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A guide to cool: 50 Southern California athletes who rate

Representing the Dodgers, Lakers, Rams and more — even pro wrestling — these figures have that special quality that is at once undeniable and indefinable.

February 09, 2011|Chris Dufresne
  • (Clockwise) Johnny Weissmuller, Sandy Koufax, Magic Johnson, Billie Jean King, and "Gorgeous" George Wagner are on top of Chris Dufresne's list of Southern California's all-time coolest athletes.
(Clockwise) Johnny Weissmuller, Sandy Koufax, Magic Johnson, Billie… (Associated Press; Al Messerschmidt…)

These are not the results of a survey.

This is not GQ — it might not even be PC.

This is one man's list of the Southland's 50 all-time "coolest" athletes based on a half-century of marinating in the local sauce. Your definition of cool should differ. You can be cool and great, to me, but also great and not cool. What did you bring to the game other than a jump shot? Cool is often what is left unsaid — nuanced in countenance and cadence. It doesn't generally refer to itself in the third person. Cool permeates and oozes more than it needs a bonus clause for plate appearances. You can't always put your finger on cool, but one look at Barry Bonds can tell you, "That's not it."

1: Sandy Koufax

Koufax wouldn't break a sweat at high noon in Needles. He graduated from electric/erratic status in Brooklyn to become Los Angeles' athletic icon of the 1960s. Koufax was everything cool is: mysterious, elusive and evocative. He was a trolley (and people) Dodger. Think Greta Garbo with an Uncle Charlie that buckled your knees. He refused to pitch a World Series game on a Jewish holy day and walked away, left arm throbbing, in his prime, after winning 27 games. It was luck that his only perfect game was even captured on film, and luckier that Vin Scully painted all of his masterpieces.

2. Magic Johnson

To think the Lakers almost chose Arkansas' Sidney Moncrief with the first pick of the 1979 NBA draft. Moncrief had a nice career, but his nickname, "Sid the Squid," would have been a Roger Corman B-movie compared to the "Showtime" that Johnson ushered to Los Angeles. Magic turned Hollywood inside out by preaching selflessness to the selfish. He made the assist more exciting than a basket with an infectious, no-look flare that initially shocked, but then resurrected and humanized Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Magic won five titles by taking fun very seriously, then exhibited grace, dignity and courage after his HIV disclosure.

3: Johnny Weissmuller

He turned five Olympic gold medals in swimming and the line "Me Tarzan, you Jane" into a house next to Jed Clampett's. Weissmuller grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of, um, Chicago, but made his name swinging on Hollywood and Vine with the sumptuous Maureen O'Sullivan and jungle mates Cheetah and Boy. Unlike the NBA in the 1980s, Weissmuller made "short shorts" look cool and his forever indelible Tarzan shriek would influence Monica Seles and others on the women's tennis tour. Weissmuller's face was also part of the montage on the cover of the Beatles' album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

That's cool.

4: "Gorgeous" George Wagner

It gets old watching Chad Ocho-whatever-his-name-is-today showboat around as though he's God's gift — but there's nothing like the original!

Gorgeous George was the original, a professional wrestler who emerged in the late 1940s with an act later ripped off by Muhammad Ali, James Brown and Hulk Hogan.

Wagner's magnetism drew crowds outside appliance stores to catch his early KTLA television performances from the Olympic Auditorium. Entertainment Weekly named his 1947 TV debut one of the top 100 televised moments of the 20th century.

Wagner dyed his hair platinum blond and entered the ring only after one of his valets disinfected it with Chanel "No. 10." He would say, "Why be half-safe?"

Bob Dylan recalls Gorgeous George visiting his town of Hibbing, Minn., in the 1950s. "He roared in like the storm," Dylan once wrote. "He seemed like 40 men." The young singer then reinvented himself, changing his name from Zimmerman to Dylan, and years later released the seminal album … "Blonde on Blonde."

5: Billie Jean King

A man raised in the feminist 1970s with four sisters could ill afford to keep King off this list. The Long Beach native didn't seem so cool then with her cat-rimmed glasses and all that jabbering about ERA (wasn't that "earned-run average?"). Her 1973 tennis match against huckster Bobby Riggs turned our house into the Korean border, but her straight-sets victory pretty much set everyone straight. King became cooler with age, especially when we later found out Elton John's song, "Philadelphia Freedom," was dedicated not to the Liberty Bell but to King. Equal rights for women, it turned out, were cool. Billie Jean, royalty on the courts, served society with a brazen openness that turned perspiration into inspiration.

6: David "Deacon" Jones

The third-best day of my life was arbitrarily being issued uniform No. 75 for my local Pop Warner team. I must have head-slapped every kid in the neighborhood. After I won pipsqueak lineman of the year honors, our coach hand-painted a figurine of a generic No. 75 player that still sits on my desk, albeit with an amputated right foot.

Deacon Jones was the greatest defensive end in NFL history, the man with the coolest nickname, from a Los Angeles Rams team with the coolest uniforms, from the coolest-ever nicknamed unit — the "Fearsome Foursome."

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