalock moved the voting from sand to dirt, selecting motocross freestylist Travis Pastrana; Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Dave Krynzel moved it from dirt to blacktop with drag racer John Force; and Baltimore Orioles reliever Todd Williams moved it indoors, tapping poker ace Doyle Brunson with this excellent logic: "If I'm going to spend $1,000, I may as well try to win some of it back."
Narcissism is never too far from the modern athlete's mind. Washington Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington picked San Francisco 49ers linebacker Julian Peterson partly because "he reminds me of myself in a lot of ways." Chicago Bulls rookie center Jared Reiner went with ... Jared Reiner. "I'd just set up a bunch of mirrors," said Reiner, who at week's end had played in three games and scored a total of eight points. "I'm one of the best-looking seven-footers in the league." At least as good-looking as Reiner was the choice of Chicago Bears defensive end Michael Haynes, who didn't go for a single athlete but, rather, the group of them who compete each year in the Westminster Dog Show. Haynes, who has a degree in animal science from Penn State, said he "really likes" boxers.
So do a lot of pro basketball and football players, a combined 17 of whom picked Mike Tyson, who hasn't won a fight of any significance since 1991. "Anything can happen when he fights," said Baltimore Ravens linebacker Cornell Brown. "Someone could get maimed, someone could get knocked out."
The increasing presence of foreign players in U.S. leagues was evident in the number of soccer players they chose. Real Madrid's Ronaldo was the choice of seven pros. Freddy Adu, David Beckham, Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane also got votes. None was praised as lavishly as Zidane, the French national team star, of whom Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash (a former soccer standout at Santa Clara) said, "To me he's like a sensei. He has a surreal relationship with the ball."
less surreal was the reasoning behind the strong showing of Serena Williams, with whom we begin our countdown of the top five vote-getters. Williams, the younger of the two crushers from Compton, got 27 votes, 10 more than three-time NFL MVP Brett Favre and 12 more than six-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong. In many cases it even had something to do with tennis. "I'm astounded by how she moves around the court," said New York Mets centerfielder Mike Cameron. Wondered Milwaukee Bucks guard Erick Strickland, "I'd like to pick her brain to see what else is in her head besides tennis.... She's been training since she was a kid."
Alas, there's another component to Serena's popularity, as Orlando Magic guard Steve Francis points out: "You can't beat that Catwoman suit she wears."
Charlotte Bobcats forward Gerald Wallace: "I'll pick Serena Williams, but only if she has on that tight little outfit she usually wears."
New Orleans Saints cornerback Mike McKenzie: "I wouldn't mind paying to see Serena ... if she has the leopard suit on."
Eagles defensive tackle Hollis Thomas: "It would be cool to see Serena in the finals of Wimbledon, hopefully wearing the catsuit outfit as well."
Attire was not part of the appeal of Michael Vick, the fourth-place finisher. He got 39 votes strictly on ability. "[When Atlanta is playing] the only time you can go to the bathroom or to the kitchen is during timeouts or when he's on the sideline," said Indiana Pacers point guard Anthony Johnson. Stated Kansas City Royals pitcher Nate Field, "He's the best athlete in sports right now."
The Vick endorsement that meant the most came from Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. "He can throw, he can run. I can run, but I don't do it as fast as he does," said McNabb. "Everybody talks about stats--passing yards, rushing yards--and how he's an exciting player, but the thing about Mike is, he's a winner." (Well, Donovan, at week's end Vick was 23-11-1 as an NFL starter, and you were 56-22-0.) McNabb, for the record, got only six votes, including one from Bobcats frontcourtman Melvin Ely, who would "just about sell my Hummer to see him play." (Vick did not vote.)
Much of the support for the third-place finisher, Shaq, came from the NFL, whose players cast 34 of the 58 votes O'Neal garnered. Many of them look at O'Neal and see more pigskin in him than roundball--"I like the way Shaq beats people around and does what he wants," said Miami Dolphins safety Yeremiah Bell--but what was surprising was the degree to which Shaq's 7'1", 335 pound physique turned other pros into slack-jawed fans. "He's just an animal," said Arizona Diamondbacks infielder Shea Hillenbrand. "I went to a Suns game and sat courtside for the first time last year.... Getting to see that sport that close, seeing someone that big play, would be really, really fun." Adds Falcons running back T.J. Duckett, "I'd love to see a guy that big face-to-face and be, like, 'Wow, you are one big human.
Shaq wasn't that popular among his hoop homeys, 12 of whom would've shelled out a grand to see the Minnesota Timberwolves' Kevin Garnett ("the best all-around player in the NBA," according to Bucks guard T.J. Ford) compared with only six for Shaq. But, then, the NBA was decidedly tough on its own. The Cleveland Cavaliers' rising immortal, LeBron James, got only one of his 19 votes from within the league (former teammate Eric Williams's), while Kobe Bryant got a mere four. And two of those were from teammates Caron Butler and Jumaine Jones, both of whom are keenly aware, apparently, of who runs the Lakers.
With 60 votes Bonds edged out Shaq for second place. The poll was taken before the recent revelations abouts Bonds's using steroids, but the guess is that it wouldn't have made a difference. The interesting thing about Bonds was the support he received from fellow ballplayers; his rivals (and teammates) might not like him, but they respect him as a player and, like the fans, would find him even more intriguing if he got more strikes to hit. "I would vote for Barry Bonds," said Chicago White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko, "but they'd probably walk him so it would be a waste of a grand." No catsuit, no scrambling around in the pocket, no seven-foot physicality. Just bat meets ball, brother. "I get excited every time I'm on the field with him," said Washington Nationals (at least for the time being) outfielder Endy Chavez. Cleveland Indians first baseman Ben Broussard would even pay to watch Bonds take batting practice, and White Sox lefthander Scott Schoeneweis gave Bonds the ultimate props: "He's Jordanesque."
that superlative also describes the leading vote-getter, who, as you've probably figured out by now, was Tiger Woods, with 75 votes, 12% of those cast. In uncharacteristic style, Woods won by finishing second three times: behind Vick in the basketball players' vote, behind Shaq in the football players' tally and behind Bonds in the baseball vote. To shell out the money, some athletes specified that they wanted to watch him in a major. Others, such as Mavericks swingman Michael Finley, would pay up only if they could "walk inside the ropes."
But the respect for Woods--"not a common athlete" was how Eagles linebacker Ike Reese described him--was overwhelming. Jocks who golf (such as Konerko, Eagles linebacker Nate Wayne and Texans placekicker Kris Brown) picked Tiger. Athletes who are trying to get into golf (such as New York Knicks forward Tim Thomas) picked Tiger. And athletes who don't like golf (such as Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Steve Martin and Royals pitcher Shawn Camp) picked Tiger.
The admiration for Woods, in fact, cut so deep that Philadelphia Phillies catcher Mike Lieberthal said he would pay more than $1,000 to play a round with him, and Anaheim Angels pitcher Paul Byrd and Brewers catcher Chad Moeller said they would pay $1,000 to carry his bag in a tournament.
Still, those who'd like to caddie for Tiger can't match the number who want to get catty with Serena. Especially if she's wearing the catsuit.
Philadelphia Eagles, quarterback
Would pay to see
He's got so much ability; he can throw, he can run. I can run, but I don't do it as fast as he does. Everybody talks about stats--passing yards, rushing yards--and how he's an exciting player, but the thing about Mike is, he's a winner. Forget the numbers and just look at his record [23-11-1 career]. He doesn't get enough credit for the fact that he's a winner.
Minnesota Timberwolves, guard
Would pay to see
He'll do it all--scoring, rebounds, assists. Guards the top guy, too, no matter if you're 6-feet-tall or 7-feet-tall. He can defend anyone. Put four CBA players on Kevin's team and he may not win 50, but he's going to win some games. Making someone else better, that's the sign of a great player.
Chicago Bulls, guard
Would pay to see
I just love his intensity. When they have players wired on Monday Night Football, it energizes me just to hear how he talks to his teammates and how he trash-talks to the other team. He's so fired up, so into the game. That's what kind of player I want to be. I want to be energetic and have fans be able to tell that I'm having fun playing the game.
Boston Celtics, forward
Would pay to see
I think he's a walking legend. Every time he goes up to bat, you see all the people taking pictures of him. You have a chance to watch a guy make history every time he goes up there. That's something special, to see it in your own era.
Phoenix Suns, guard
Would pay to see
He has such mastery of the ball. To me he's like a sensei. He has a surreal relationship with the ball. It's incredible.
Denver Nuggets, forward
Would pay to see
I just like his intensity, the way he plays.
Philadelphia Eagles, defensive tackle
Would pay to see
She completely dominates her sport. She's a great athlete. It would be cool to see Serena in the finals of Wimbledon, hopefully wearing the catsuit as well.
Miami Heat, center
Would pay to see
Believe it or not, Randy Couture, the Ultimate Fighting champion, because he's old and when all the young guys come down, he still
kicks their asses. I've been to his last four fights. He's the Shaq of Ultimate Fighting.
New York Giants, wide receiver
Would pay to see
I got into Formula One racing, and I really enjoy watching it. I Tivo it all the time. I'd pay to see Schumacher. In fact I did. I went to the Montreal Grand Prix.
An analysis reveals that baseball players hold their stars in high esteem, football players don't think much of theirs, and Shaq would have won if more NFL players had voted.
HOW THE NFL VOTED
Basketball players 41 %
Golfers 12 %
Boxers 11 %
Football players 9 %
Baseball players 7 %
Shaquille O'Neal 34
Tiger Woods 25
Barry Bonds 12
LeBron James 12
Michael Jordan 11
Serena Williams 11
HOW THE NBA VOTED
Football players 23 %
Boxers 16 %
Basketball players 15 %
Tennis players 12 %
Baseball players 11 %
Michael Vick 18
Tiger Woods 16
Serena Williams 15
Barry Bonds 13
Kevin Garnett 12
Mike Tyson 9
HOW MLB VOTED
Baseball players 23 %
Football players 21 %
Golfers 17 %
Basketball players 15 %
Boxers 5 %
Barry Bonds 35
Tiger Woods 34
Shaquille O'Neal 18
Brett Favre 16
Michael Vick 14
LeBron James 6
The Winner Is ...
Tiger Woods may have lost his No. 1 spot in the World Ranking in 2004, but that has not diminished him in the eyes of his peers. He was the athlete the pros would pay to see on 12% of the 625 ballots cast, which is not exactly Jordanesque--especially when Jordan got about a fifth as many votes, even in retirement--but it's an impressive win nonetheless. The top 10 vote-getters:
1. Tiger Woods 75
2. Barry Bonds 60
3. Shaquille O'Neal 58
4. Michael Vick 39
5. Serena Williams 27
6. Mike Tyson 20
7. LeBron James 19
8. Brett Favre 17
¬†¬†¬†¬†Michael Jordan 17
10. Kevin Garnett 15
¬†¬†¬†¬†Lance Armstrong 15