MONEY PLAYERS When you get right down to it, value is an easy standard to measure. How much are you willing to pay? Simple as that. How much would you spend to see Shaq throw it down? How much for Shawn Bradley to do the same? Following are the eight athletes for whom I’d be happy to fork over some cash. And keep in mind: on a sportswriter’s salary, I don’t part with a buck easily. (One qualifier: if your face is on SportsCenter five times a day -- that means you, LeBron -- I’ve had my fix.) 8) Alex Rodriguez -- What a shame this legend-in the-making is a Texas Ranger. (Imagine Michelangelo being commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Roman Rotary Club.) He’s vastly overpaid in a sport where one slugger just can’t make the difference between winning and losing. But he’ll also be the first baseball player to hit 756 home runs. 7) Tony Hawk -- Scoff if you must, but this Gen-X poster boy is doing for skateboarding what Richard Petty did for stock car racing. His talents on the halfpipe have spawned Tony Hawk video games and a Tony Hawk TV series. He’s even appeared on “The Simpsons.” The patron saint of skinned knees, Hawk is an icon to millions of American teen-agers. I’d still pay to see him ride the wind. 6) David Beckham -- Among icons in soccer-crazed London, Manchester United’s thunder-legged goal machine is almost as Big as Ben. With the athletic aura of Kobe Bryant, the sex appeal of Brad Pitt, and tabloid flare that would make Michael Jackson blush, this guy is a cleat-wearing modern-day Jimmy Dean. Beckham’s name is in the title of a movie in which he doesn’t even appear, for crying out loud. And hey, he married a Spice Girl. 5) Serena Williams -- Star power can be measured by the number of names you need to describe someone. The one-name wonders -- Michael, Magic, Emmitt -- are the athletes who make up their own elite constellation. Serena belongs in this company. With a body you’d expect to see on one of those pro wrestling vixens, Serena has slammed women’s tennis into the 21st century. Everyone else on the tour -- including older sister Venus -- is playing for second. 4) Michael Vick -- You just had to wonder what we’d see if the football gods managed to morph Barry Sanders and Dan Marino. Well, he’s wearing a number-7 Atlanta Falcons jersey (the third ttest NFL item nationwide). Pro football is a tough landscape for individual stardom (too many 300-pound bodies obstructing our view). Vick is the rare talent who can win a game by himself. 3) Michael Schumacher -- If you want to read a great sports profile (yes, they do exist), check out Jeff MacGregor’s story on this Formula One legend in the April 28th issue of Sports Illustrated. Somehow, a driver with more earnings than Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, or Dale Earnhardt Jr. would dare dream about hasn’t made so much as a ripple on the U.S. sports scene (see Bekham, David). Schumacher’s a rock star -- and then some -- in street clothes across The Pond. Behind the wheel of a Ferrari at 180 mph? He’s a deity. 2) Tiger Woods -- Count me among the army. The Golden Age of Sport had Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, and Bill Tilden. My generation has been lucky enough to see Gretzky, Jordan, and now Mr. Major. I value sports history too much to call Tiger the greatest golfer of all time . . . let him win his 19th major and we’ll hand him Jack Nicklaus’ crown. But as for aura? Clout? Presence? Charisma? Look for the guy in red and black on Sunday. 1)Lance Armstrong -- Forget his athletic achievements for a moment. This cycling demigod is a modern-day hero for having beaten cancer. But to follow such an epic victory with four consecutive yellow jackets at the Tour de France (the single most grueling sporting event in the world) is nothing short of superhuman. With a name and sponsor (the U.S. Postal Service) as American as apple pie, Armstrong will be mistaken as fictional a few generations from now. As if we needed another reason to love him, he’s called a liar and a cheat . . . by the French.


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