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Bryant reminds us we never know athletes

Published August 10, 2003

Shockingly familiar ...

Famous, admired, beloved Los Angeles athletes. Good family men. Cooperative and popular with public and media. Universally classified by ad agencies as high-value, low-risk endorsers.

Before the clobbering news ...

Kobe Bryant in 2003. Confessing adultery. Charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old Colorado hotel employee. At 24, a still-rising Lakers career with a $13.5-million salary next season suddenly skids into uncertainty. Corporations reassess Kobe as spokesman. This morning he lives on Queasy Street.

Reminding me, somehow, of ...

Steve Garvey in 1989. After a 19-season baseball career, mostly as a Dodgers darling (1969-82) when the All-American boy from Tampa played a National League-record 1,207 consecutive games and was named an All-Star 10 times, Garvey's flawless image went into meltdown with admissions he fathered children by two women who filed paternity suits.

Generations evolve, but can outsiders ever know the most publicized, most scrutinized athletes? There are always secrets, perhaps with propensities that startle.

There are athletes with sad classifications repeatedly reaffirmed. It's not much of a shock when Mike Tyson gets into another ghastly mess or Jose Canseco is again handcuffed and marched to a cell.

But when those we regard as "good guys" fall through a trapdoor, it can be sobering, especially if we've come to see them as exemplary human beings. Several times in the 1980s, I wrote "Book of Lists" columns, ranking my likes and dislikes, rating jocks or airports or stadiums or college-town barbecue joints. For years, near the top among celebrities I found most approachable, forthcoming and likable was O.J. Simpson.

Fooled how badly? Still not sure.

Bryant seemed to be a dandy. Even in his teens, he showed admirable levels of humanity, courtesy and concern in an NBA world known for controversial, outrageous personalities.

Then this.

Garvey was the son every mother craved. I thought I knew him pretty well. His behavior seemed to be from a knightly textbook. He had a gorgeous wife, cute kids, admirable beliefs and a dynamic work ethic. As his baseball time ebbed, Garvey talked of a U.S. Senate run.

Garvey's dad was a bus driver when Steve was in Little League, about the time John F. Kennedy was elected president. Joe Garvey got a pip of a springtime assignment, motoring the Los Angeles Dodgers around Florida.

Little Garv would sit on the bus with Duke Snider, Gil Hodges and Sandy Koufax. He dreamed. All would become reality. Steve Garvey grew up to help the Dodgers to four NL championships. With forearms like Popeye, he achieved a .294 career batting average. In the field, No. 6 was brilliant, earning four Gold Gloves. In 1974, Garvey was league MVP.

In a latter act, Garvey earned more southern California fame in San Diego. In 1984, the so-called "Perfect Padre" hit a home run off Chicago reliever Lee Smith to break Cubs hearts in the NL playoffs.

But, two years into retirement, when Garvey's sexual indiscretions became public, with a nauseous divorce in the mix, deep bruises flawed the old first baseman's image, putting an eternal harness on efforts of Garvey the entrepreneur.

Instead of senator, he became a second-rate pitchman. More schlock, less style. Mention Garvey, expect a paternity joke. Web sites today peddle many items emblazoned with his name, but it's far from the glory days because Garvey's purity was punctured.

Bryant's damages? Stay tuned.

HEISMAN/CANTON: Heisman Trophy winners often fall shy of NFL fame; see Marcus Allen becoming the seventh winner to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Doak Walker, Paul Hornung, Simpson, Earl Campbell, Tony Dorsett and Roger Staubach). ... Next to accomplish a Heisman/Canton double, I think, will be Barry Sanders, followed by the still-active Tim Brown. ... What about Jim Plunkett? ... Sorry, no Canton hope among Heisman fellows from Florida (Chris Weinke, Danny Wuerffel, Charlie Ward, Gino Torretta, Vinny Testaverde, Steve Spurrier).

LET ME DRY YOU A DRINK: Regarding my comments on some old-time football coaches not allowing players water breaks during practice, Joe Daley of New Port Richey writes, "In high school, I would hurt so bad I cried during nonstop three-hour practices. Hid my tears. Never begged a drink. We were not allowed to sit or even kneel.

"My coach in Pennsylvania was a tyrant. When angered, he would even spit in our faces. I saw him knee some guys in the groin. We didn't dare tell our parents. Players did flake out, but word never left our inner sanctum. Luckily, nobody died.

"What a difference from now. Gently shove an athlete, and a coach might be fired, sued or worse. I seldom saw anything really wrong with the methods of Bobby Knight. He is gentle compared to old-timers.

"Sure, players need breathers. They should drink lots of liquids to fend off dehydration. But if these youngsters feel mistreated, they should know how brutal it used to be."

Whatever happened to Chuck Muncie?

[Last modified August 10, 2003, 04:12:16]

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