Once upon a time, our most demanding divas were actual divas, female opera leads like Kathleen Battle, the soprano who reportedly used a limousine telephone to call her manager, instructing him to call the livery dispatcher to instruct him to radio the driver to instruct him to turn the air-conditioning down. But somewhere along the line, opera's first ladies, or prima donnas, were displaced as our primary prima donnas by professional athletes. A while back a colleague of mine, futilely ringing the doorbell of Rockets star Steve Francis, finally called the athlete's agent, who in turn called Francis, asking the point guard to please answer his own door.
True, rock and movie stars are notoriously high-maintenance. But J. Lo has nothing on D. Bo. Chargers wide receiver David Boston, when he played for the Cardinals, once asked teammates not to hit him in practice because his nipples were still tender from their recent piercing. But then, wide receivers—even more than Olympic sprinters, soccer strikers or teenage tennis ingenues—are sport's biggest divas, at once vainglorious and nightmarish, part peacock, part Hitchcock.
And so Keyshawn Johnson was deactivated on Nov. 18 by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for being slightly more difficult than string theory. After his rookie season he wrote a book called Just Give Me the Damn Ball! And now, six short years later, Johnson finds himself at home in Los Angeles, in midseason, working on a more modest sequel: Just Give Me a Damn Call! Bengals receiver Chad Johnson, like his cousin Keyshawn, also endlessly yaks between YACs. He angered teammates this season by guaranteeing victories against the Texans and the Chiefs, prompting Cincinnati tackle Willie Anderson to say (though the Bengals won both games), "We rally behind guys who work hard every day in practice...not the loudmouth who puts his gold teeth in right before [we] go on the field." Cleveland, meanwhile, grew tired of star receiver Kevin Johnson's aversion to blocking. The Browns recently placed him on waivers—which, appropriately, weren't blocked. (He's now with Jacksonville.)
And those are just the Johnsons. All wide receivers are islands unto themselves, literally split apart from their teammates, out there in every sense of the phrase. To relax, 49ers wideout Terrell Owens seeks solitude in an exclusive VIP lounge called the Chocolate Parlor, which is accessible only by electronic pass code. This is unusual when you consider that the Chocolate Parlor is in his house. And that Owens is single.
Broncos receiver Eddie Kennison, on the Saturday night before a road game two seasons ago, told coach Mike Shanahan at the team's hotel that he no longer wanted to play football. Shanahan cut him on the spot, but Kennison, like George Costanza, reported to work the following Monday, as if nothing had happened. Still, the firing stood. Kennison, who now starts for the Chiefs, has five logos inked on his person, representing each of the NFL teams for which he has played. They're like luggage labels on a well-traveled steamer trunk, and Kennison is, at the very least, putting the 'tude back in comprehensively tattooed.
"I play when I want to play," Randy Moss famously said, and last season that appeared to mean four out of every 10 snaps. It was last season that the Vikings tried to appease their star wideout by creating the Randy Ratio, designed to call Moss's name on 40% of all plays. The results were disastrous. Moss got more bad touches than Bubbles the Chimp.
But so what? The supremely gifted are forgiven almost anything. "A man of genius makes no mistakes," wrote James Joyce in Ulysses, a novel both unmatched and unreadable, not unlike Moss, Owens and a handful of other talent-rich enigmas.
To be sure, they're not all impossible. When I phoned Michael Irvin through an emissary, the former Cowboys wideout and current ESPN studio analyst promptly returned the call to my house. On the first ring I sprinted from the bathroom, pants around ankles, for the phone in the next room. On the second ring I fell face first onto the floor. On the third ring I was crab-walking across the carpet, the cordless phone inches from my outstretched hand, when my voice mail picked up.
Though he declined to leave a callback number, Irvin did record a brief message, at the conclusion of which he forgot to hang up his cellphone, so that he could be heard, for the next several seconds, gently chiding some airport lifer—charter pilot? first-class flight attendant? Red Carpet Club gofer?—about a creeping departure delay. "It's 4:05," said Irvin's disembodied voice. "So now what time is this flight gonna leave?"
Within 90 seconds of receiving his call, I *69ed Irvin, but his voice mail picked up. I left a message, and so did the emissary—we now had him in Cover 2—and I spent the next 48 hours under self-imposed house arrest, sitting by the phone, sometimes literally: It now accompanies me to the bathroom.