Talking with some fellow Illinois fans not that long ago, they mentioned that they were hoping the Illini basketball team could land recruits Jabari Parker, Thomas Hamilton, Jr., and Alex Foster, each of whom, one fan assured me, has a "ridiculous upside potential."
I'm sure they do. I'm also sure that a Google search shows them to be incoming high school freshman who have never played a second of high school basketball.
It's by no means an isolated situation, nor a new one. Routinely, we're finding athletes at younger ages, especially in basketball, always on the look out for the next LeBron, the next Kobe, or the next Garnett.
It's not just there. Sidney Crosby, Justin Upton, Bryce Harper, and Freddy Adu come to mind. So do the drafts every year, and the joke that when two athletes spawn a shoe company cuts the umbilical cord.
Sports hypersters find themselves writing in the future tense. Whereas writers of great fiction, history, and the sciences write in the past and journalists in the present, the sports pundits flood their sentences with "will," the expletive that makes Mel Kiper sound like Nostradamus every year.
Jason Smith will plug a Pace-sized hole and fit on the Rams for years to come. Terrelle Pryor will be a Heisman Trophy candidate. Ronnie Fiels will be an NBA All-Star.
We do build quite a few expectations for young men who have been treated like gods their entire post-pubescent lives, don't we?
It's nothing new. Tiger Woods was winning majors before he was actually winning majors. The imaginary green jackets hang behind Mark Prior's Cy Youngs in a very swank trophy case.
Largely, looking to tomorrow is human nature. In a zero-sum game like sports, the only way to cope with not being a champion is to pray next year will be better. Betting on tomorrow may have a horrible track record, but it certainly trumps living with .450 winning percentage.
Even if one's team is depleted of prospects or draft hopes, the thought of the next MJ or Unitas or Mantle is enough to buy season tickets another year.
I bring up this obsession with tomorrow that seems embedded into humanity not to make sports fans ponder the effect upon sports or on the sporting culture, but rather that of the athletes in question. Like cast-off child starts, we ridicule the names of "busts" like Ryan Leaf, Cherno Samba, and Darko Milicic for not living up to the expectations we placed upon them.
Filling anyone's head with the idea that they'll be great sets a dangerously high standard for just breaking even. For Todd Marinovich, just making the NFL was a huge disappointment. Stop and think about that for a second.
Factor in that these many of those being told they'll play in the "big show" are teenagers and the potential problems should become readily apparent. Handlers spin the myths new heights and the suddenly the kids believe in destiny, they come to plan two, three, four years down the road. Heck, Bryce Harper thinks he's going to the Hall of Fame.
Dreams are wonderful, but they were meant to be individual, not societal, shared, or taken as prediction. When one considers that males between 16-20 undergo radical shifts in maturity, priorities, and attitudes, it seems outrageous we pack so much emotional baggage on their shoulders.
Do I think there needs to be changes to the system as a whole? Yes. If we keep a 15-year old from working in jobs that would build strength and character, we should certainly keep them out of Sports Illustrated. And I also think college coaches should be barred from talking to anyone who hasn't started their junior year in high school. The fact that 14-year-olds are being contacted now to spend one year when they're 18 at school x is unbelievably silly.
The problem, of course, goes beyond sports. A high school kid who has a great GPA, 99th percentile test scores, and Ivy League admission letters often gets told he's "set for life." Of course, this is complete bull.
The thing we need to tell that kid is the exact same thing we need to tell our prodigies as we turn off the cameras and microphones. "Enjoy the present, develop as a person, and we'll see you in the big time if and when you get there."
I'm not saying we as sports fans have to check our hope at the door, or that athletes shouldn't plan for the future, dream, or use the pros as motivation. I'm just saying in a world where 14-year-olds will be must-get recruits, we all need to just step back and live within the present a bit.
I write this article because when I was a senior in high school, I had been admitted to one of the top engineering programs in the country and people told me I was set for life. Not to bore anyone with egoistic crap, but I wasn't, and, frankly, no one is at 18.
Not that much of the specialized or here-and-now crowd cares, but this will be the last column I write for BR for a while. I thought it best to write a temporarily final article given that I actually have some fans and that people may wander onto the site. I'm continuing my formal education and need to devote full energy to that.
I'm sure I'll check in periodically, but I've become ever more skeptical of Internet writing and I can't make any promises about the future. I don't know where I'm going to be or what job I'll have in nine months, much less three years, but you know what? I'm going to stay as much in the present as possible, and I think it might be fun.