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The Life


December 10, 2002
Being NEXT
ESPN The Magazine

How does it feel when everybody thinks you're 'Next'? Some who made it, some who didn't (and a few witnesses) answer that question in their own words.

***

LeBron James
 
JOE NAMATH He was the first marquee player of the upstart AFL. He came back from a late-season broken jaw to be Super Bowl III's MVP. But then, Broadway Joe could always take a hit.

Every summer, the Beaver Falls [Pa.] High team went off to camp for a week or two to prepare for the coming season. They took about 70 players. The names of the players going to camp were always listed on a board in the locker room area where you got your equipment. At the beginning of my sophomore year, I went up to that board, and my name wasn't on the list. Of the entire team, only five of us were left behind. The rejection was awful. I can still remember the disappointment. I felt: If they didn't want me, I didn't want to be part of it.

I told the coach I was quitting, I'd concentrate on baseball. But he wouldn't hear of it. 'No, no, no, no,' he said. 'You're just a sophomore. I think you can be a player, and I want you to stay.'

If you look at my high school yearbook pictures, the answer is pretty obvious: The two smallest dudes on the team are me and another 10th-grader, a running back named Charlie Collins. When they had to decide who went, the littlest guys just didn't measure up.

I started out that season as fifth-string quarterback and worked my way up to third-string by the end of the year. And, of course, I got to go to camp the next year and the year after that. But now that I think back on it, if it weren't for that coach -- Bill Ross was his name -- talking me back in, I don't know what course my life would have taken.

I was lucky. I was always around the right people.

***

  • LeBron James: Here comes the hype
  • Who's NEXT?: Sports' coming attractions
  • Report Card: NEXT Class of '02
  • Being NEXT: In their own words
  • Screen Play: Inside SportVision
  • Shaq-O-Lytes: The next Daddy
  • RoboRef: Virtual zebras
  • BILLIE JEAN KING You'd think 20 Wimbledon titles would secure her place in sports history. But her 1973 match at the Astrodome? Game. Set. Match.

    When I was young, I'd go with a friend to Lakeland [Calif.] Country Club. You couldn't get on a court on a weekend unless an adult hit with you. Most of the time, I'd hit against a male. And quite often, I'd beat him. We'd come off the court and the first question was, 'Who won?' I'd always say, 'He won.' And the guy I'd just beat always remained silent. It was probably the culture of the early-to-mid-'50s. Girls were taught since cave times to protect the guy's ego and never embarrass him. But also -- and I never thought of this until now -- I probably wanted to practice at the club again.

    By 1970, nine of us signed a $1 contract that was the start of women's pro tennis. The $2M prize money that Venus and Serena Williams make today -- it goes back to that $1 contract.

    When Bobby Riggs first asked me to play a match, I said no. Chris Evert said no. Finally, Margaret Court agreed to play him on Mother's Day in 1973. She lost badly, and I was really upset. You have to understand: In 1973, a woman earned 59 cents to a man's dollar. It was the height of the women's movement, Title IX had just been passed, and I didn't want to see us going backward.

    Forty million people saw me beat Bobby Riggs [6-4, 6-3, 6-3]. That match was about social change. A girl could beat a guy, walk off a court and say 'I won' without even thinking about it. But women are still at 73 cents to the dollar. And African-American women today earn 65 cents to the dollar -- kind of where we were in '73. Everybody thinks things are so great today. We still have a long way to go.

    ***

    KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR Being a legend -- NYC playground, NCAA, NBA -- was one thing. What was truly important to Kareem (Born Lew Alcindor) was having game.

    I must have been in second or third grade -- around 1955. Right around that time there was a Harlem Globetrotters movie called Go, Man, Go! That really inspired me. I wanted to do all the tricks. The one I remember most was Marques Haynes dribbling a ball past the coach, Abe Saperstein, in a narrow hallway. I never even tried that. Being tall and behind in development, there was no chance of that. But I did try to get past my friends on the court. I was not very successful.

    My strength and coordination took a long time to catch up to my size. By eighth grade, I was 6'7'', and I dunked during a game. But I worked on my ballhandling all the time. I'd dribble on the sidewalk in front of my apartment building. I'd do drills wherever it was flat. Handle the ball without looking at it. Move it from place to place. Work on little pieces and, over time, the pieces came together.

    By sophomore year in high school, I was seven feet tall and could bring the ball upcourt without having it taken away. If I looked fluid on the court as a pro, what you were seeing was the result of a whole lot of hard work. You get a surge of extra pride when you do something you're not supposed to be able to do.

    I did have a Marques Haynes moment with the Lakers. Once, against Dallas, I got the ball in the open court on the break. As Brad Davis challenged me, I made a behind-the-back pass to Byron Scott for a wide-open layup. As I turned downcourt, there was no way to suppress the smile.

    ***

    BO JACKSON Before Bo became the most spectacular two-pro sport talent in history, the Alabama legend first had to learn a painful lesson.

    I can talk all day about things that happened on fields. But I would have to say that the defining moment of my childhood did not happen on a field.

    It goes back to a summer during junior high in Bessemer, Ala. There was hardly anything to do, and so me and about 14 of my buddies went across a mountain to swim in a strip pit. We were a bad crowd. At the time, there were people in the community who thought I'd be in prison by the time I was 21 -- f I wasn't in the cemetery.

    Anyway, we had to pass a pig pen to get to this old muddy strip pit. And one of us threw a rock at a pig in the pen. One thing led to another and, in the end, we killed a bunch of pigs.

    The police got involved. And my mother, working two jobs to raise her 10 kids, said, 'I'm not paying the fine. I'm tired of all your crazy antics. If they want to send you to reform school, by God, you're going. If they want to send your butt off to jail, you're going.'

    The pigs were owned by a minister. He said, 'I'm not going to press charges. But I want the children punished for the rest of the summer. I want them to get jobs and pay for the pigs themselves.'

    I always knew my family was too poor to pay for me to go to college. After that summer, I realized that I had to go my own way. I stopped running with the wrong crowd and started doing my lessons and became a good student. My new friends were into organized sports.

    That one summer, I was mowing lawns all the time to pay my share of the pigs, and when I wasn't, I wasn't allowed to leave the house. My backyard was only a block and a half from a ballpark, and I could see people playing there. I just sat in my house and thought.

    After that, my sense of focus began to burst out on the field.

    ***

    DAVID CLYDE On June 27, 1973, 20 days after leading his Westchester (Texas) High team to the state finals, the 18-year-old fireballer -- fresh from a $125,000 signing bonus -- made his big league debut against the Twins before a home crowd of 35,698. Today, Clyde is vice president of a Texas lumber company.

    The only three earned runs I allowed during my senior year of high school happened on a Saturday morning because -- let's put it this way -- I was not a morning person.

    A few days after my prom, I was in a Texas Rangers uniform. It was the equivalent of going from high school anatomy to doing brain surgery. In high school, you might have a basic idea of anatomy. But you have no idea what you're doing once you open that skull up.

    At the time, it didn't matter. When you're 18, you're bulletproof and invincible. I didn't know that [team owner] Bob Short was having financial problems and needed to fill the seats. I was just getting a chance to live my dream.

    Forty-five minutes before the game, I was in the locker room when a telegram came from Sandy Koufax, my idol, wishing me luck. I was already on cloud nine. I don't know how much higher you can get.

    I went out to warm up and was told to wait thirty minutes because of the traffic jam -- so many people were trying to get in.

    I walked the first batter, and then Rod Carew came up. I was not in awe of him at all. On the mound, I was King. I walked him, too. But then the strikes started coming. I struck out the side and there was pandemonium.

    In the second, Mike Adams hit a homer off me and reduced the place to churchly silence. You could hear the trucks going by on the freeway. The rest of my five-year career was never as good as that first inning. [Ed.'s note -- first start: 5 innings, 5-4 win; career: 1833, 4.63 ERA].

    I don't want to blame anyone, but the Rangers were probably the worst ball club I could have gone to. There was nobody my age to associate with, and I was out at night drinking with the older guys. Imagine if Yao Ming came from China to play basketball in the United States without a translator. There was just no support system in place for me.

    There's one positive thing that came out of my career: There will always be kids who jump from high school to the big leagues. But they're not going to let what happened to David Clyde happen to another kid.

    ***

    HAKEEM OLAJUWON The 6'10' center from Lagos, Nigeria, was known as "The Dream" throughout his 18-year NBA career. Upon his arrival at the U. of Houston in 1980, Olajuwon found one dream surprisingly easy to fulfill.

    I'd been playing basketball for six months when I came to the United States for the first time. It was a 12-hour flight from Lagos to New York. I spent a couple of hours waiting, then I flew to Houston. A coach met me at the airport and said that the team was having an unofficial workout and asked if I wanted to join them. As a ballplayer, of course you want to play.

    He took me straight to the locker room, and the equipment manager got me some things to wear. He gave me a freshman jersey, some shorts and two pairs of socks. Then he asked, 'What size shoe do you wear?' I said, 'Fourteen,' because in Nigeria, that's the biggest size we ever saw. In Nigeria, you would have to squeeze your toes into the size-14s -- and every time you jumped and came down, it was painful until you could break the shoes in. That might take months. When you had a pair that didn't hurt, you cherished those shoes.

    So the equipment manager comes out with size-14s, and he's watching me put them on. I started to take one pair of socks off to get my foot in, and he said, 'Why are you doing that?' And I said, 'Maybe it will help.' He said, 'No, no, no! Let's try 15.' I said, 'You have 15?!!!' And he left to go look.

    I was thinking that maybe there was one size-15 in the world and maybe he could find it. I was praying that there could be a size-15. He brings the box. I try the shoe on, and it's still a little tight. So he says, 'Try a 16.' And I said, 'Sixteen?!!!'

    Then he went back and brought a box with size-16s. I was wearing double socks, and it's 22 years later, but I still remember the moment I slid my foot into that brand new shoe for the first time. I stood up and I didn't care how tired I was or who I was playing against.

    We went to the gym. Indoor. Air conditioned. Beautiful floor. And my feet felt so good. I just started jumping way, way, way above the rim. And when I landed, I felt comfortable! I just kept jumping and jumping, saying to myself, 'Ho, ho! They're in trouble now!'

    ***

    TIGER WOODS As club pro at Heartwell Golf Course in Long Beach, Calif., Rudy Duran had to teach the game to golfers of, shall we say, all skill levels. But he shouldn't complain: For six years he taught Tiger Woods as a cub.

    I had no idea what was in store for me. I'd been teaching nine years when Tiger's mom brought him to me. They came into the pro shop, and she asked if I would help him with his golf game and let him play there.

    Tiger was only 4 years old. I didn't know how long ago he'd gotten out of diapers, but he was not very big. He could barely see over the counter. I had no experience teaching 4-year-olds. But I said, 'Okay, fine, let's go to the driving range.' I teed up four balls, and Tiger gets out this little wood that's cut to fit him. He steps up to the first ball and smacks it probably 70 or 80 yards in the air. Absolutely perfect.

    Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! He hits four perfect shots. It was mind-boggling. I couldn't find very many golf pros who could hit four perfect shots in a row on the fly -- let alone a 4-year-old!

    Prior to that day, I thought golf was a learned skill. In the golf world, we tend to think we teach people to play. That it's the sum of hard work, proper teaching and technique. To a certain extent, that's true. But when you see a 4-year-old hit perfect shots with basically no lessons ever, you realize you're looking at Einstein in terms of intelligence, or Mozart in terms of music.

    Within a year or so, I'm telling my friends -- all golf pros -- that this 5-year-old is the best player I've ever seen. That he's going to be as good or better than Jack Nicklaus. They'd look at me as if to say, 'Who would even remotely think such a crazy thing?'

    ***

    VENUS and SERENA WILLIAMS Father Richard may have gotten the majority of the press (and Venus the bulk of his attention), but the tennis education of the two youngest Williams sisters was a family affair. Their mother, Oracene, certainly made sure Serena got her share of quality time.

    I remember practicing one day when Venus was about 9 and Serena was about 8. We were on adjacent courts. Venus was playing on her dad's court and Serena was on mine. I was hitting short balls deliberately to make Serena run. She didn't want to run. So she started complaining. Those were the days when the kids used to have fun making fun of me, call me 'Mean Oracene' and stuff like that. But I kept hitting those short balls to her. Now Serena's crying for her dad so she can get on the other court. So she goes over there. He sends her back to me.

    Now, I didn't like screaming. Don't believe in it. But our whole family had talked it over, and we all knew what it would take from each of us to make this thing work. Everybody knew what their role was. I worked a lot of extra hours. Didn't even have time to be sick. If I had to be sick, it had to be on a weekend. Their father was watching tennis videos into the night. Their older sisters [Lyndrea, Isha and Yetunde] were cooking and helping around the house while I worked. Venus and Serena had to do their homework and practice. And when they practiced, their role was to try to get to every ball.

    So I called Serena to the net and we talked. I said, 'If you believe you can get any ball on the court, you can. Don't ever sell yourself short.' And I continued to hit short balls.

    I know she's grateful now. But every once in a while, for fun, I'll bring it up and say, 'Aren't you glad I made you get those shots now?' The best part is watching people hit drop shots to her now. I just know she's going to get them all.

    ***

    ARCHIE MANNING Be careful when you drive through the Ole Miss campus: The speed limit is 18, in honor of the uni number worn by Archie during his career (1968-70) with the Rebels. It's no wonder then that he's impressed upon his sons Peyton and Eli -- both star QBs -- the value of slowing down and enjoying the ride.

    I never pushed. But I never discouraged them because of any hard times I had. My two sons who are playing quarterback are similar in that they know what they're doing, and they get rid of the ball quickly. I probably suggested that somewhere along the line.

    My pro career with the Saints [1971-84] wasn't as dreadful as some people make it out to be. But I did take a beating. When we were going 115 and fans put brown paper bags over their heads, we were the Aints. Guys would miss a block and the next thing you'd hear was, 'Look out!'

    Sometimes on Saturdays during the season, I'd go to practice that morning, then come home to rest up. My kids were little at the time. They'd be playing football in a yard across the street and I'd go over and watch. Kids don't do that much anymore -- play yard football. Everything's structured and organized with full uniforms and all. But it's great when kids get in the yard and choose off and fight and fuss and cheat. When I got there, of course, they'd want me to quarterback both teams. Those were great afternoons, a reminder of what you love about the game.

    I still remember how it feels to lose. Right now, the Colts are doing well, but Peyton's been through some hard times. And Ole Miss had a tough season. Both Peyton and Eli are really competitive. I see the hurt and it hurts me.

    As my children start to have kids, I'll have the same attitude as I had with my kids: If they like to play, great. But I wouldn't want them to feel they had to live up to anything.

    I do know this: Afternoons with your kids in a yard definitely make the losses easier to take.

    ***

    MARION JONES Was the 25-year-old triple gold medalist (100m, 200m, 4x400M relay) anxious in Sydney? Why should she have been? She had already stood up to the psychological demands of Pickle.

    When I was in the starting blocks in Sydney for the 100 meters, I really wasn't nervous. I was excited. I wanted it to happen. But nervous? No. It's hard to remember the last time I was nervous at a competition. It must've been when I was a kid.

    Now that I think about it, yes, there was a time. It was out in front of my house in Palmdale, Calif. Every year we had a neighborhood all-star selection to see what kids would be on what team. These teams played a lot of different games. Like Pickle. You played it with two tires. The ball got thrown back and forth and the kids in the middle of the tires tried not to get caught. There was also stickball and soccer and racing around the block -- I can go on and on. My brother and his friends would be out there. Everyone wanted boys on their team. Rarely were little girls picked. And I was five years younger than my brother and these boys. So I'd be out there with my fingers crossed, heart beating, just hoping to be chosen.

    Thinking back, maybe I was nervous because I had no control over whether I'd get picked. Once I was in those starting blocks at the Olympics, my performance was entirely up to me.

    The Olympic experience lives with me every day. A few minutes ago, I was signing autographs on photos. I saw that instant when my hands are in the air as I cross the finish line, and it took me back to that moment.

    But you know something, at the time it was a great, great feeling to get chosen to play Pickle, to see how I would do against the big kids. It's all the same feeling. It's just that you hardly think about those moments now.

    This article appears in the December 23 issue of ESPN The Magazine.



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