Editor’s note: This article appears in the July 4th issue of ESPN The Magazine.
The most significant moment in NBA draft history doesn’t involve Bowie, Kobe, KG or The Mailman’s pink tie. During the tail end of 2003’s edition, Hubie Brown described the ceiling of that night’s European draftees with the phrase “tremendous upside potential.” And, not to sound too much like James Lipton here, that was it. Nothing would ever be the same.
Without knowing it, Hubie tapped into the strangest running subplot in sports: we’re all about tremendous upside potential (TUP, for short) these days. Baseball fans know just as much about the Mariners’ prized prospect, Felix Hernandez, as about Cy Young front-runner Roy Halladay. Some hoop fans care more about the draft than the Finals. OJ Mayo made the cover of Dime magazine last month, and he isn’t a high school junior yet. In Canada, Sidney Crosby is followed as if he’s Steve Nash, Wayne Gretzky and Bryan Adams all rolled into one, despite the fact that he can’t get drafted because the NHL doesn’t currently exist. And don’t forget about this magazine’s annual Next issue, if only because my editors just reminded me, “Hey, don’t forget about this magazine’s annual Next issue!”
Right now we’re deep into the TUP Stretch, which starts in late April (the NFL Draft), peaks in June (the NBA draft) and finishes on July 31 (with baseball’s trading deadline). It gets pretty creepy. GMs can’t just like prospects anymore; nope, they’re either “drooling over them” or they’ve “fallen in love.” Three times this year (and counting), I heard a potential NBA draftee described as a “sexy” pick. Sexy? Really? Is this a point guard or a nightgown?
Hyperbole carries the day. You didn’t just trade for a hot prospect, you got “the next Lance Berkman!” And the phrase “reminds some” gets a real workout. High schooler Gerald Green isn’t just an explosive wingman, he reminds some of Tracy McGrady! Ike Diogu doesn’t just have long arms, he reminds some of a young Elton Brand! One recent mock draft had my beloved C’s taking some Russian dude who reminded some-well, one writer at least-of “a young Toni Kukoc.” Excellent! I always liked Toni Kukoc. I can’t believe we’re actually getting him with the 18th pick!
Of course, nobody could beat Jay Bilas saying a couple of drafts back that Suns pick Zarko Cabarkapa “has been compared favorably to Nikoloz Tskitishvili.” That was exactly one moment before Phoenix’s entire fan base gave up on the Zarko Cabarkapa Era. (Note: if you’re playing the comparison game at home, please remember, it is illegal to compare a white player with a nonwhite player, a Euro with a non-Euro. For example, any Andrew Bogut comparison that doesn’t involve Brad Miller or Vlade Divac carries a fine and possible jail time.)
By assigning such high ceilings to prospects, we are putting too much pressure on them. Since MJ’s prebaseball apex, no fewer than eight up-and-comers dating back to Harold Miner have failed to live up to being anointed the next Jordan. C’mon, does anyone seriously think we’re finding another MJ anytime soon? We don’t anoint every guitarist with potential “the next Hendrix.” Why does this happen only in sports? What’s the rush?
And why do I always get sucked in? During this month’s MLB draft, the Red Sox took St. John’s closer Craig Hansen in the first round, a flamethrowing reliever whom everyone compares with Brad Lidge. By the time I was done reading all the articles, I was ready to put cyanide in Keith Foulke’s water bottle. Screw the minor leagues! We need to make room for the next Brad Lidge! He’s ready! Give him a jersey and a locker!
What are the odds Hansen actually becomes the next Lidge? One in four? What’s important is Hansen has the potential to become the next Lidge. That makes him the right pick.
Granted, I’m the same guy who owns over 100 Todd Van Poppel cards, but I have a good feeling about the Hansen kid. And I have the same feeling about Seattle’s Hernandez, a 19-year-old fastballer who “reminds some of a young Dwight Gooden.” With my AL-only keeper team falling apart, I swapped Halladay to a contender for three prospects (including Felix the Great). Now I find myself scouring Tacoma’s News Tribune for Felix’s Triple-A pitch counts and generally treating him like a member of my extended family. When ESPN’s Rob Neyer wrote last week that Felix “just might be the best 19-year-old pitcher in more than 20 years,” I beamed like a proud father.
Finally, I have some tremendous upside potential in my life. It’s about time.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy’s World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.