As sports fans, we are accustomed to sportscasters and other wags telling us how this year's prep star will be next year's All-American. Most of the time we blithely ignore the hyperbole that Dick Vitale and Lee Corso spew like the teeth of Leon Spinks; most of their praise runs along the lines of "a valuable addition to any team" or "a can't-miss prospect", and can include such damningly faint praise like "the best athlete available" and "a lot of upside". Indeed, very little of this babble SHOULD get any of our attentionit has been applied to everybody from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Karim Abdul-Jabbar.
Occasionally, however, we must sit up and take notice when some flack makes the brash claim that a certain young athlete is THE ONE, just like Neo in The Matrix. Problem is, just like Keanu Reeves, once these unfortunately proclaimed messiahs get beyond just having to grunt and look good for the cameras, they usually end up making us want to puke. That's why there is no more jarringly annoying bit of hype than the declaration that a team has finally found the one who will take it to the promised land.
Sometimes, of course, highly prized prospects actually do meet everybody's great expectations. Pro quarterbacks can be good examples (Marino, Elway, Aikman, et al.), and Shaq, Isiah Thomas, and even Moses Malone certainly panned out. But there are many promising newcomers every year, and only a handful ever get singled out as being on par with Christ or David Koresh. So, to clarify, top draft picks and McDonald's All-Americans do not messiahs make; if they did, I might have even more ammunition in Derrick Coleman and Aundray Bruce. No, I only refer to those few instances when the buzz around one athlete is so thick and heady that people start to talk about an eighteen-year-old as if he transcends everyone else who has ever played the game. A good set of cautionary benchmarks: Felipe Lopez and Tony Mandarich. Sports Illustrated should have been deprogrammed long ago.
Right now, there is just this sort of cultish insanity afoot in the NBA: there are two such messianic figures, Yao Ming and LeBron James. I know I'm supposed to see the next comings of Wilt and Dr. J, but all I can really see right now are Yinka Dare and Ronnie Fields. One is Messiah 2002, and the other is Messiah 2003; this year the Rockets were singing Hallelujah when they received the right to pick first, a pick which they used on one of the most timid NBA rookies ever. How long do they plan to wait for Mr. Yao to "develop"? I know they say you can't teach height, but they also say that every NBA player with hops can't wait to go right at Yao and throw one down. They've had Shawn Bradley to practice on for a while now, so you know they're ready.
So why does this folly continue? All I can suggest is that humanity feels the need for saviors. I learned this first-hand in my first year of college, when the inestimable Beano Cook, King of the Wattle, proclaimed that one Ron Powlus of Berwick, PA, an incoming first-year just like me, was going to take snaps at Notre Dame, hoist several championship trophies and set every passing record imaginable. To top it all off, Beano went off of the limb and proclaimed that Powlus would win four Heisman Trophies. Supposedly, I was in school with Superman.
So, our hero and my classmate, bearing such weighty expectations and the Beano-inflicted mantle of "The Messiah," proceeded to break his collarbone four days into our college career, which gave Notre Dame a thrilling year, marred only by that famous loss to Boston College in the final game. I am eternally grateful to Ron for that year; because for the next four years a healthy Ron Powlus meant nothing good for ol' ND. Telegraphing passes, fumbling more than Cris Carter, Release 2.0, and running the option like an Edsel made Ron Powlus easily, EASILY, the worst Notre Dame quarterback in recent memory. Powlus did set many passing records, but that's what happens when you're always behind: you pass A LOT. Just ask Tom Brady.
Back to the inexplicable human need for saviors: the most mysterious thing about these messianic prophecies is that, often, there is nothing that needs to be saved. To be precise, modern sports messiahs can be proclaimed as such without their teams needing to be saved. Last year, the Houston Rockets were not exactly bottom feeders, and while they did need a big man, no one should ever pretend that The Franchise was going to let anyone cut in on either his stats or his right to hog the ball in crunchtime. Prior to the debut of the Messiah, Notre Dame had gone to top bowl games for six or seven years, had won one championship five years earlier and had been cheated out of two more.
I don't mean to rain on the LeBron parade prematurely. I do hope that he has a truly transcendental pro career that makes everybody forget about Jordan, and I hope that he has it with the ever-deserving Cavaliers. I am just wary: other than Kareem, who lived up to the hype from grade school on, I can't think of any other young athletes who have been so deified, and then lived up to the build-up. Even in individual sports, there aren't many. So, in the name of God Shammgod and Rashaan Salaam, I just have one request for the mouths that roar in sports: