Mix of sports, entertainment creates weird alchemy at ESPYs


NEW YORK -- Surely, if a Salvador Dali painting could come to life as an awards show, Monday's ESPY awards would have leapt from the canvas.

The Spanish artist could not have painted a more surrealistic scene than the one in play at Radio City Music Hall, as many of the elite of sport met with some of the beautiful people of Hollywood, with the ever-gracious New York paparazzi thrown in for good measure.

In the makeshift holding area on the ninth floor of this historic entertainment complex, where award winners and presenters were squired to meet the media, there was some really weird stuff going on.

To wit:

* Ann-Margret, who hooked up on screen with Elvis in "Viva Las Vegas" and with Jack Lemmon 30 years later in "Grumpy Old Men," was paired with Northwestern football coach Gary Barnett in one of the more eclectic teamings in quite some time.

The actress, who presented Barnett with the Coach of the Year award, was asked if she had any thoughts on the rags-to-riches climb of the Wildcats this season. In a breathy voice, Ann-Margret said solemnly, "There are so many thoughts that I have, but they stay secret in here," pointing to her heart.

Hmm. Well, a few minutes later, she related that she was a big sports fan, and had been since her days as a cheerleader growing up in her native Sweden. "Once a cheerleader, always a cheerleader," she cheerfully volunteered. Her favorite team is the old Oakland Raiders, with "[quarterback Ken] Stabler, [receiver Fred] Biletnikoff, and [cornerback] Lester Hayes, who had all that stick-um."

How do you say stick-um in Swedish?

* The showbiz shows and networks, like "Entertainment Weekly" and E!, dispatched camera crews to the fourth annual gala, and let's just say these folks were a little out of their element. One reporter, reading straight from a pad, asked Barnett what he thought of all the football franchise moves, a darned good question if Barnett coached a professional team.

Since Northwestern hasn't announced a shift to, say, Seattle, that query wasn't quite so appropriate, but a puzzled Barnett mumbled something about not knowing enough about the subject, kind of like the questioner.

* On much firmer ground were singer Joan Jett and actress Janine Turner.

Jett, a big-time Orioles fan since her days growing up in Rockville, endorsed the team's postseason spate of moves and acquisitions.

"They've always made good moves. I'm really excited about the season and I think they'll win it all, but I always think that," said Jett, who unveiled a new cover of the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" theme that will serve as ESPN's promo for its NCAA women's basketball tournament coverage.

Turner was paired as a presenter with Dallas running back Emmitt Smith, which was fortuitous, since she's a big-time Cowboys fan.

"This [the ESPYs] is such a blast. There's this symmetry between entertainers and athletes. We're both performers, and I think we each admire what the other can do," said Turner.

* Don't look for actor Dennis Hopper, who played a spaced-out referee in a series of commercials for a rather large shoe company, to do any more of those spots.

"I really shouldn't do any more of those commercials. It was a career move -- backwards," said Hopper.

* And then there were the New York paparazzi, whose conduct was roughly equivalent to that of a pen of hungry Dobermans staring at a single piece of beef.

Time after time, presenters or award winners would be led onto a platform for a brief picture-taking session, only to have their dignity insulted by the yapping pack, as they shouted for the victim to pose in their direction.

One of the funniest exchanges was when Cal Ripken was led into the room after winning Male Athlete of the Year honors.

If the celebration during the fifth inning of Game 2,131 of his consecutive games streak was the most touching moment of the past year, Monday's scene was the goofiest, with photographers yelling things like, "Iron Man, right over here," and "Right at second base, Cal."

"I've had some new experiences this year. That was certainly one of them," said a bemused Ripken.

By the way, besides Ripken, who also won the Showstopper of the Year award, and Barnett, other major ESPY winners included Rebecca Lobo, who was named both Female Athlete of the Year and Women's College Basketball Player of the Year; Lobo's team, the Connecticut Huskies, who were named Outstanding Team of the Year; Michael Jordan, who was selected Comeback Athlete of the Year; and Hideo Nomo of the Los Angeles Dodgers, named Breakthrough Athlete of the Year.

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