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The Non-Sports Fan's Guide to Iconic Athletes of the 90's

There’s a difference between being a professional athlete and a sports icon. An athlete competes and gets a paycheck. The icon competes, gets a paycheck, does a couple commercials and really gets paid. See, I was the furthest thing from a sports fan as a child and there was no encouragement from my family. Literally, sports were never mentioned by any generation of my family except one uncle who encouraged me to play football in high school because I was a “big guy”. That means that those involved in the world of professional athletics really had to do something spectacular to get my attention (which is what I’m sure they were really striving for). So today I’m dropping my list of 5 most iconic athletes of the 80s and 90s.

Bo Jackson

Say it with me now, “Bo Knows”. What does he know exactly? Apparently how to get a Nike endorsement deal being the first ever crossover athlete in the world of Baseball and Football. Playing for the Kansas City Royals and the Oakland Raiders, that’s a big deal, I guess. If not for actual sports, you might even think I recognized him from the popular TV commercials showing Mr. Jackson trying to conquer the world of cycling, tennis and basketball, but that’s not what I knew him for. In 1990 at age 8, Bo Jackson was simply a fashion icon.

Everywhere I went I saw people wearing black t-shirts with big bold letters stating “Bo Knows” and for all I knew, he was competing with Calvin Klein. These shirts were the early 90’s equivalent of Frankie Says Relax. The phrase Bo Knows would pop up in daily conversation and not necessarily in relation to his athletic achievements. I even had a lame schoolyard joke I made up just to fit in, “Bo Knows Body Odor”. Of course when he showed up alongside Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan on the short-lived ProStars cartoon, he really became a big deal. Catch a baseball and run up a wall? Good for you. Show up in my TV Guide next to C.O.W.boys of Moo-Mesa? You’re my hero.

Jose Canseco

Now apparently there’s some controversy around this guy, not really interested enough to find out, but he was a name I couldn’t escape in the late 80s and early 90s. I remember my friend Erik was crazy about this baseball superstar and even had a Starting Line-Up action figure that made him look powerful in his Oakland A’s uniform. Apparently the guy knew how to hit a baseball. But then he transcended any sports achievement by being associated with the 2 biggest franchises to ever utter the phrase "Cowabunga".

His name was first dropped by Raphael in the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles during his fight with hockey-masked vigilante, Casey Jones (arguably the best scene in the film). After stopping a strike from Casey with his bare hands, Raph says, “A Jose Canseco bat? Tell me you didn’t pay money for this.” Instant icon status.

Just 2 years later he played a heroic version of himself on The Simpsons episode, “Homer At The Bat” along with many other MLB stars. On his way to a game, Jose sees a house on fire and rushes in to save a crying baby at the behest of the hysterical mother. When the baby is saved she thanks him, but then continues to cry out for all of her personal belongings to be saved, including a player piano. But ever the good sport, Mr. Canseco braves the fire again and again, ultimately missing the championship game. Again, I don’t know why people have a problem with him now, but he’ll always be a pleasant memory to me.

Mike Tyson

Two words: Punch–Out. No, not the work he was famous for in the ring, we’re talking about one of the most iconic games on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out is legendary in the gaming world and with good reason, it’s a rock ‘em sock’em good time! Go ahead, name your favorite opponent, mine’s Great Tiger. I really dig the tell of his flashing turban jewel. But back to “Iron Mike”, from the moment his 8-Bit avatar welcomed you to the game, you knew it was a fight to beat the best in the world. He was a dangerous guy, yet he was all in on his video game.

A lot of sports heroes lend their names to a game, but how many stage a full on photo shoot. I mean think about that iconic box image. There’s Mike Tyson in the ring, under the light, knocking some poor sucker out while the balding official look on in amazement. He was even in the commercial, popping the cartridge into the system and playing it in style on 100 TV screens. Then he spins around in the chair to give us that maniacal super villain laugh. He could have knocked out 100 guys or none. I would still be terrified.

Nancy Kerrigan

Not only was I not watching sports as a kid, I was definitely not watching women’s Olympic figure skating. Nancy had 2 bronze medals and would eventually get a silver, but still, this was girl’s stuff. There was no danger, no aggression, oh wait, yes there was! I’ll never forget flipping through the channels one afternoon in 1994 looking for a re-run of Murphy Brown when I was confronted with a woman slouched down in a hallway screaming, “WHY? WHY?” It scared the crap out of me and then things got interesting. All of a sudden it’s a conspiracy to whack a rival skater in the knee with a lead pipe and this girl Tanya Harding is behind the whole thing. It was nuts.

Iconic status in this case was granted by “Weird” Al Yankovic, who paid tribute to the incident in his song “Headline News” where he parodied the one hit wonder Crash Test Dummies song “Mmm-Mmm-Mmm-Mmm” with lyrics about now forgotten news of the 90s. The video for the song showed 2 stand-ins for Tanya and Nancy locked in Mortal Kombat out on the ice while Al crooned about how, “They got paid for their sound bites and sold their TV movie rights”. There was also that time Nancy Kerrigan was caught whining about having to ride on a float in a Disneyland parade while wearing a microphone she didn’t know was on. Real smooth, lady.

Michael Jordan

Duh and duh. To this day there may not be a single sports icon more influential than Michael Jordan. Where to start? Well, there was the fact that he made the Chicago Bulls a household name. I didn’t care about basketball, but if you asked me who my favorite team was, the first answer to come to my mind would have been the Bulls. I’m not a fashion guy either, but when people are getting mugged over a pair of shoes with your silhouette on them, I can recognize that those things have some value. “Let’s see, should I steal a Porsche or some Air Jordans?” Then there was the “Be Like Mike” ad campaigns. The one thing this slogan had over Bo Knows, was a catchy jingle, “If I could be like Mike. I wanna be, I wanna be like Mii-ike”. That thing will stick in your head til’ Tuesday. That’s a saying I just made up, feel free to use it.

If you ask me though, his greatest achievement was starring in the live-action/animation mash-up sports comedy Space Jam brought to us by the director of Ghostbusters and featuring a cameo by Bill Murray. If you’ve not heard of this movie, it basically involved the “skills” of lesser NBA players being infused into into monster basketball players who were facing off against Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the rest of the Looney Tunes gang in an intergalactic basketball game. The good guys recruit Michael Jordan to their team and he inspires them to be winners. Somehow his very presence instantly made the film legitimate, despite the fact that he was not a professional actor. That’s really an achievement when you look at the attempted film career of someone like Shaquille O’Neal. Kazaam, anyone?

So that’s it, those are all the sports stars I know. Just kidding, there’s that one guy, uh, Joe Montegna who played for the 39ers, right? Again, I’m joking.  Were you fans of some of these folks? Who were some of your favorites? Did they make any non-sports appearances?

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Looking for more from Hoju Koolander?

mickyarber Posted on Mar 08, 2016 at 02:25 PM

I added this article to my Midnight Post Retro Reading List Post for today at

Rick Ace Rhodes Posted on Feb 29, 2016 at 01:02 AM

@Hoju Koolander He was cleaning a gun he owned and he forgot it was loaded. You can guess what happened next.

Hoju Koolander Posted on Feb 28, 2016 at 09:53 PM

@Vaporman87 Yeah, Hogan is to wrestling what Jordan is to basketball.

@massreality Gretzky didn't do much beyond host Saturay Night Live and appear in ProStars. Plus he is the only one I did see play for the Kings when I was 7 or 8.

@Rick Ace Rhodes Thanks for filling me in. Also I kept finding pictures of his mangled finger online. What was that about?

Rick Ace Rhodes Posted on Feb 28, 2016 at 07:18 PM

A guide to the controversy of Jose Canseco:

1) He was the founding father of the steroid era.

2) He then ratted everyone out about the steroid era to get back at baseball for blackballing him.

3) He has a bad habit of doing really stupid things, and is generally considered a complete psychopath.

massreality Posted on Feb 28, 2016 at 01:51 PM

Great list, but you totally skipped over Wayne Gretzky and Magic Johnson! Although, one might argue that Magic was a bigger deal in the 80s.

Vaporman87 Posted on Feb 28, 2016 at 09:55 AM

I was trying to think of which of these athletes had the most affect on popular culture, and the easy answer is Michael Jordan. The only other "sports" figure that comes close would be Hulk Hogan. Using the term "sports" very loosely there.

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