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With these three in the running, picking our Next Athlete wasn't easy


The infighting, the threats, the graft. It was almost too much to handle. But we persevered, and when all was said and done, we tabbed our NEXT Athlete of 2001-the Shanghai Sharks' Yao Ming-with very little blood and only a modicum of tears. Still, the choice was closer than a Palm Beach County school board election, which is why we offer these three NEXT runners-up: jocks who were just 7'6'' away from making our year-end cover. Cynics will no doubt say that we're hedging our bets. We say to them: Well, yeah-we told you there was graft involved.

MICHAEL VICK

"Y'all are all idiots," the NFL scout rails into the phone at us. "Dumb-as-a-doughnut idiots. All you know are statistics. 'He don't throw for 400 yards a game.' So what?! Did you see what he did to Boston College? He ripped their hearts out. That's what we look for-a playmaker. Don't try and tell me Michael Vick's a fluke." Talk all you want about Vick's numbers being down. The guys who know are more sure than ever that Virginia Tech's 20-year-old sophomore QB will be a revolutionary talent in the NFL. "We've seen the kid go through the fire," says another scout. "We've seen him get beat around, and we like the way he fights." What they've also seen is the most mind-boggling package of skills any man has ever brought behind center. The 6'1", 214-pound lefty has the arm of Marino, the moves of Iverson, the cool of D'Angelo. Marketers believe he has Jordan-like appeal, too. In October, Vick said he'd be back in 2001. But that was before 500 pounds of Pitt Panthers fell on him, crunching his right ankle, forcing him to miss most of three games and making him reconsider whether he wants to risk another season of college ball. So the only real question is this: Will Vick be NEXT now-in the NFL's April 21 draft-or a year from now? -Bruce Feldman


STEVE FRANCIS

The truly great ones aren't afraid to say what they can do. Or to go to any lengths to get it done. So when Steve Francis was asked before a game against the Suns last year about facing the NBA's best point guard, Jason Kidd, he politely sug gested that the question might better be put to Kidd. "I think I can say I'm the best at my position," Francis explained, not so modestly. Outrageous? No more than Bird telling his man how he planned to hit the game-winner. Or Magic assuring victory even if he had to play center. Or Jordan predicting a sixth title minutes after winning the fifth. Stevie Franchise not only outplayed Kidd in that game, he also stuck his mug in Rodney Rogers' chest when the 6' 7'', 255-pounder threw Hakeem to the floor. Keeping elite company is nothing new for the NBA's latest star-in-the-making. Only Wilt, Oscar, Bird and Elgin had more impressive triple-doubles than Francis' career first of 25 points, 17 rebounds and 14 assists last year. But Francis knows that the great ones do and lead. The week Rockets players were told that their chartered plane would not wait for late arrivals, Francis was locked in afternoon traffic 15 minutes before takeoff. He called team trainer Keith Jones and said, "Go ahead and leave. Make me the example." Not a single Rocket has been late since. -Ric Bucher


ANDREW JONES

They say he could be the next Willie Mays. Who's they? Say Hey, that's who. When asked which of today's players most reminds him of himself, Willie Mays didn't hesitate to tab Andruw Jones, and that was before he knew about the nifty little basket catch the Braves' centerfielder recently added to his Gold Glove-winning repertoire. Signed at 16 out of Curaao in the Dutch Antilles, Jones made it to the big leagues in 1996, when he was 19. That October, he became the youngest player ever to hit a home run in a World Series. One inning later, he became just the second player to homer in his first two World Series at-bats. An entrance like that can crush a young player under a freight car of impossibly high expectations. Not Jones, who has responded by slowly, steadily outdoing himself. Each of the last five seasons, his batting average has gone up and his strikeout frequency has gone down. Last season, he set career highs in home runs (36), RBI (104) and slugging (.541). And, after some early growing pains, Jones has emerged as baseball's best all-around outfielder. He led the majors in OF putouts (438) in 2000, with just two errors. "He makes defense the focus of his game," Mays says. "That's something I always prided myself on." But Jones' most significant number is this one: 23-as in years old. -Brendan O'Connor