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Matt Leinart is standing on top of the world, but on this night he's standing on top of a couch in the back of New York's hottest club -- Marquee -- overlooking a sea of beautiful people who all want to get a glimpse of football's newest matinee idol.
For most Heisman Trophy winners, this might be considered an initiation into a new life of fame and fortune, but for Leinart it's just another night in the life of college football's biggest star. For a man who went out with professional surfer/model Veronica Kay and hangs out with Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey, going to trendy clubs is nothing new.
In a city that has been without professional football for a decade, Leinart is Los Angeles' version of Tom Brady -- the good-looking quarterback who always find a way to win on and off the field. He's the guy all the ladies want and all the guys want to be. That was never more evident than Saturday night when Leinart held court at Marquee, alongside teammate Reggie Bush and fellow Heisman hopefuls Alex Smith of Utah and Adrian Peterson of Oklahoma.
Arriving in a stretch limo, Leinart was whisked past the Studio 54-like velvet ropes and doormen and taken to a private table in the back of the club's second level, protected by a black-clad security guard. Leinart had already scoped out the place the night before and apparently liked what he saw. Considering he bumped into Lindsay Lohan, Adam Sandler and Colin Farrell that night, it's hard to blame him.
Although Leinart spoke with his predecessor and 2002 Heisman winner Carson Palmer before the show and took his advice when it came to handling the pressure of being the Heisman favorite -- "Act like they're calling someone else," Palmer told him by phone -- Leinart carved his own path when it came to his post party, hosting possibly the first gathering of four-fifths of the Heisman finalists after the awards show, especially when one of them (Peterson) will be lining up against USC in about three weeks for the national championship. When Palmer won two years earlier he shared a drink with his friends and family at the Whisky Blue in New York's W Hotel before retiring to his room with his fiancé -- now wife -- Shaelyn Fernandes.
While it may come as a surprise to some that Leinart was flanked at his post party with players he beat out for college football's highest prize, it shouldn't. Leinart is a born leader with an infectious personality that has always made him one of the most popular people no matter where he is or who he's with.
Although Leinart has said he will return to USC next season, it wouldn't surprise me if the team-first Leinart is simply trying to keep the focus on the field and away from himself and his draft status. Every indication seems to be pointing to Leinart making a return trip to the Marquee in April -- after he becomes the first pick of the NFL Draft.
So another superstar has come out against Kobe Bryant. So it looks like its Kobe against the world. So what? Nothing's changed. It's always been that way in Bryant's mind. He has been a recluse from the moment he came into the league. None of his teammates could truly say they knew the man, and it always seemed Bryant preferred it that way.
I spent the better part of last season with Bryant while I covered the Lakers for SLAM magazine and always came away from my meetings with him as if I was talking to someone else. He always said the right things around reporters and never tried to rock the boat, unless he was talking to ESPN's Jim Gray, of course. But that was not the Bryant his teammates knew. He was a fiercely private guy who never endeared himself to his teammates. It also didn't help matters that Phil Jackson and Shaquille O'Neal despised Bryant for never playing within the team concept and refusing to embrace his role as the team's second option.
The only man who went out of his way to know Bryant was Karl Malone. He practically adopted Bryant from the moment he signed with the Lakers. He sat with him on the bench and eye-balled any fan who heckled Bryant often pointing some out to security guards. He would put his arm around him when others wouldn't even look at him. He would openly defend Bryant's innocence in his pending rape trial when others didn't even defend him privately, let alone publicly. Malone even said he would give up a chance at winning a championship if it meant Bryant could be relieved of his legal troubles.
Now Bryant has turned against the only true friend he has in the league after Bryant's wife, Vanessa, told Kobe that Malone made a pass at her at a game last month.
No one who wasn't within earshot of the conversation between Vanessa and Malone knows exactly what was said and how it was said. Malone is a free spirit; often saying whatever's on his mind without thinking of the consequences, but he is also a devoted teammate and family man. Either way, it seems like it's once again Bryant against the world, and no one should feel bad about that, because that's the way Bryant always will approach his role in the league anyway.
Big man back on campus
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About a year ago I was having dinner with a friend who deals with college basketball coaches on a regular basis, and when I brought up the USC basketball program his eyes lit up. "You will not believe who wants to go there," he told me. "If USC ever offered Rick Majerus the job he would take it. It's his dream job." On Wednesday, Majerus' dream became a reality.
Majerus always had expressed to his friends that USC was the job he coveted most. It met all his requirements, from the high academic standards and commitment to success from the athletic department to the body surfing and first-class restaurants available at the nearby beaches. He knew he could not only settle down and build a new life in Los Angeles, but he could also build a new basketball powerhouse -- one that would be housed in a new 12,000-seat arena, which will open in 2006.
Unlike at UCLA, where the bar already has been set beyond reasonable expectations, Majerus takes over for a USC program that has had to endure consecutive losing seasons under Henry Bibby.
Majerus' larger-than-life personality, which has made him a hot commodity on television and with recruits, is exactly what USC needs. He is the exact opposite of the salty Bibby, who often humiliated his players, kicking them out of practice, calling them out in public and suspending them altogether with no other reason except to say, "I'm the coach."
Majerus, on the other hand, is more of a stand-up comedian when it comes to explaining himself, always equipped with a witty response to any question. One of his best came after he was asked if he was a candidate to become the next head coach at San Diego State a few years back. "I can be a candidate for anything I want," he said. "I'd like to be a candidate to date Cindy Crawford. Do you see that woman right there? She and I are candidates to be married. You're a candidate to get a haircut tomorrow." So I've been told.