Brett Favre retires. Polarizing Bob Knight walks away. Whether heroes or villains, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens don’t have jobs. The once-dominant Diesel has been sent to the desert to finish the gloaming of his career.
So the stage is further cleared for the next crisply named, cultural touchstone sporting icons, branded names that stand for greatness, fan adoration, movie roles and hosting Saturday Night Live. And there will be stars to fill that space on the stage, if not always in the way the 35-and-up crowd prefers.
“It’s just changed,” said Heat coach Pat Riley, an NBA player or coach for the past 41 years. “The attitude in society has changed. The attitude of a lot of the icons in sports have changed. It’s about excess—to me, that’s what I see more than anything else—and entitlement. And a lack of respect for authority. Unless it’s modified. It’s got to be modified authority. That’s what I see across the board. Not just in basketball, but in all sports.”
Chris Rodriguez, manager of Fort Lauderdale’s Bud’s Sports Cards & Collectibles, said, “NBA commentator and Hall of Fame player Charles Barkley put it best—I am not role model. Most of today’s athletes don’t feel like they’re role models. They’re there for their own personal thing. They don’t see it as `I’m representing baseball’ or `football’ to the fans.”
Each sport suffers a dry valley at some point, usually after the retirement of a supergiant. Usually, however, another wave of superstar manna falls to nourish the sport. Leading the way will be someone who will be touted someday as “the best ever” by those in their youth during his/her prime.
In his book The Game, Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden, generally considered one of the top five goalies ever, writes, “The golden age of sports, the golden age of anything, is the age of everyone’s childhood. For me, the greatest goalies must always be Glenn Hall, Terry Sawchuk, Jacques Plante and Johnny Bower.”
In many sports, the next wave isn’t necessarily a new wave. Favre’s retirement isn’t so much a mark of change as it is a compliment to his durability that his career bled well into the next generation. Three league MVP awards, a Super Bowl title and one other Super Bowl appearance were on Favre’s resume before Peyton Manning was drafted and while Tom Brady was still at the University of Michigan.
Neither losing his father nor becoming a father have prevented Tiger Woods from playing “Who’s Your Daddy?” with the rest of the golfing world. Doing a Tiger maul on the women’s tennis tour with a four-match win streak that stamps her as the best woman right now, 20-year-old Maria Sharapova also can be found in an eight-page Ocean Drive magazine spread this month. Venus and Serena—do we really need their last name?—might stand in Sharapova’s way for another 10 years or just another 10 months, nobody knows.
The day after the Packers announced Favre’s retirement, Cleveland’s LeBron James dropped 50 on the Knicks. James, the Heat’s Dwyane Wade and Denver’s Carmelo Anthony—the NBA Class of 2003-04 ruling triumvirate—still are young and well on the way to giving the NBA its long desired successors to the Magic-Bird-Michael days.
“You don’t really think about it like that every day,” Wade said when asked if he grasps that he’ll be spoken of someday the way people his age speak of seeing Michael Jordan.
“Sometimes, it smacks you, hits you and sets in,” Wade said. “Just like I still watch the guys play, and now I’m playing the game. It seems like yesterday when I was young and I was watching my favorites and wishing I could go and catch the Chicago Bulls anywhere they were at. As a kid, we’re very in tune with everything that’s going on.”
Anthony’s suspensions and coaching clashes come close to casting him in the antihero role assumed last generation by Allen Iverson, coincidentally a current teammate. Though that garnered Iverson enough rebel popularity that trading card company Topps pursued him for years before signing him to an agreement in 2006, it limited his across-the-board appeal. Iverson and several others in his generation had too many rough edges to fit the Jordan-Woods template that corporate America most desires.
Others in Iverson’s generation—Grant Hill, Penny Hardaway—sustained too many injuries. That certainly seems to be the only thing that can stop Minnesota rookie running back Adrian Peterson and Dallas quarterback Tony Romo.
Running backs with their easily understood rushing yards always have cache when it comes to iconhood unless they’re spotlight-phobic (see: Hall of Famer Barry Sanders). Peterson’s spectacular rookie season, including setting the NFL single-game rushing record, could be the start of a career that lifts him onto running back Rushmore with Walter Payton, Jim Brown and pre-indictment O.J. Simpson.
Or, Peterson’s propensity for injury might kneecap him into being the next Billy Sims, another big, smoothly swift back out of Oklahoma. Sims” signature moves were imitated on sandlots everywhere even before Detroit took him No.1 overall in 1980. Just 60 games, 5,106 rushing yards and 2,072 receiving yards into what was becoming a Hall of Fame career, Sims tore up his knee. Now, he’s just the second-best Detroit running back to wear No.20.
Right now, Brady shares current quarterback preeminence with Manning and celebrity gossip outlets with Romo.
Romo plays for Dallas, the NFL’s glamour franchise when combining television ratings, merchandising and fan feeling (devotion or detestation). His knack for ad-libbed throws off wild scrambles seems to channel Favre. Also, he’s good-looking and of Mexican descent, which is why he was featured in the NFL’s appeals to the growing U.S. Hispanic population.
Similarly well set up—already a heartthrob, oodles of raw athletic talent, a high-profile team—is 24-year-old Boston outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury. Ellsbury hit .438 in the World Series, showed great defensive ability, and steals bases with near Olympic sprinter’s speed. Women held up signs during the Red Sox World Series parade asking to mother Ellsbury’s children.
Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby, hailed as “The Next Wayne Gretzky” since late puberty, already has his first scoring title and league MVP and captains the NHL’s best young team. Much as the NHL pushes the 20-year-old Crosby and Washington’s 22-year-old Alexander Ovechkin, this year’s scoring leader, as its Magic vs. Bird rivalry—and on the ice, both are phenomenal players leading entertaining teams—numbers could prevent Crosby from equaling Gretzky in sports stature.
Gretzky first drew attention with gigantic statistics that obliterated previous NHL records so dramatically he couldn’t be ignored. Now, those numbers—92 goals in a season, four 200-point seasons—loom far over Crosby and Ovechkin. Crosby won last year’s scoring title with 120 points. Ovechkin now leads with 95 points.
There’s only one certainty about who The Next Ones will be in any sport—with today’s technology, you’ll be able to see them more often in more places than their predecessors. Today’s larger-than-life athletes fit in your DVR, laptop or the palm of your hand.