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— by James Montgomery

As summer becomes fall, the days get shorter, the air gets cooler and the leaves slowly begin to turn from electric green to sanguine amber. Sweaters and coats shake off mothballs to begin their slow descent from attics. And apartment complexes and cul-de-sacs across America are filled with the subtle sound of buttocks upon upholstery as millions of sports fans settle into their La-Z-Boys for the long haul.

With three of the four major sports leagues in full swing (not to mention NASCAR, NCAA football and WNBA action to boot) and the NBA season on the horizon, fall is the sports fan's Christmas, Thanksgiving and birthday all rolled into one. It's the time of fantasy-football drafts, ESPN and big-screen TVs, of crushing defeats and last-minute wins. It's overwhelming, over the top and — to the uninterested — unending. And it's all pretty awesome.

But while armchair competitors across America cheer and swear with vim and vigor, what are the actual athletes up to? Some of them are locked in heated playoff races or studying game film in preparation for a must-win situation. But there are others — say, anyone on the Pittsburgh Pirates or the Houston Texans — whose seasons are already pretty much over, their teams too far out of the playoff race or just too terrible to even merit championship consideration. Thoughts may turn to off-season vacations, conditioning programs — or late-night studio sessions.

For an increasing number of athletes, getting it done on the field isn't enough. They want to do it on the Billboard charts, too. Hoping to emulate the platinum-plus success of 50 Cent or Green Day, athletes are dropping the pads and picking up mics, cutting albums full of bold-faced braggadocio, badly crooned ballads and bumbling guitar solos. Sports stars deliver hits in one form or another on the field, but that's generally where the hitmaking ends. Athletes' albums are sometimes silly, oftentimes embarrassing and mostly just plain hilarious.

Don't get us wrong; every once in a while, an athlete does manage to score. Yankees outfielder Bernie Williams is an accomplished jazz guitarist, and his The Journey Within album received genuinely glowing reviews when it was released in 2003. Former NBA power forward Wayman Tisdale has released a slew of albums and toured with jazz heavy Dave Koz. And in 1983, retired Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Mike Reid actually won a Grammy for Best New Country Song.

But those successes are few and far between. Trying to emulate the 1985 Chicago Bears — who scored a radio hit with the ultra-bad "The Super Bowl Shuffle" (big ups to rappin' defensive back Gary Fencik!) — athletes aim for the stars and usually fall flat on their faces. Some may be driven by a desire to keep it real — like Allen Iverson, whose 2000 rap album featured controversial lyrics and was never released — while some are apparently fueled by ego, perhaps figuring that gold medals translate to gold records (Google "Carl Lewis" and "music video" for proof that this isn't always the case). Still others are driven by, well, who knows what? Take former American League Cy Young winner Jack McDowell, who befriended Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and recorded a handful of LPs with a band named Stickfigure.

And the phenomenon shows no sign of slowing down. Indiana Pacers forward/headcase Ron Artest already heads a label, Tru Warier Records, and has announced plans to release his own album. Denver Nuggets' superstar Carmelo Anthony has made a cottage industry out of his appearances on strictly-for-the-streets DVDs and mixtapes. As the line between sports and entertainment becomes increasingly blurred, it won't be long before even more athletes are inserting phrases like "My album drops January 19" into post-game press conferences.

But that may not be such a bad thing. After all, more music by more athletes means more hilarious rapping, more ridiculous posturing and more filler in the 25-cent bin at your local record store. So, while we all await the inevitable album from hot-dog-eating sensation Takeru Kobayashi, we've compiled a list of some of the more notable athlete/musicians out there. While not exactly an audiophile's all-star team, it's a list chockfull of stars who thought to themselves, "Hey, making an album sounds like a good idea" and actually saw that idea through.

Shaquille O'Neal: He's the big daddy of the NBA, and with an astonishing five albums — including a greatest-hits package (!) — under his rather-large belt, Shaq is the man amongst athlete musicians as well. His 1993 debut Shaq Diesel features appearances from members of A Tribe Called Quest, Fu-Schnickens and Erick Sermon, though even the pros couldn't help the Diesel much with his mush-mouthed rhymes. On his second album, Shaq Fu: Da Return, the big man showed off his sensitive side with the tune "Biological Didn't Bother," a tribute to his stepfather.

Bronson Arroyo: In 2005, the sometimes cornrowed, sometimes reliable Boston Red Sox pitcher released his debut album, Covering the Bases (clever!), which showcased both his skills on the acoustic guitar and his impressive collection of mid-'90s grunge albums. Bases — entirely comprised of cover versions of tunes from acts such as Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and Temple of the Dog, — features guest appearances from AIC bassist Mike Inez, Arroyo's teammates Johnny Damon, Lenny DiNardo and Kevin Youkilis and, strangely, famed author (and noted Sox fan) Stephen King.

Deion Sanders: As an NFL cornerback, Prime Time is one of the best, but as a musician, well, he's a pretty good NFL cornerback. Though he released just one album — 1995's nasally and noxious Prime Time — the brash Sanders managed to raise the braggadocio bar so high that rappers today still have a hard time clearing it. On "Y U NV ME?" Sanders wonders why you envy him. The bumping "Must Be the Money" marvels at his riches, while "2 B Me" is about ... um, we'll let you figure that one out. If Sanders ever decides to tour behind the album, Humble Pie is not an act he should consider for support.

Roy Jones Jr.: He's a five-time world champion in four different boxing weight classes, a punishing pugilist who also played professional basketball with the Jacksonville Barracudas of the USBL and occasionally branches out into the acting arena as well. Is there anything Jones can't do? Oh yeah — carry a tune. His 2002 debut album, Round One, features a clearly overmatched Jones stumbling through tracks like "Invincible" and "Who Wanna Get Knocked Out?" ("And even if you think the match was fixed/I could beat you with a fractured wrist.") Eventually, it gets so brutal that you're hoping the ref will stop the whole album.

Oscar de la Hoya: Before Jones, there was de la Hoya, the square-jawed boxing heartthrob who got caught up in the Latin pop explosion and released his self-titled debut in 2000. On the album's cover, de la Hoya dons a cream blazer and sports a come-hither stare ... and things go downhill from there. Jones croons his way through a dozen lightweight ballads with titles like "Mi Amor" and "Te Amo" as well as English and Spanish interpretations of Bee Gees' "Run to Me." Shortly after releasing the album, de la Hoya got the reputation of being a bit of a softie, though we can't imagine why boxing fans would think that.

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Photo: MTV News

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 Shaquille O'Neal
"No Hook"
Shaq-Fu: Da Return

 Shaquille O'Neal
"I'm Outstanding"
Shaq Diesel

 Deion Sanders
"Must Be the Money"
Prime Time