Skip to main content
Original Issue

There Is No "I" in Steve

When Andrew Bogut called the NBA draft a great day in "the life of Andrew Bogut, the family of Andrew Bogut," the top pick of the Milwaukee Bucks became yet another prominent person fond of the third-person voice, whose strange fraternity of admirers has long included Miss Manners, Bob Dole and Kermit the Frog.

The Wizard of Oz used it ("The Great Oz has spoken!"), and the other Wizard of Oz used it ("Ozzie Smith is not a uniquely talented person," Ozzie Smith said at his Hall of Fame induction). It is the curious affectation of LT ("There always has been and will be a Lawrence Taylor") and Elmo ("Elmo likes to limbo!").

Steve Rushin is hardly the first person to note this third-person phenomenon, which has long been favored by megalomaniacs (Saddam Hussein still calls himself "President Saddam Hussein"), mass murderers (serial killer Dennis Rader refers to himself as "Rader") and Muppets (Grover).

But the cult of third person-ality is far and away most prevalent in professional sports, in which every other athlete now refers to himself as if he were somebody else. This trend annually sinks to a new sub-basement of silliness at the NBA draft, where even those put off by the third-person voice seem obliged to try it on, along with the team baseball cap. Said Sean May, before being selected by the Bobcats, "When you look at Sean May--and I don't mean to talk in the third person--you know what you're getting."

Somewhere along the line it has become official: There really is no I in team.

When Alonzo Mourning says, "Alonzo Mourning has to make the best business decisions for Alonzo Mourning," Alonzo Mourning is inventing a new voice entirely: Ninth person (or third person squared). But then third person has at least thirty-three varieties. There's third-person nickname (Steve Francis calls himself Steve-O), third-person honorific (Tyrone Willingham respectfully refers to himself as Coach Willingham) and third-person monogram (TO likes to talk about ... TO).

Some men, cowed by their own greatness, address themselves with the same deference used by subordinates. In a press conference Wizards owner Abe Pollin chastised those critics "who have said that Mr. Pollin was over-the-hill and incompetent," suggesting that Mr. Pollin is not on a first-name basis with himself.

All of this has been going on since the beginning of time, when God said in Exodus--while speaking in the third deity--"In six days, the Lord made the heavens and the earth...."

Ever since, the third-person voice has been a stamp of self-importance, from the Rock ("Can you smell what the Rock is cooking?") to the Rick (the fictional ESPN spokesfan played by actor Mike O'Malley). It seems likely to survive into eternity, not unlike Stephon Marbury, who said in a moment of self-reflection, "Starbury's always going to be Starbury, man."

Deion Sanders seldom uttered the letter sandwiched between h and j. Same with Herschel Walker. (Presumably, his wedding vow was not "I do," but rather, "Herschel Walker does.")

Wade Boggs once said to a television interviewer, in attempting to explain his predilection for the third person, "My father always told me not to be a braggart, not to say I, I, I." (To which one can only say i-yi-yi.)

Bo Jackson, on the other hand, really did call himself "Bo" because his stutter made it difficult to say "I." This is probably not the reason that Turkmenistan's president for life, Saparmurat Niyazov, refers to himself in the third person--nor why his golden statue in the capital city of Ashgabat perpetually rotates to face the sun.

A recent book, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning, recalls New York City in the summer of 1977, dominated by two third-person aficionados--Yankees slugger Reggie Jackson and serial killer Son of Sam--neither of whom favored Me in the Me Decade.

History would sound very different if everyone spoke like boxer Roy Jones Jr. Imagine: "The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has a dream." "General Douglas MacArthur shall return." "Julius Caesar came, Julius Caesar saw, Julius Caesar conquered."

And yet, as Snoop Dogg rapped "Snoop Dogg in the house" at the London Live 8 concert, it became clear that there's a genius to speaking in the third person. For starters, it allows oneself to distance oneself from oneself, as Richard Nixon did when he said, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore."

It's also a savvy way of self-branding. David Robinson never called himself the Admiral. But Christopher Columbus did, in his own journals. And guess which Admiral gets his own holiday?

Nobody recognized the value of this voice better than Rickey Henderson, who always managed to make "Rickey" work for him. Sometimes literally so. Henderson once left a voice mail for Padres general manager Kevin Towers in which he said, "Kevin, this is Rickey, calling on behalf of Rickey."

If you have a comment for Steve Rushin, send it to

Every other athlete refers to himself as if he were somebody else. There's even third-person monogram. (TO likes to talk about ... TO.)