By Harriet Shapiro
January 09, 1978 12:00 PM

Pop artist Andy Warhol was the kind of tepid sports fan last year who hardly knew a pass from second base. He still may not, but so what: He certainly knows the men and women who do understand the difference. The chalk-faced Warhol has just completed a series of portraits of 10 of the world’s greatest athletes.

They are Muhammad Ali, Chris Evert, Dorothy Hamill, Willie Shoemaker, Tom Seaver, O. J. Simpson, Jack Nicklaus, Pelé, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Rod Gilbert (who last month retired from hockey). Warhol had to photograph some of them 200 times before he got a print he liked. Another suggested prospect was Evel Knievel, but the artist decided he was in showbiz, not sports.

The show opened in New York’s Coe Kerr Gallery in a media blizzard just before Christmas. Maybe it’s a season of light wallets, but so far not one of the colorful acrylic and silkscreen canvases has been sold (six paintings of each athlete are available at $25,000 apiece). Late this month the exhibit moves on to perhaps greener pastures in Richmond, Columbus and Houston.

Art collector and sports fan Richard Weisman first suggested the idea to Warhol and arranged the shooting sessions. Says the artist: “I was nervous with every one of them. They are the new stars, more intelligent and beautiful than movie actors.”

Late last month Warhol, in paint-spattered boots and jeans, talked briefly about them.

Evert: “She has the best figure I have ever seen in a tennis player.”

Shoemaker: “He is so tiny, so adorable.”

Hamill: “I just can’t believe she has an ulcer. She is the healthiest and most beautiful person I’ve ever seen.”

Abdul-Jabbar: “I came up to the top of his legs. He is so tall we made him sit.”

Seaver: “He was very sad. He had just been traded to Cincinnati.”

Nicklaus: “I always like his commercials.”

Simpson: “God, he’s so handsome. He gave us a great lunch in Buffalo—anything we wanted to eat.”

Ali: “He made us listen to him for three hours. He read his poem about the Concorde. It was so good I decided to take the Concorde.”

Gilbert: “He gave me a hockey stick. I have it up in my room.”

Pelé: “He has a beautiful smile. I thought he could be the best dancing star I had ever seen.”

Warhol says the year he spent shooting the athletes gave him a new appreciation of sports on TV, but he has not yet taken up Chris Evert on her offer of tennis lessons. So what does he do for exercise? “I play jacks.”