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Thursday, May 22, 2008
An incomplete history of young stars on the big stage

By Thomas Neumann
Page 2


Click here for complete coverage of the Penguins-Red Wings series matchup from

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are two of the most exciting and talented hockey players in the world, and they're headed for the Stanley Cup finals.

The ballyhooed tandem has the Penguins in the championship round for the first time since 1992. Crosby, 20, is in his third NHL season, while Malkin, 21, is a second-year pro. This got us thinking about other young superstars, how long it took for them to get to the championship round and how they fared.

Here's a sampling, rated on a scale of one to five on the debut championship performance:

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Reached first championship: Second season (age 24).
Result: Won 4-0 over Baltimore Bullets in 1971.
Summary: Abdul-Jabbar was named MVP after averaging 27 points and 18.5 rebounds per game while shooting a gaudy 60.5 percent from the field. At 7-foot-2, few players have been able to perform as well at altitude.
Championship debut grade:

Larry Bird
Reached first championship: Second season (age 24).
Result: Won 4-2 over Houston Rockets in 1981.
Summary: Bird averaged 15.3 points, 15.3 rebounds and seven assists, but shot only 41.9 percent from the field. Nevertheless, his performance assured that the wispy mustache would remain cool for decades to come.
Championship debut grade:

Mike Bossy
Reached first championship: Third season (age 23).
Result: Won 4-2 over Philadelphia Flyers in 1980.
Summary: Bossy recorded four goals and seven assists as the Isles ushered in a dynasty. If there were a Mount Rushmore of Islanders, he would be on it -- along with Bryan Trottier, Denis Potvin and the Gorton's Fisherman.
Championship debut grade:

Jose Canseco
Reached first championship: Third season (age 24).
Result: Lost 4-1 to Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988.
Summary: It started like a pool party for Canseco, who in his first World Series at-bat hit a grand slam off Tim Belcher. Then it quickly went the way of a house foreclosure, as he went 0-for-18 for the remainder of the series.
Championship debut grade:

Wilt Chamberlain
Reached first championship: Fifth season (age 28).
Result: Lost 4-1 to Boston Celtics in 1964.
Summary: The Big Dipper averaged 29.2 points and 27.6 rebounds in a losing effort. The skill with which he rebounded in this series shouldn't be surprising, considering he was already able to leap completely over other players.
Championship debut grade:

Roger Clemens
Reached first championship: Third season (age 24).
Result: Lost 4-3 to New York Mets in 1986.
Summary: Long before he threw the pigskin to Andy Pettitte and the bat at Mike Piazza … before he made Suzyn Waldman swoon … before tales of Brian McNamee, Rusty Hardin, Mindy McCready, John Daly's ex-wife (?!) and this … Clemens was the heir apparent to Texan fireballer Nolan Ryan. Clemens was coming off a 24-4 regular season with a 2.48 ERA and seemed likely to dazzle in the World Series. Instead, he got two no-decisions and allowed nine hits, six walks and four earned runs in 11.1 innings.
Championship debut grade:

Ty Cobb
Reached first championship: Third season (age 20).
Result: Lost 4-0-1 to Chicago Cubs in 1907.
Summary: Cobb went 4-for-20 with one extra-base hit and one run as the Tigers lost the first of three consecutive World Series. Had Cobb eventually won a World Series during his 24-season career, he might have been portrayed by Clint Eastwood instead of Tommy Lee Jones.
Championship debut grade:

Tim Duncan
Reached first championship: Second season (age 23).
Result: Won 4-1 over New York Knicks in 1999.
Summary: Duncan averaged 27.4 points and 14 rebounds per game while shooting 53.7 percent from the field and blocking 11 shots en route to MVP honors. Perhaps most important, he was neither fined nor suspended for laughing at the referees.
Championship debut grade:

Wayne Gretzky
Reached first championship: Fourth NHL season (age 22).
Result: Lost 4-0 to New York Islanders in 1983.
Summary: It was a learning experience for both the Oilers and the Great One, who had zero goals and four assists. At least nobody tried to make his head bleed.
Championship debut grade:

Gordie Howe
Reached first championship: Second season (age 20).
Result: Lost 4-0 to Toronto Maple Leafs in 1948.
Summary: Howe failed to score a point, as the Red Wings were overwhelmed by Toronto. He recovered from the experience, of course, ultimately winning four Stanley Cups with nearly enough career earnings to cover a Janet Greztky Super Bowl wager.
Championship debut grade:

LeBron James
Reached first championship: Fourth season (age 22).
Result: Lost 4-0 to San Antonio Spurs in 2007.
Summary: James averaged 22 points per game in his Finals debut, but he shot just 35.6 percent from the field … hey, at least he wasn't wearing a Yankees cap.
Championship debut grade:

Magic Johnson
Reached first championship: Rookie season (age 20).
Result: Won 4-2 over Philadelphia 76ers.
Summary: Johnson was sensational in his Finals debut, averaging 21.5 points, 11.2 rebounds and 8.7 assists and capping the series with his unforgettable 42-point, 15-rebound effort while playing center. So, how could someone so absolutely gifted in one endeavor be so … let's just say underwhelming … in another?
Championship debut grade:

Michael Jordan
Reached first championship: Seventh season (age 28).
Result: Won 4-1 over Los Angeles Lakers in 1991.
Summary: Jordan produced the gold standard by which other championship debuts are judged. He averaged 31.2 points, 11.4 assists and 6.6 boards while shooting a cool 55.8 percent from the field. No wonder other people go to such great lengths to be like Mike.
Championship debut grade:

Guy Lafleur
Reached first championship: Second season (age 21).
Result: Won 4-2 over Chicago Blackhawks in 1973.
Summary: Lafleur had no goals and two assists against Chicago, a slow start that can be forgiven in light of his later accomplishments. This, however, cannot be forgiven.
Championship debut grade:

Mario Lemieux
Reached first championship: Seventh season (age 25).
Result: Won 4-2 over Minnesota North Stars in 1991.
Summary: Super Mario had five goals and seven assists as the Pens captured their first Stanley Cup. But then, we already knew he could beat an opponent every way possible.
Championship debut grade:

Eric Lindros
Reached first championship: Fifth season (age 24).
Result: Lost 4-0 to Detroit Red Wings in 1997.
Summary: Lindros had a goal and two assists, but his only visit to the Stanley Cup finals was a brief one. Maybe in a different situation he could've won a couple of rings.
Championship debut grade:

Eli Manning
Reached first championship: Fourth season (age 27).
Result: Won 17-14 over New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
Summary: Eli earned MVP honors, completing 19 of 34 passes for 255 yards with two touchdowns and one interception to help oust the vaunted Patriots. It must be the bloodlines.
Championship debut grade:

Peyton Manning
Reached first championship: Ninth season (age 30).
Result: Won 29-17 over Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI.
Summary: Peyton was also named Super Bowl MVP, following a 25-for-38 passing effort for 246 yards with a touchdown and a pick. But no matter how many Super Bowls he wins, we won't soon forget about the infamous Oreo commercial.
Championship debut grade:

Dan Marino
Reached first championship: Second season (age 23).
Result: Lost 38-16 to San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XIX.
Summary: Marino completed 29 of 50 passes for 318 yards with one touchdown and two picks. Funny, we would've predicted victory for Marino. After all, who wouldn't pick someone who looks like this guy to outduel someone who looks like this guy?
Championship debut grade:

Shaquille O'Neal
Reached first championship: Third season (age 23).
Result: Lost 4-0 to Houston Rockets in 1995.
Summary: O'Neal averaged 28 points, 12.5 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 45 minutes per game while shooting 59.5 percent from the field. It's difficult to imagine a player putting up numbers as good as these and getting swept. We can only guess that it was some sort of karmic payback for this.
Championship debut grade:

Bobby Orr
Reached first championship: Fourth season (age 22).
Result: Won 4-0 over St. Louis Blues in 1970.
Summary: Orr scored a goal, assisted on four others and etched his likeness onto one of the most memorable sports images anywhere as the Bruins raised the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1941.
Championship debut grade:

Patrick Roy
Reached first championship: Rookie season (age 20).
Result: Won 4-1 over Calgary Flames in 1986.
Summary: Roy posted a 2.39 goals-against average and one shutout, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy. He went on to win an NHL-record 551 games, but at this point he could still hear reasonably well because he only had one Stanley Cup ring plugged in his ear.
Championship debut grade:

Fernando Valenzuela
Reached first championship: Rookie season (age 20 … maybe).
Result: Won 4-2 over New York Yankees in 1981.
Summary: Valenzuela pitched just once, allowing four earned runs while going the distance for the Game 3 victory. Some might say his screwball bordered on the divine.
Championship debut grade:

Jerry West
Reached first championship: Second season (age 23).
Result: Lost 4-3 to Boston Celtics in 1962.
Summary: West averaged 31.1 points and five rebounds per game as he suffered the first of five championship losses to the Celtics. Although West never went on to win the NBA MVP award, he left an indelible mark on the game.
Championship debut grade:

Alex Rodriguez
Reached first championship: Still waiting (age TBA).
Result: Not yet determined.
Summary: The kindest thing we can say is that A-Rod is indeed a true Texas Ranger.
Championship debut grade: Incomplete.

Special thanks to Brett Edgerton, Peter Newmann and the Elias Sports Bureau for providing statistical assistance. Thumbnail illustrations by Kurt Snibbe. Thomas Neumann is an editor for Page 2. You can contact him here.