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Under their skin

Nowadays in the NBA, it seems just about everyone and their Big Dawg has some sort of tattoo etched onto some part of their body.

At last count, upwards of 250 tattoos are both visible and not on more than 130 NBA players. Of course, the walking canvas - the Bulls' Dennis Rodman - accounts for over 5 percent of that number.Even the Utah Jazz - a bastion of NBA conservatism - have gotten caught up in the tattoo craze. Six of the Jazz's 12 players sport at least one tattoo.

Karl Malone has a buffalo skull adorned with Indian feathers on his calf. Antoine Carr has, what else?, a Big Dawg and a mythological griffin. Chris Morris also has a beefy bulldog under the words "Mo Nasty" on his bicep and he has the initials "CMB" - he'll eventually have his boys names, too - surrounded by a ring of fire on his leg.

Greg Foster has, of all things, the name "Bowie" inscribed on his arm. Shandon Anderson is a human art board as well. The Tazmanian Devil and "Rod," his nickname, are on his arm and he plans on getting three or four "crazy" ones this summer.

It's also rumored that Greg Ostertag has Jerry Sloan's foot tattooed on his behind.

Ostertag really does have Fred Flintstone with a basketball painted on his calf. It's easily the best known of the Jazz's tattoos, and it's also probably the most appropriate one in the NBA. Is there a better fit for the Big O than a goofy, soft-in-the-midsection, klutzy cartoon character with hands of Bedrock?

"It fits him perfect, a perfect fit," said Foster, while rolling his eyes.

So, what prompted Ostertag to get Yabba-Dabba-Tattooed?

Ostertag said he grew up "like everybody else, watching cartoons," including Fred, Barney and the rest of the prehistoric gang. But he wasn't sure what kind of illustration he wanted permanently needled into his flesh when he first decided to get a tattoo almost two years ago.

He only knew that he wasn't interested in any tough-looking tattoos. No skulls or bones or demons or Shaqs.

"I just wanted to get one one day," Ostertag said, "but I really didn't know what I wanted."

Until a fateful day in the summer of 1996 when he walked into a Kansas T-shirt shop and saw Wilma's husband being silk-screened onto a shirt.

"Then I just kind of went and did it," he said.

Ostertag admits that he likes his Fred - even if he has to take some flak from teammates, other players, fans and an occasional smart-aleck sports writer. Not that it matters, though. His tattoo isn't going anywhere.

"I've scrubbed and scrubbed, and I can't get the thing off," he joked.

Foster wouldn't mind scrubbing his tattoo off, either. He would much rather wear the names of his two daughters on his arms than the last name of former NBA player Sam Bowie. But his high school friends said he looked like the ex-Portland Trail Blazer, so Foster had Bowie's name drawn on his bicep while he played for Skyline High in Oakland in the mid-'80s.

"I was a young, dumb kid," he said, laughing. "I can't take it off now."

Foster jokes that he was the first of the current NBA players to get a tattoo, so he half-heartedly claims he started the trend.

Now having body art is all a part of "being cool, being with the in-crowd," he said. "So, I'm glad I had mine before it all jumped up. They're getting extravagant with theirs. I'm just basic."

"I think that for a while tattoos were unique. Now tattoos are almost more a form of peer pressure," Jazz forward Adam Keefe said. "Now the majority of players have tattoos."

It's a longshot to credit Foster for starting the wave, but it was undoubtedly Rodman who popularized tattooing among NBA players. He received a bundle of media attention as he had his body carved into a colorful billboard a few years ago.

Now you can pick any of Rodman's limbs or a place on his chest or back and you're likely to find an indelible mark of some sort. It seems the Worm has more dye than skin. Included in his art collection is the image of his daughter, a cross, a heart (it's painted on), a pair of die, a devilish woman and a dolphin jumping in front of a sunburst.

Who knows when hair-coloring will catch on. If ever.

With no apologies to Foster or Rodman, Shaquille O'Neal is the NBA player who thinks he made it cool to have a tattoo.

"After I started getting them, seems like everybody started getting them," O'Neal told the Los Angeles Times.

But, as hip as O'Neal thinks his "Man of Steel" emblem might be, there are some NBA superheroes who aren't about to copy him.

"I'm not calling myself Superman," said Malone after a recent Jazz playoff game, "and I'm not going to get any tattoos that say that."

L.A. Clippers star Loy Vaught, however, did put an "S" on his body.

Portland guard Damon Stoudamire went the Ostertag route, opting for a cartoon hero - Mighty Mouse. Indiana star Reggie Miller has a suncrest around his belly button. Tim Duncan has a colorful wizard and a magician on him. Allen Iverson has a snarling dog.

And the colorful list of self-expression and art form in the NBA goes on . . .

"Different guys want to say different things," Carr said.

Like shoe styles, long shorts, baggy pants, earrings and other fashion fads that begin in the sports and entertainment worlds, the recent tattoo mania has infiltrated into the mainstream of society. Tattoos are certainly no longer exclusive to sailors, convicts, bikers and gangstas, that's for sure.

"In the olden days, people got tattoos to be individual and stand out. Now you see people get tattoos because they're cowed into it," Keefe said. "They're following what happens to be hot. They're probably the same people who change their hairstyle and change their clothing style every few years as fashions come in and out."

Tattoos are so in now they're even being found on your everyday normal Del.

Yep. Throw Lakers coach Del Harris into that trend-following crowd. He had a basketball going through a hoop put on his arm before the 1996-97 season began.

"It's on my unicep; I don't have biceps anymore," Harris kidded. "It was just something we decided to do. I would do it again."

There are, however, still plenty of players who refuse to get marked up a first time. Keefe definitely belongs in that group.

"Nope . . . nope," he said when asked if skin pigmentation was in his future.

"Nah. Nah," echoed Jazz rookie Jacque Vaughn after being posed the same question.

Still, the tattoo artist they call "Bones" at Southern Thunder Tattoo Co. in southeast Salt Lake City doesn't think he'll be changing jobs anytime soon.

"Tattoos are here to say," he said.

Bones has a theory for why they're suddenly so popular, too. "I think the only reason people get tattoos," he said with a chuckle, "is because T-shirts don't last and bumper stickers fade."

Tattoos, on the other hand, keep on going and growing with you.

Bones said he hasn't seen an influx of customers wanting to imitate their sports heroes in recent years, though.

"I can't remember one time that somebody came in and wanted a tattoo like a basketball player or football player," he said. "Usually by the time somebody's old enough (18 years old) to get one, I think they've outgrown being influenced that way."

According to Bones, most of the recipients of sports-related tattoos are middle-aged men getting logos such as the Bulls or Dolphins. And he hasn't seen anybody get "Jazzed" yet.

As is often the case, tattoos can mean more than meets the eye. Malone's artwork, for example, is full of symbolism. It is a reflection of his character and of his Native American roots.

Malone, who is part Cherokee Indian, explained that the war-painted buffalo skull represents bravery and strength. The feathers symbolize an eagle "who is free and can soar where he wants to." And the sunlike circle in the skull means "I can be as mean or as nice as I want to be, but with respect," he said.

While displaying his tattoo, Malone grimaced that it wasn't quite completed.

"I got to get more color, cause it hurt too bad (to finish)," he admitted.

What!? Something actually hurt the 6-foot-9, 260-pound, rock-solid Mailman?

"Hell, yeah," he recalled with a painful smile. "Don't let nobody tell you it don't hurt, 'cause it does and they're lying."



Skin Game

From cartoon characters to mythological creatures to obscure personal references, tattoos in the NBA run the gamut. Can you match these tattoos with their pituitary-challenged owners.

ANSWERS: 1. Parks, 2. Iverson, 3. Divac, 4. Christie, 5. Malone, 6. Carr, 7. Edwards, 8. Stoudamire, 9. Morris, 10. Ostertag, 11. Grant, 12. O'Neal

The top five NBA tattoo subject matter*

1. Family members (kids, wives, mothers, etc.)

2. Animals (Cats-large, dogs, bulls)

3. Basketballs

4. Names or initials

5. Nicknames

*Source: ESPN/The Magazine


Wear it proudly

At last count, there were more than 130 tattooed players in the NBA. Here's a sampling of what they're wearing, including those adorning six members of the Utah Jazz.


Karl Malone - bull skull decorated with Native American jewelry

Greg Ostertag - Fred Flintstone with a basketball

Greg Foster - "Bowie," after ex-NBA player Sam Bowie

Chris Morris - Dog with arms raised under nickname "Mo Nasty"

Antoine Carr - a Big Dawg (the same as Morris') and a mythological griffin

Shandon Anderson - Tasmanian Devil with nickname "Rod"


Coach Del Harris, L.A. Lakers - basketball going through a hoop

Dennis Rodman, Chicago - suncrest, devil woman and the kitchen sink (figuratively)

Shaquille O'Neal, L.A. Lakers - Superman emblem

Kevin Garnett, Minnesota - "K.G." and "Blood, Sweat and Tears"

Allen Iverson, Philadelphia - a snarling dog

Tom Gugliotta, Minnesota - wedding band on his ring finger, barb-wired biceps

Tim Duncan, San Antonio - Magician and a wizard

Reggie Miller, Indiana - a suncrest around his belly button

Damon Stoudamire, Portland - "Damon" and Mighty Mouse

Loy Vaught, L.A. Clippers - Superman emblem

Cherokee Parks, Minnesota - green apple core carved into a skeleton face

Michael Cage, New Jersey - pair of praying hands

Marcus Brown, Vancouver - his nickname "Doo-doo" over a basketball

Doug Christie, Toronto - morphed face that is half his daughter, half his wife

Antonio Daniels, Vancouver - his brother's birth date and death date

Yinka Dare, New Jersey - African tribal mask topped by the word "Incognito"

Matt Bullard, Houston - a bull