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Muddied but Unbowed
Jeff MacGregor
November 08, 1999
This was the season he was going to ascend to the cosmology of one-name stars. This was the year his team was going to the Big Show. This was the year it all fell apart...yet Keyshawn Johnson continues to shine
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November 08, 1999

Muddied But Unbowed

This was the season he was going to ascend to the cosmology of one-name stars. This was the year his team was going to the Big Show. This was the year it all fell apart...yet Keyshawn Johnson continues to shine

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First, the man points. Then, five seconds later, as fluid and practiced as a mime, he fans his hand up into a curt wave, the pale palm arcing back and forth from the wrist. Once, twice, thrice. Pause. The arm doesn't move. One. Two. Three. Not frantic, like your mom trying to hail a cab, but slow, stately, like a man buffing the dashboard of a Bentley, the better to see his reflection there. This is the measured celebrity howdy that begs reciprocity—especially when accompanied (as this one is) by a great Jaggering of the fiendish eyebrows and a sly semi-wink. Let us now wave at famous men. This is the wave that Charlton Heston undoubtedly uses to greet Kirk Douglas from across the street at the Hollywood Christmas Parade. It is a wave that says, "It's me! But then you knew that, didn't you?"

Without pause the famous fingertips are brought quickly to the palm. The fabulous thumb alone remains erect. Thumbs up! The universal benediction of the okey-dokey! The thumb points heavenward, speaks volumes. "Here we are," it says, "and we're both rich and famous! Keep up the good work!" Attached to that happy thumb is billionaire nut-job Donald Trump. On the receiving end of the thumb's well-wishes is Keyshawn Johnson.

On a damp New York night in September, amid the crudités and snack baskets of a Women's Tennis Association President's Suite at the U.S. Open, Keyshawn acknowledges Le Donald's acknowledgment with a brusque wave and a polite smile. Number 19 came here to watch Serena Williams run Monica Seles ragged in the quarterfinals, as is now happening, not work the crowd. He offers no love, no thumb, in return.

Three presidential boxes over, though—50 feet, give or take—the improbably coiffed plutocrat isn't quite finished. No, no. Keyshawn is, after all, the most famous Jet since Uncle Vanya Namath. With that in mind, Trump spins one of his girlfriends around so hard it looks as if he's trying to start a balky outboard. He whispers to her. Then he gestures to a point in space that may include large parts of Keyshawn Johnson. The double-dizzy spokesmodel does her best to raise a buxom thumb in that direction. She may mistakenly be thumbing Harry Connick Jr. and his wife, Jill Goodacre, who are seated close by. She may be thumbing total strangers for that matter, but she's game, by god, and full of bright prospects and blender drinks, and that thumb remains proudly suspended until an entire quadrant of the U.S Tennis Center has been well and truly thumbed. Keyshawn politely flags a hand back at her.

A minute later John McEnroe enters the Trump box. Trump whispers in his shell-like ear. Johnny Mac turns. Points. Waves. Then launches a thumb Keyward and smiles. This is what it means to be famous in America. You become Fonzie.

Keyshawn again volleys back a small wave, smiling. To the reporter standing behind him trying to conceal a smirk and a fistful of free shrimp he says, laughing, "You're loving this, aren't you?"

Follow Keyshawn long enough and you'll see single fingers raised in several familiar configurations.

Keyshawn Johnson has to stick his head up over the knot of reporters in front of his locker and yell to the clubhouse guy for a jockstrap. This happens almost every day before practice. Then, still talking—seamless, uninterruptible—he goes back to the questions. Can you? Will you? Did you? Mini-camp, training camp, preseason, real season; this is New York, so there are always questions.

For the past three years he's had answers, too, answers that are by turns funny and incendiary and smart, audacious or elusive or self-congratulatory, right, wrong, contradictory, contentious, sweet, sour, true and false. He is a 72-point banner headline waiting to happen. His relationship with the press is as vivid a part of his life as the game itself. Sometimes it is the game.

He'll crack you up. He'll piss you off. He'll ask better questions than you do. If he doesn't think a question makes any sense, he'll repeat it. Slowly. Like he's doing a lab at Berlitz. He'll stand there holding his practice pants—so small they look as if they came from Baby Gap but threaded with that long, swashbuckler's belt—and repeat the question. Eventually it makes sense to no one, not even the blushing knucklehead who asked it. Sometimes he ignores the question and answers a question nobody thought to ask. Sometimes he asks and answers the questions. Man!

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