The most-hyped phenoms ever
Keith Law calls San Diego State right-hander Stephen Strasburg the best pitching prospect of the past 10 years. Scouts have told Buster Olney that Strasburg might be the best pitching prospect they've ever seen.
Similar raves followed Southern Cal pitcher Mark Prior back in 2001, when the Cubs made him the second pick in the draft, but it appears Strasburg's hype will surpass Prior's by the time the draft rolls around in June.
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So, as we wait for Scott Boras to work on the rumored $25 million contract he'll request for Strasburg, we present our list of the most-hyped phenoms ever, those players publicized as prime-time performers before reaching the biggest stage. And be sure to check our corresponding list of the top 10 phenom flops.
1. LeBron James
Three games into his senior year of high school, James already had appeared on the covers of ESPN The Magazine and Sports Illustrated. ESPN2 televised a game. If you lived in Ohio, you could have watched the St. Vincent-St. Mary High School squad on pay-per-view. Of course, one Page 2 writer wasn't so impressed at the time, suggesting, "In high school, LeBron James might be a man among boys -- but in the NBA, he'll be a boy among men."
2. Tiger Woods
Let's see he was on "The Mike Douglas Show" at age 2, reportedly shot a 48 over nine holes at age 3, appeared in Golf Digest at age 4, won the U.S. Junior Amateur at age 15 (and 16 and 17) and, at 18, became the youngest to win the U.S. Amateur. By the time he joined the PGA Tour in 1996, he was still just 20 years old and ready to take over. He did.
3. Michelle Wie
Here's how early the phenom watch on Wie began: She's still just 19 years old. She qualified for an LPGA event at 12, and after she finished fourth in the Kraft Nabisco Championship (a major) at 14 in 2004, the hype was in full glory. While 2007 and 2008 were disastrous, injury-plagued years, and while she's never won a 72-hole event, it's too early to call her a flop.
4. Sidney Crosby
How big was Crosby coming up through the junior ranks? He made the covers of American sports magazines and had a biography written about him before his rookie season. Top NHL execs undoubtedly sighed a collective groan when the small-market Pittsburgh Penguins won the top choice in the "Sidney Crosby Sweepstakes" following the 2005 lockout, but the Penguins must be happy with the results: 102 points as a rookie, a scoring title and MVP season as a teenager and a Stanley Cup finals appearance in his third season.
5. Lew Alcindor
No sport is as quick to proclaim its phenoms as basketball, especially if the phenom hails from New York City (see: Kenny Anderson, Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair). Alcindor first became a household name while attending Power Memorial Academy in New York and then averaged 31 points per game on the UCLA freshman team (freshmen were not eligible for the varsity team at the time). By the time his sophomore campaign rolled around in 1966, he already was on magazine covers, proclaimed as college hoops' next superstar.
6. Wayne Gretzky
Sportswriters were penning stories about Gretzky when he was 7 years old, and by the time he was 10, when he was a 70-pound scoring machine in Brantford, Ontario, he already was a big name among Canadian hockey fans. He joined a junior league team at 14, racked up ungodly point totals and turned pro at 17 with the Indianapolis Racers of the WHA (who quickly sold him to Edmonton). By the time the Oilers moved to the NHL, it was no wonder he won the league MVP his first season.
7. Gregg Jefferies
The national media pays much more attention to minor league baseball than it did 10 or 15 years ago (mostly thanks to the growth of fantasy baseball), but Jefferies remains one of the most-hyped baseball prospects. Jefferies was the Mets' first-round pick in 1985, a three-time minor league MVP and two-time Baseball America minor league player of the year after hitting .354 and .367. He hit .321 in a late-season callup in 1988 to create even more hoopla but never developed into a star.
8. Ralph Sampson
The Sports Illustrated cover his freshman season at Virginia said it all: "LADIES AND GENTLEMAN, INTRODUCING THE ONE AND ONLY RALPH SAMPSON! HE DUNKS! HE BLOCKS SHOTS! HE DRIBBLES BEHIND HIS BACK! HE'S 7'4" -- AND STILL GROWING!"
9. Mike Tyson
He was heralded as the future heavyweight champ while still a teenager and didn't disappointment, winning the title at age 20.
10. Jim Ryun
Back when track and field was still considered a major sport, Ryun became the first high schooler to run a four-minute mile. He immediately became a popular magazine cover boy and made the 1964 Olympic team while still in high school. He would go on to set world records in the mile and earn an Olympic silver medal.
Others receiving votes
Freddy Adu, Kenny Anderson, Kobe Bryant, Jennifer Capriati, Wilt Chamberlain, Jimmy Clausen, Ronald Curry, Kevin Garnett, Ken Griffey Jr., Drew Henson, Clint Hurdle, Jerry Lucas, Bobby Orr, Terrelle Pryor, Darryl Strawberry, Serena Williams, Venus Williams.
Editor's note: Some of this material orginally ran on Page 2 on Dec. 12, 2002.