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Fame name game

Sharing a moniker with celebrity leads to a lot of teasing and odd situations for young athletes.

September 05, 2008|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

The congratulations trickled in from around the globe as Michael Phelps' gold medal count rose in Beijing.

By the time the swimmer collected his eighth gold medal, the most at a single Olympics, Michael Phelps had fielded about a dozen friend requests on his MySpace page.

To which he replied, "I'm not him."

Even though he is.

He is Michael Phelps, all right -- a 6-foot-3, 270-pound offensive lineman at Oxnard High who shares first and last names with the Olympic legend, if little else.

"There's been a lot of confusion," the 16-year-old Phelps acknowledged. "People are like, 'Are you related to him?' "

Well, yes.

His father is also Michael Phelps.

So Olympian Michael Phelps' boast that he would become the first Michael Phelps and not the second Mark Spitz rings a little hollow.

And Michael Phelps -- all of them -- aren't alone.

Counter workers at a Denver fast food restaurant did a double take this year when two other athletes plopped down credit cards to pay for their meals.

Their names: Brittany Spears and Whitney Houston.

"They were like, 'Can I see your ID?' " recalled Spears, a former Pasadena High basketball star who is heading into her sophomore season at Colorado. Houston is a junior guard from Memphis, Tenn.

"They just laughed. They couldn't believe it."

Then there's Evan Longoria.

The folks at Wikipedia went to the trouble of inserting a line near the top of his web page stating, "Not to be confused with Eva Longoria."

As if there was any chance of that.

The latter is a winsome actress who rose to fame in 2004 for her role in "Desperate Housewives." The former was a mostly anonymous shortstop from Long Beach State until rising to prominence this season as a rookie with the formerly desperate Tampa Bay Rays.

Having a celebrity namesake can lead to some comical moments -- and plenty of annoying questions.

How're the kids? How's Kevin?

Spears -- Brittany, not Britney -- usually plays along when people teasingly inquire about the life of the pop diva once married to Kevin Federline.

The kids are fine, thanks. Kevin's good.

What's even more irritating, Phelps the football player said, is that "everybody thinks they're so clever or the first one" to make a joke.

Phelps barely resisted the temptation to roll his eyes when a high school counselor suggested withdrawing him from a football class and enrolling him in a swimming class -- especially when the counselor wouldn't let it die there. So impressed with his own cleverness, he tracked down football Coach Mark Beckham to relay the proposal.

Fans used to taunt Longoria during Long Beach State baseball games by alternately chanting "Eva, Evan!"

"He would take it with a grain of salt and laugh about it," said Niall Adler, Long Beach State's assistant director of media relations. "It didn't bother him one bit."

Since the actress' hit show was shot in Southern California, Adler attempted to arrange a picture of the Longorias together, but he got the brush off by her agent.

Since Evan became an All-Star this season with the Rays, Adler joked that Eva might now consent to a photo op.

Brittany Spears has little interest in meeting Britney, or at least in hearing her sing. She's not a fan of the artist, though she still has Spears' "Baby One More Time" CD someone gave her as a gag gift and occasionally puts it on for a laugh.

By the time Brittany realized who Britney was, she was in the sixth grade and could no longer ask her parents about her name. Her mother had died when she was 4 and her father was never really in her life. Brittany was raised by an aunt.

Her prom date's name was Kevin, Brittany confesses, but she's never had the urge to shave her head or drive with a child unrestrained in her lap.

Similarly, Michael Phelps wasn't glued to his television this summer as his namesake kept adding to his medal haul.

"Swimming wasn't that interesting," Phelps said. "All I could see was his arms flying out of the water."

Michael Ryan Phelps couldn't match Michael Fred Phelps in the butterfly, but he also wouldn't sink to the bottom of the pool. Phelps had several years of swimming lessons as a youngster before politely declining an invitation to join a local swim team.

He's since developed into one of the top high school football linemen in Southern California, a senior who has received recruiting letters from a handful of Ivy League schools.

And no, they haven't broached the idea of him competing as a two-sport athlete.

Yet the swim jokes persist. During the Olympics, he was congratulated nearly every day. "Hey, you won another gold medal," was the usual refrain.

Just last week, a friend wrote on his arm, "Go for the gold, Michael Phelps." When nosy freshmen kept asking him about it, Phelps decided it was time to wash off the message.

But first he had to set them straight about why his body bore a famous Olympian's name scribbled in ink:

"Because I'm Michael Phelps."

--

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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