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Revenge of The Nerds

The most dangerous witnesses in the federal case against Barry Bonds are the 'little people' he treated poorly on the way up

We should be usedto it by now, the waiting and wondering when--if--it's going to happen. Ofcourse, the latest Barry Bonds Watch has nothing to do with Ruth or Aaron orBarry's creaky knees, but with an investigation into whether the Giants sluggerhid income from the IRS and lied when he told the BALCO grand jury in 2003 thathe never knowingly took steroids. Last Friday one of Bonds's lawyers said sheexpected her client would be indicted for perjury and tax evasion this weekand, though she later backtracked, it appeared that the grand jury was primedto act. (The panel's term reportedly expires within a few weeks.) The hammer ofgovernment might not be the only one to fall: An MLB source told SI that thecommissioner Bud Selig is considering suspending Bonds if he's indicted on asteroid-related perjury charge. Through it all Bonds defiantly limped on,hitting his 721st home run on Sunday.

The obviouslessons of Bonds's deteriorating morality tale are a) Don't take steroids, andb) Pay taxes. But there is a third, equally important, point: Don't treatpeople like dirt. Beginning in the early 1990s, when Bonds fired his firstagent, Rod Wright--then allegedly called Wright's clients and urged them todump him too--Bonds has had a reputation for lashing out at his inner circle."[Barry] doesn't have true friends, so he pays people to put up with hisego," says Wright, who represented Bonds from 1985 to '92. "Well, afterenough abuse you finally say, 'That's it. I don't need to take itanymore.'" Jim Warren, Bonds's former trainer and now an ex-friend, says,"[Barry] expects 100 percent loyalty 24 hours per day. If you don't givehim that, he'll crush you."

Bonds may soonfind that the little people can return the favor. As Bonds's personal assistantin the late 1990s and early 2000s, Steve Hoskins had several nicknames in theGiants clubhouse: Little Stevie, Barry's Twin, Gopher and--the housefavorite--Mini Me. Wherever Bonds went, the diminutive Hoskins followed. LikeBonds, he wore bright, baggy clothing. Like Bonds, he was African-American andhad closely-cropped hair and an earring in his left lobe. If Bonds needed toturn down an interview, he sent Hoskins. If Bonds dropped his tissue, Hoskinswas there to pick it up. "There was no one more loyal to Barry thanStevie," says Warren. "You always had the feeling it would take ahelluva lot for him to kill Stevie's devotion."

Bonds may haveaccomplished that three years ago, when he accused his friend of forging hisautograph and reported him to the FBI. "It was a textbook example ofturning on a friend," says Hoskins's lawyer, Michael Cardoza, who callsBonds's claim "ludicrous" and says the feds cleared his client of anywrongdoing. "Barry was mad at Steve for other issues, and he took him on.Well, I've got some bad news for Barry Bonds: You messed with the wrongguy."

Cardoza says thatHoskins, 44, told federal investigators that Bonds had Hoskins funnelunreported cash the slugger earned from memorabilia sales to a pair ofmistresses (Kimberly Bell, a graphic artist, and Piret Aava, a former Playboymodel) so his wife, Elizabeth Watson, wouldn't learn of the affairs. Hoskinsalso says that Bonds was a habitual steroid user prone to fits of 'roid rage,and that investigators asked him about Bonds's drug habits. Theinformation--coupled with testimony from Bell--could prove devastating. Lastweek Bonds's lead attorney, Michael Rains, acknowledged that Hoskins was a keywitness in the government's case.

The player andhis former assistant go back a long way. Hoskins's father, former 49ersdefensive tackle Bob Hoskins, partnered with Barry's dad, Bobby Bonds, in a BayArea sporting goods store in the late 1970s. When the elder Hoskins died ofHodgkin's disease in 1980, Steve was embraced by the Bonds family; after Bondssigned with the Giants he helped Hoskins--an artist by trade--start a companyselling Barry Bonds lithographs and memorabilia. Hoskins was Bonds's right-handman in business, as well as the best man in his 1998 wedding to Watson.

According toCardoza, the first crack in the Bonds-Hoskins relationship was over theslugger's use of steroids. Hoskins implored him to stop. Bonds refused."That really bothered Steve," says Cardoza. "He would tell Barry,'You're already the best. You don't need to do this.' But Barry didn't want tohear it."

The friendshipfell apart during spring training of 2003, when Bonds, who was growingincreasingly paranoid, spotted a man holding one of his autographed jerseys andscreamed, "That's not real! That's not real!" Hoskins told Bonds thatit was a legitimate signature, says Cardoza, but "Barry was going throughhis 'roid rage stuff, and he went off on Steve and accused him of forging thesignatures. It was the end of their friendship."

And, for Bonds,the beginning of trouble. When Bell was believed to be the government's keywitness, Bonds's attorneys appeared confident they could rebut the testimony ofa former mistress. But Hoskins is different. He was alongside Bonds on a dailybasis, privy to his workouts, his finances and his thoughts.

"I'm not surewhy Barry chose to take on Steve, but it was a bad move," says Cardoza."Steve loved Barry, and he was willing to turn the other cheek. But Barrywent too far. That was a mistake. A big mistake."

Jeff Pearlman isthe author of Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero

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Materazzi denied insulting Zidane's family: 'Themother is sacred. You know that.' --FUTBOL FALLOUT, PAGE 26

Let's Make a Deal

Young NBA stars took a gamble by leaving guaranteedmillions on the table. Why?

IS LESS the new more? Last week the NBA draft class of2003 became eligible to sign contract extensions, which under the currentcollective bargaining agreement can top out at $81 million over five years. Butthree of the four superstars who could have taken max deals opted instead forfewer years and, therefore, less cash. What were they thinking?

LeBron James, Cleveland

3 years, $44 million

James's deal includes a player option for a fourthyear at $16 million. If James takes the option, he'll become a free agent in2011, the same year a new CBA goes into effect--and James is gambling that theagreement will allow him to sign an even bigger deal. The shorter extensionalso means that if James isn't satisfied with the direction of the Cavs, he canbolt Cleveland sooner. (He has a strong relationship with Nets part-ownerJay-Z, and his Nike contract reportedly pays him more if he is playing in theNew York area.) The verdict: Good move

Dwyane Wade, Miami

3 years, $44 million

Wade has a big reason to allow for an early exit--a325-pound reason. Wade's option year, 2011, coincides with the final season ofShaquille O'Neal's contract with Miami. If Wade doesn't like what he sees inthe post-Shaq era, he can follow the Diesel out the door. The verdict: Goodmove

Chris Bosh, Toronto

3 years, $44 million

The downside to leaving money on the table is that aplayer could get hurt or see his value decline. Unlike Wade (with whom Boshshares an agent), Bosh doesn't have a Hall of Fame--caliber sidekick to makehim look good and to help him shoulder the load. Bosh will have to play a lotof center for the woeful Raptors, taxing his 230-pound frame and leaving him atgreater risk for injury. The verdict: Bad move

Carmelo Anthony, Denver

5 years, $81 million

Anthony was the only alum of the '03 draft to take themax. Two days before he signed, he and his agent, Calvin Andrews, agonized in aconference call over the length of the contract. "We broke down the twoscenarios," says Andrews. "In the end Carmelo was more interested inthe stability that comes with a five-year commitment." But Anthony stillgot a measure of flexibility: The Nuggets captain has a termination clauseafter the fourth year that will allow him to become a free agent in 2011 if hedesires. The verdict: Good move

ILLUSTRATION

ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN CUNEO

FOUR PHOTOS

JOHN BIEVER (JAMES); GREG NELSON (WADE); JASON SZENES/EPA (BOSH); JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (ANTHONY)