History does not record the name of the first racket enthusiast to ask, on a vanity license plate, 10SNE1? Forgotten, too, is that pioneering urologist who first registered the plates 2P CME. What we do know is that a good vanity plate reinvents the phrase poetic license. Just ask anyone who has watched a hearse make its stately way to the grave between tags that read U21DAY.
A great plate--a GR8 PL8, in the vernacular--makes you think. To fully appreciate Steelers guard Kendall Simmons's plate (IHOP) it helps to know what a pancake block is. Poker pro Johnny Chan's tags (JJ333) recall a particularly remunerative full house. Because Cowboys receiver Keyshawn Johnson is always open (or thinks he is), his plates read 7-11. Or they did. Johnson recently gave those up because they kept getting stolen.
In sports, even uninspired plates are highly coveted. To raise money for a Colts stadium, the state of Indiana last month auctioned some off. An anonymous bidder paid $10,305 for QB 18 (a shout-out to Peyton Manning) and $6,030 for WR 88 (a nod to Marvin Harrison). Never mind that there's nothing clever about those constructions. At least there's a minimum of vanity in them, unlike the L23 on LeBron James's Rolls-Royce.
So intense is the demand for sports vanity plates that there is now an Internet auction house--greatplateexchange.com. Last week you could bid on the Maine plate SOXWN04, the New York plate ELI 10 or a Wisconsin plate with a Packers logo and the message NFLMVP. Imagine the disappointment of fellow motorists when they see you at the stoplight, not Brett Favre.
Indeed, if you see a luxury sedan bracketed by T-O BABY tags, it's not Terrell Owens behind the wheel but Dick Vitale. Owens's game-winning catch against the Packers in the '98 playoffs--a pale sequel to the Catch of Dwight Clark--inspired him to get CATCH II plates. Two years later, when he set a single-game record for receptions, Owens ordered 20GRABS.
At least he backed up his boasts. As a rookie receiver, Kory Bailey arrived in the NFL with THRW2ME. (Nobody ever did, not even once.) Former Florida State quarterback Chris Rix showed up in Tallahassee in a black Mustang whose plates read LK OUT DB. Mercifully, he never jaywalked near Warren Sapp, whose plates read QB KILLA.
Recognizing the pitfalls of vanity, some athletes get humility plates. Gary McCord, the CBS golf announcer who never had a victory on the PGA Tour, has worn NOWINS like a scarlet letter. Newly acquired White Sox first baseman Jim Thome has a pickup with the nonboast 25DBTH, for his uniform number and Don't Believe the Hype.
Sometimes the state keeps the driver humble. The California DMV rejected the request of sports columnist Peter Schmuck to put his surname on his license plate. (There is sometimes a fine line between vanity and profanity.) The state taketh away, but it giveth, too. The first vanity plate in Massachusetts was issued in 1965 as a gift. It read, simply, YAZ.
Some plates have the whiff of scandal about them. Greg Anderson, Barry Bonds's personal trainer, rolled with vanity plates W8 GURU. He might more aptly have owned JUICES, but O.J. Simpson already had that one, on a red Ferrari Testarossa that was eventually auctioned. Juiced author Jose Canseco was once pulled over in a red Jaguar that identified its driver as MR 40-40, and juiced sprinter Ben Johnson owned a 9.83 license plate. Question: When he had his 100-meters world record revoked, did they also revoke his plates?
Some plates are so decadent, they cry out for repossession, not revocation. Tami Anderson, ex-wife of former NBA star Kenny Anderson, bought a Hummer with HIS CASH. Vanessa Bryant, bejeweled wife of Kobe, tagged her Mercedes with ICE QN. (Bryant's nemesis, Shaquille O'Neal, once bought the Lakers' longtime equipment manager a new Ford F150 pickup to replace his 1986 Yugo. The truck's plates: THX SHAQ.)
While idling on his Harley at Salt Lake City stoplights, former Lakers and Jazz star Karl Malone so frequently heard people ask if that was really him that he finally got plates that replied IT IS.
But fans create the most memorable plates, like the New York refugee of Red Sox Nation who celebrated the end of his team's curse with the perfectly accented ITZOVA. Or the plate spotted by Dennis Cowhey, author of What Does That Mean? The Personal Stories Behind Vanity License Plates. It read, as every Caddyshack fan will appreciate, BTHEBAL.
Alas, not every fan is so clever. A North Dakota man was pulled over last March shortly after leaving a sports pub in Moorhead, Minn., and arrested for drunken driving. His license plate read TIPSY.
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A great plate (a GR8 PL8) makes you think. To fully appreciate the plate of a Steelers guard (IHOP), it helps to know what a pancake block is.