A guide to cool: 50 Southern California athletes who rate
These are not the results of a survey.
This is not GQ — it might not even be PC.
This is one man’s list of the Southland’s 50 all-time “coolest” athletes based on a half-century of marinating in the local sauce. Your definition of cool should differ. You can be cool and great, to me, but also great and not cool. What did you bring to the game other than a jump shot? Cool is often what is left unsaid — nuanced in countenance and cadence. It doesn’t generally refer to itself in the third person. Cool permeates and oozes more than it needs a bonus clause for plate appearances. You can’t always put your finger on cool, but one look at Barry Bonds can tell you, “That’s not it.”
1: Sandy Koufax
Koufax wouldn’t break a sweat at high noon in Needles. He graduated from electric/erratic status in Brooklyn to become Los Angeles’ athletic icon of the 1960s. Koufax was everything cool is: mysterious, elusive and evocative. He was a trolley (and people) Dodger. Think Greta Garbo with an Uncle Charlie that buckled your knees. He refused to pitch a World Series game on a Jewish holy day and walked away, left arm throbbing, in his prime, after winning 27 games. It was luck that his only perfect game was even captured on film, and luckier that Vin Scully painted all of his masterpieces.
2. Magic Johnson
To think the Lakers almost chose Arkansas’ Sidney Moncrief with the first pick of the 1979 NBA draft. Moncrief had a nice career, but his nickname, “Sid the Squid,” would have been a Roger Corman B-movie compared to the “Showtime” that Johnson ushered to Los Angeles. Magic turned Hollywood inside out by preaching selflessness to the selfish. He made the assist more exciting than a basket with an infectious, no-look flare that initially shocked, but then resurrected and humanized Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Magic won five titles by taking fun very seriously, then exhibited grace, dignity and courage after his HIV disclosure.
3: Johnny Weissmuller
He turned five Olympic gold medals in swimming and the line “Me Tarzan, you Jane” into a house next to Jed Clampett’s. Weissmuller grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of, um, Chicago, but made his name swinging on Hollywood and Vine with the sumptuous Maureen O’Sullivan and jungle mates Cheetah and Boy. Unlike the NBA in the 1980s, Weissmuller made “short shorts” look cool and his forever indelible Tarzan shriek would influence Monica Seles and others on the women’s tennis tour. Weissmuller’s face was also part of the montage on the cover of the Beatles’ album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
4: “Gorgeous” George Wagner
It gets old watching Chad Ocho-whatever-his-name-is-today showboat around as though he’s God’s gift — but there’s nothing like the original!
Gorgeous George was the original, a professional wrestler who emerged in the late 1940s with an act later ripped off by Muhammad Ali, James Brown and Hulk Hogan.
Wagner’s magnetism drew crowds outside appliance stores to catch his early KTLA television performances from the Olympic Auditorium. Entertainment Weekly named his 1947 TV debut one of the top 100 televised moments of the 20th century.
Wagner dyed his hair platinum blond and entered the ring only after one of his valets disinfected it with Chanel “No. 10.” He would say, “Why be half-safe?”
Bob Dylan recalls Gorgeous George visiting his town of Hibbing, Minn., in the 1950s. “He roared in like the storm,” Dylan once wrote. “He seemed like 40 men.” The young singer then reinvented himself, changing his name from Zimmerman to Dylan, and years later released the seminal album … “Blonde on Blonde.”
5: Billie Jean King
A man raised in the feminist 1970s with four sisters could ill afford to keep King off this list. The Long Beach native didn’t seem so cool then with her cat-rimmed glasses and all that jabbering about ERA (wasn’t that “earned-run average?”). Her 1973 tennis match against huckster Bobby Riggs turned our house into the Korean border, but her straight-sets victory pretty much set everyone straight. King became cooler with age, especially when we later found out Elton John’s song, “Philadelphia Freedom,” was dedicated not to the Liberty Bell but to King. Equal rights for women, it turned out, were cool. Billie Jean, royalty on the courts, served society with a brazen openness that turned perspiration into inspiration.
6: David “Deacon” Jones
The third-best day of my life was arbitrarily being issued uniform No. 75 for my local Pop Warner team. I must have head-slapped every kid in the neighborhood. After I won pipsqueak lineman of the year honors, our coach hand-painted a figurine of a generic No. 75 player that still sits on my desk, albeit with an amputated right foot.
Deacon Jones was the greatest defensive end in NFL history, the man with the coolest nickname, from a Los Angeles Rams team with the coolest uniforms, from the coolest-ever nicknamed unit — the “Fearsome Foursome.”
Jones coined the term quarterback “sack” before the league kept stats for the category. He was the high priest before Reggie White and will go to his grave getting less pre-ESPN credit than he deserves for revolutionizing his position.
7: Nolan Ryan
What’s cooler than having your fastball clocked by Rockwell scientists, or telling Reggie Jackson before an at-bat he was getting nothing but fastballs, or throwing 234 pitches in one game? Ryan was from Texas, and he came to the California Angels in 1972 via a trade with the New York Mets. Yet it was in eight glorious, if not erratic, seasons in Anaheim that he put down his Hall of Fame foundation. Ryan, ever so humble, broke many of Koufax’s records without ever stepping on Sandy’s accomplishments. Ryan was cool because of his 100-mph heater, but also because he never whined about weak-hitting Angels teams that cost him 27-win seasons. Ryan never won the Cy Young Award because pundits said he was a .500 pitcher.
Seattle’s Felix Hernandez won last year with a record of 13-12.
Only Nolan Ryan could be cool with that.
8: Rafer Johnson
Forrest Gump had nothing on Johnson, who played basketball for John Wooden, won Olympic gold in the decathlon and was drafted as a running back by the Rams. As an actor, Johnson was forced to turn down a role in “Spartacus” to preserve his amateur status, but he later appeared in a James Bond movie. In 1968, in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel, Johnson helped wrestle the gun out of Sirhan Sirhan’s hand after Robert Kennedy was shot. Johnson has been hugely involved in Special Olympics and, to christen the opening of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, scaled the final steps as the final torch bearer. Twenty-four years after winning Olympic gold in Rome, Johnson performed another great feat in the Coliseum.
“Spartacus” was only a movie.
9: Don “The Snake” Prudhomme
This San Fernando-born king of “nitro-powered” funny cars and top fuel dragsters helped elementary school boys pass time in class by using the flat edges and arcs of their protractors to re-create, in bound notebooks, very cool pencil sketches of Prudhomme’s signature 1970 yellow Plymouth Barracuda. “The Snake” was the first driver to win four consecutive NHRA series titles and had it all over rival Tom “Mongoose” McEwen’s red Duster. Prudhomme earned his nickname for his cobra-like starts off the Christmas tree. Car Craft wrote in 2009, “In the glory days of drag racing, men were men and the trophy girls knew it.” That and a Hot Wheels set could almost get a kid through junior high.
10: Corky Carroll
Real name: Charles
Real job: never
Corky was the coolest Carroll in Los Angeles long before Pete, carving out his legend in surf and sand. The Beach Boys basically wrote songs about Corky’s life. Carroll was born in Alhambra but was raised on the waves near Huntington Beach. He was a five-time U.S. Overall Surf Champion and the first to make money “hanging ten,” winning a TV set for a victory in a 1965 competition in Redondo Beach. The Encyclopedia of Surfing describes Corky as the “flamboyant goofyfooter from Surfside.”
Carroll “retired” from competitive surfing at age 25 and has spent the rest of his life being Corky Carroll. The Huntington Beach grad became a musician and author, with the song “Surfer for President” and the book “Pier Pressure” to prove it. He was featured in several Miller Lite beer commercials.
You should be so cool, so lucky and so tan.
11: Jack Kramer: Rose out of Montebello High to win Wimbledon in 1947 and become tennis’ Arnold Palmer. What a racket.
12: Bob Waterfield: Former UCLA and early Rams do-it-all star QB was married to (ka-ching) Jane Russell
13: Art Aragon: Never won world boxing title but was L.A.'s “Golden Boy” long before Oscar De La Hoya.
14: Elgin Baylor: West was the logo but Baylor was the Laker you tried to imitate in your driveway.
15: Jackie Robinson: No. 1 on any list of most important and admired area athletes — but he was cool too.
16: Arthur Ashe: He ate cool for breakfast and was way more than a tennis star out of UCLA.
17: Marion Morrison: Grit as a USC footballer in the roaring 1920s turned into “True Grit” for John Wayne.
18: Roman Gabriel: QB stood tall in pocket for Rams, was 1969 MVP and made a movie with John Wayne.
19: Jack Youngblood: Rams equipment man Don Hewitt refused to reissue No. 85 after Jack retired.
20: Karch Kiraly/Sinjin Smith: Ever notice how often volleyball icons are not named Sam Snodgrass and Floyd Fester?
21: Fernando Valenzuela: Cool is causing a “mania” and refusing to speak English even though you could.
22: Luc Robitaille: Gretzky made a bigger splash but Luc seemed the King with whom you’d rather share a pitcher of suds.
23: Marcus Allen: Mercurial Marcus makes list for standing out at USC and standing up to Al Davis
24: Amy Alcott: UCLA hall of famer cemented spot with dive into lake after winning 1991 Dinah Shore.
25: Laffit Pincay Jr: Famed jockey once cut an airplane peanut in two and called one “lunch” and one “dinner.”
26: Pat McInally: Villa Park-, Harvard-educated punter aced the NFL’s Wonderlic Test — enough said.
27: Bill Walton: Cool war protester at UCLA until Wooden told him to get his hair cut
28: Jennie Finch: Ooh la La Mirada, to be that beautiful and still whiz softballs by Mike Piazza.
29: Ann Meyers: Cool (for me) was playing pick-up hoops with her back at Sonora (La Habra) High.
30: Don Drysdale: Cool (for him) was being No. 53 for Dodgers and marrying Ann Meyers
31: Mark Harmon: Loved him as UCLA QB … not so much on TV as serial killer Ted Bundy.
32: Bob Seagren: Pole-vaulted from Pomona to win Olympic glory and first television “Superstars” competition.
33: Jerry West: A cool contradiction — clutch under game pressure but a nervous wreck in the sky box.
34: Terry Schroeder: Pepperdine water polo icon was the model for statue outside of Coliseum.
35: Fred Dryer: Hawthorne’s future television star “Hunter” incredibly played DE for the Rams at 240 pounds.
36: Misty May: Impossible to play beach volleyball, have that name and not make this list.
37: Bob Chandler: No one’s sure how he fit into football pants worn at Whittier High/USC/Oakland Raiders.
38: Gail Goodrich: “Stumpy” was L.A. cool at three levels: high school, UCLA and the Lakers.
39: Troy Polamalu: Former USC star’s Pittsburgh jersey head-and-shoulders most popular seller among women.
40: Ronnie Lott: He once cut off part of his pinky to play in a football game
41: Ricky Bell: Taken-too-soon USC tailback carried 51 times for 347 yards against Washington State.
42: Amanda Beard: Everything you’d dream would emerge from an Olympic-sized pool in Newport Beach.
43: Walter Johnson: Washington Senators’ “Big Train” actually rode a horse to Fullerton High School.
44: Michelle Kwan: One in long line of figure skaters churned out of frozen tundra factory of … Torrance.
45: Derek Fisher: Classy, cool under pressure, just as many rings as Kobe without the baggage.
46: Cobi Jones: L.A. soccer legend sported the best hairdo to come out of UCLA since Angela Davis.
47: Evelyn Ashford: Born in LA (Louisiana), college in LA (UC), Olympic gold in LA (1984)
48: Duffy Waldorf: Former Bruin, PGA grinder knows way around a golf course and a wine list
49: Tracy Austin: Won U.S. (tennis) Open in Palos Verdes pigtails but scored her most important victories in charity work.
50: Rickie Fowler: Golf’s fluorescent future, out of Murrieta, and his middle name is Yutaka.
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