Who is this guy, anyway?
You rub your eyes after 17 hours of flying across 12 time zones and pluck your suitcase off the baggage carousel. The expansive airport architecture suggests that you're well into the 21st century. You blink. This is not the China of your imagination.
You're in Shanghai, and you do know some things about the man you're going to meet. You know that Yao Ming is roughly 7'6" and 20 years old, and that he is potentially the world's next athlete of impact. You know he is The Magazine's Next Athlete 2001. You know that on a visit to the U.S. two years ago, he played at Michael Jordan's camp and that even back then Michael had joked about phoning the Bulls to sign him. You know that within three minutes during the Sydney Olympics he stuffed Vince Carter and swatted Gary Payton's shot into another time zone. That insiders are now speculating Yao could be one of the top picks—maybe No.1—in the 2001 NBA draft. And that he is already under contract to Nike. One of the game's great players, Bill Walton, watched Yao at the Olympics and concluded that Yao potentially could take over a game that has always been dominated by Americans (see page 85). Which makes you wonder if Yao could be even bigger than all that—a human bridge between cultures?
You get in line to have your passport stamped and remind yourself not to get carried away. You remember how the Americans fouled out Yao early in the second half and went on to romp over the Chinese by 47 points in Sydney. Even if he is skilled, does he have the confidence and hunger to star in the NBA? And what if all the optimistic plans don't pan out? Last year, a 7'1'' Chinese star named Wang Zhi-Zhi was drafted by the Mavericks but not allowed to leave his Red Army team. Would Yao even be permitted by Chinese authorities to play in America?
You pass through customs and see a woman holding a sign bearing your name. She directs you to a man who carries your suitcase toward a curb where a car is waiting to drive you to your hotel. The man carrying your suitcase speaks a little English and asks where you are from.
"America," you say. "Chapel Hill, North Carolina." You flick your hand in the motion of a basketball shot to help him understand. "Home of Michael Jordan."
The man nods. "Ah, yes," he says. "Also Sam Perkins."
Your eyebrows arch.
He smiles and says, "We watch NBA here very often."
You hit the streets at dawn to find old men and women flowing through the ancient and delicate movements of tai chi. Then turn and see couples ballroom dancing on the sidewalk to the recorded music of an American '50s orchestra. You blink up at skyscrapers and cranes that are making more skyscrapers as commuters pass on bicycles. You spot a Starbucks and remember the photo of cooked scorpions in your guidebook. It's too early to make sense of things, but you get the feeling you'll have to understand Shanghai to understand Yao.
At breakfast you meet Terry Rhoads, Nike's director of marketing for China. Afterward, he takes you behind your downtown hotel to a basketball playground like any in America except that it's like no other on earth. The walls are decorated with electroshock graffiti paintings of KG, Tim Duncan and Jason Williams, rendered as if they were Asian comic book heroes. There are few public basketball courts in Shanghai, Rhoads tells you, and after school, the place will be packed with kids. It's not hard to understand why Nike built the playground. There are 26 million feet in Shanghai and 2.5 billion in China. More sneakers are waiting to be sold here than anywhere else on earth. And who better to endorse them than a Chinese basketball star?
You ask Rhoads about Yao Ming.
"I first saw Yao in '97," he says. "Nike had just signed a contract to sponsor the Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese Basketball Association, and we had a little party to introduce ourselves. A few of us were there when in walked the team. Looked normal, guys 6'4". Then this one kid comes in, baby-faced, who's about 7'3", kind of skinny and in some ways looking like Manute Bol. Our jaws dropped, and then, of course, the skepticism came. Well, he's probably a stiff. But once he started hitting three-pointers, we thought—Whoa!
"Our guys in the U.S. didn't believe that there was a Chinese kid that tall. Once we convinced them, they invited us to bring him to a Nike camp in Paris that summer. Yao had always played against kids who were older than him, and that probably hurt his confidence when he was growing up. This was the first time he was matching up against players his own age, and he stood out. Del Harris, then the Lakers coach, was at the camp, and he fell in love with Yao. He was telling everybody, 'I gotta get a picture with that kid because one day he's gonna have a real impact in the NBA.'
"After Paris, the word was out. We had Yao and a teammate named Liu Wei come to America for two months to play on an AAU junior elite team. They went to our All-America camp in Indianapolis that had 200 of America's best players. There were about 40 centers at the camp. Coaches give the players a report card, and recruiting services graded the players. Yao ranked second out of the centers.
"The cherry on top was when Yao and Liu went to Santa Barbara to be counselors at Michael Jordan's camp. Every night, Michael would get together with the counselors for a scrimmage. I remember Michael coming downcourt one game, sinking a three-pointer and teasing Yao. You know, 'Can you do that?' So Yao launches a three-pointer and hits, and Michael's saying, 'Wow! The big guy can shoot!'"
You ask Rhoads if he thinks Yao will be allowed to leave China to play in the NBA.
"I'm sure there are a lot of NBA teams that would like to have a clear, concise answer to that," Rhoads says. "Yao hasn't been drafted yet. A lot of people would be involved in the decision. The Shanghai Sharks club, the basketball association of China. And, of course, Yao and his parents. We think so. We'll see what happens."
You turn back to those electroshocked caricatures of Garnett, Duncan and Williams. They remind you of something Yao's American agent, Bill Duffy, had told you over the phone. This would not be like just another foreign player coming into the NBA. If all turned out well, Duffy had said, there was no way to even fathom Yao's marketing potential. You get the feeling that Duffy's finger was on the right pulse. American kids are already looking toward Asia. The trading cards that are the rage in American elementary schools are no longer of baseball players, but of Nintendo's Pokémon characters that originated in Asia, characters styled just like the Jason Williams on the playground wall.
It's not easy to get time to see Yao. In the first week of November, the season is approaching, and life in the Chinese Basketball Association is far more structured than in the NBA. Players on the Sharks live two to a dorm room, rise together at 7:30 a.m., eat rice soup for breakfast, practice in the morning, work with weights for 20 minutes, eat lunch, sleep for two hours, run through another practice, eat dinner and perhaps relax with a computer game before the 10 p.m. curfew. Last year, time was budgeted in the Sharks' daily routine for players to wash their uniforms. This year, an equip ment manager takes care of that task.
You'll have dinner with Yao on Saturday night, at one of his favorite restaurants: Tony Roma's, the rib joint. In the meantime, you seek out Yao's friends, his first coach, his parents and the Sharks' coach and general manager for some background.
You'd think there was some profound story behind Yao's height. But that notion is quickly dispelled. China is almost as large as Europe, with many ethnic groups, customs and languages. People of the north tend to be taller than people of the south. Anyway, the story of Yao's size is rather matter-of-fact. His dad, 6'10", played basketball, and so did his mom, a 6'4" center and captain for the Chinese national women's team.
Yes, public bus fare had to be paid for Yao when he was 4 years old because he'd surpassed the height of the average 8-year-old. Yes, Yao was taller than one of his elementary school teachers. But outside of needing his bed and clothing to be custom-made, Yao's life has apparently been fairly normal for a kid in a middle-class family. In fact, the story of Yao's past seems to be much the story of Yao's present: He has always been slowly growing into himself.
His first coach remembers Yao not liking basketball much at the age of 9 and being able to run only four laps around the court. "Don't be discouraged," he'd told Yao. "You do four times today, five times next week and six times the week after that. That is how to improve—with little steps."
A friend remembers kids half Yao's size being able to out-rebound him early on because Yao's body and coordination had yet to align. He was skinny, weak in the chest, and friends jokingly called his arms "chopsticks" because they displayed about as much muscle. Even after coordination came, and Yao could dominate, he did not. The Chinese mindset is rooted in teamwork and discourages one player from standing out over others. To get an idea how ingrained this concept is, you must consider that when the Chinese Basketball Association was founded five years ago, individual statistics for scoring and rebounding were not even kept.
Yao's parents were always waiting after games with counsel. They saw the game through position ing and watched as clinically as John Wooden might have. Yao loves to study Chinese history—especially Zhu Ge-Liang, an ancient leader noted for brilliant strategy—and he picks things up quickly. The trips to Paris and the U.S. widened his vision. Still, he was comparatively weak in the upper body, and it's fairly hard to be discreet about it when you're 7'6" and under a basket. In one game during his first season with the Sharks four years ago, Yao was battered to the floor 16 times. The club finished eighth out of 12 teams. Slowly, Yao began to hold his ground, and the Sharks ascended to fourth in the standings, then second, finishing behind the perennial champion, the Red Army team that was sparked by Wang Zhi-Zhi, the seven-footer the Mavericks desired.
Over time, though, Yao's small steps became leaps. Some Nike reps who'd seen him in Paris couldn't believe how much he'd improved when they saw him four years later in Sydney. Although the Chinese team did not win a medal, the kids of Shanghai saw Yao stuff Vince Carter, and he returned home a hero.
Nearly everyone you talk to in Shanghai wants to see Yao go to the NBA. A high-ranking official encouraged him to make the move at a recent sports banquet. For Yao and his parents (like virtu ally all young people in China, Yao's an only child), it's not a case of hardship and the lure of millions of dollars. Yao's folks have good jobs—his dad with harbor engineering management and his mom with a local sports institute—and they do not want to leave their life in China. The roughly $80,000 Yao makes each season is big money here. The family's wish is simply to see Yao compete against the world's best. But you wonder what Sharks management thinks of the idea. Let's face it, would Lakers execs like to see Kobe Bryant play in Italy?
So you head over to the elegant high-rise that houses the television station OTV, which owns the team. Inside, you pass a massive photo of Yao getting a pat on the rump from Michael Jordan and step into the office of general manager Li Yao-Ming. You want to know a little about him before you ask about Yao Ming and the NBA.
As you listen, you can't help but smack your fore head in amazement. When the league began in 1995, there was no pool of professional sports executives. OTV asked Li, a former newsman and director with no basketball background, to run the Sharks. Li did very little sleeping that first year. Get this: For one home game, the Sharks sold only nine tickets. Li had to pay to get students in seats. But soon the team was improving, a massive wide-open sharkmouth was built for the players to burst through at introductions, and interest soared.
The Sharks now sell out their 4,200-seat arena against big rivals. Last season, they lost in the play off final to Wang and the Red Army team. But they were clearly coming and, as Li tells you of plans to build a new 12,000-seat arena, you wonder even more how he feels about the possibility of his star attraction leaving to play in America.
"We hope that Yao Ming will go to the NBA," Li says simply enough through an interpreter. "It will be good for him to play against the best players in the world. And it will help basketball in Shanghai."
Though translating detailed conversation can be kind of tricky—you wonder about nuance when Li speaks for 45 seconds and you get a 10-second translation—it's obvious the GM is thinking long-term. From the team's perspective, Li says, it would not be worthwhile simply to send Yao to the NBA in exchange for only money. The team would like to work with the NBA club that drafts Yao. For example, OTV would like to televise Yao's NBA games in China. And the Sharks would like Ameri can coaches to bring their training methods to the youth of Shanghai.
While nobody has said anything on the subject, you could guess at the difference between the NBA drafting Wang from the Red Army team and selecting Yao from the Shanghai Sharks. If the Red Army team that has won the championship every year loses its star and no longer wins titles, think about it: Will there be subsequent promotions for the general in charge?
Yao Ming, on the other hand, was born in a city that desires to be a player on the world stage. With its teeming port, Shanghai historically has been open to foreign influences. At the outset of World War II, it was a haven for European refugees fleeing the Nazis. A passport was not even required to enter the city. Now it is vibrant, flexing its economic muscle and attracting young people from around the world. A glance at the booming skyline makes you think the city seems bent on turning New York into the Shanghai of the West. You even get the sense that Yao is a metaphor for his city: the human skyscraper it wants to show the world.
You'd imagined it would be strange to walk into a Tony Roma's in Shanghai with a man who's 7'6", but it turns out to be perfectly natural. Yao is so at home, he can order without even looking at the menu, and Tony Roma's is like, well, like Tony Roma's anywhere.
"What amazed you most when you came to play basketball in the United States?" you ask after being seated.
Yao understands a lot of English, certainly anything that would be said on a basketball court, and he can speak some, but right now he prefers a translator. "It was strange at first to see such passion and emotion in the game," he says. "When I went to America, I didn't like to dunk much. It's not the Chinese way." You nod, remembering the Japanese adage: The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.
"In America, I'd get the ball near the basket, shoot a layup, and the coach would be saying, 'Dunk the ball!' But I was used to laying it in. Finally, the coach said, 'If you get the ball in close and don't dunk it, all of your teammates are going to have to run laps.' But I couldn't help it. I was very accustomed to laying the ball in the basket. All of my teammates were running laps, begging me to dunk. Finally, after about a week and many laps, I began to dunk it every time."
You wonder what he felt like draining a three against MJ and stuffing Vince Carter. "What's been your most memorable moment on the court?" you ask.
"When our national team won the Asian junior championship in '98. We beat Qatar, and I had 17 blocks."
Your eyebrows lift, then you remember he's seeing the game in terms of team instead of a Sports Center highlight. "Would you rather have 30 blocks in a game," you ask, "or score 30 points?"
"I'd take the 30 blocks. If you have 30 blocks it will destroy your opponents' morale. It will take away their heart."
"Do you have a favorite player to watch in the NBA?"
"Arvydas Sabonis. I like the way he uses his mind, the way he passes. He can play inside and outside. He's got a three-point shot, and I remember him dunking over David Robinson. He's very smart. I like the way his mind allows him to get the best of each situation."
The waitress places down sirloin and rib combos, and you ask what Yao thought of the food in the United States.
"I like big steaks. And I like going to Starbucks. The food in Chinese restaurants there is different than here. It was strange seeing a fortune cookie for the first time. We don't have them here. Must be an American invention."
"Do you like scorpion? I hear it's crunchy."
"We don't eat scorpion much here. It's a specialty from another part of China. A lot of people here eat snake, though. Turtle soup is pretty good too."
You dig into your ribs and ask what Yao learned in the game against the U.S. team in Sydney, in which China broke out to an early lead before Yao and Wang got into foul trouble, and the rout commenced.
"Five minutes of playing well, or 10 minutes, do not mean very much. It's how well you play the entire game. One of American basketball's biggest strengths is understanding that. In the NBA, there are a lot of one-point and two-point games. There is intense competition to the final second. I'm really looking forward to that."
"It was only a few years ago when you were getting pushed to the floor in the Chinese league," you say. "Do you think you're ready to hold off Shaq?"
Yao smiles. "No," he says. "Not now."
"How much time will you need to develop the strength?"
"Three or four years. I just turned 20. I believe it might be better to go to the NBA at age 22, because physically I'll be much more mature then and have more experience, too."
Wherever the conversation flows with Yao you get the feeling of balance, thoughtfulness and potential. No, he's not going to cross an ocean and dominate Shaq. If he does make it to the NBA, he'll get thrown around at first, just like when he entered pro ball here. But this is a man who carefully considers situations and always looks for a way to improve, step by step. He sits before you now, a 20-year-old kid munching on a big steak, talking about the strategies of an ancient Chinese leader and the fun of jet skiing on the Willamette River in Portland. The question with Yao is, what might he become when all his little steps are added up in five years or 10?
You wish you could stay for the Sharks' opener to see him play, but it's not possible. You do get an e-mail shortly afterward, though. Seems Yao opened the game against the Red Army team with a three-point bomb, slammed in five ferocious dunks, scored 22 points, grabbed 21 rebounds, swatted five blocks and handed out five assists as the Sharks beat the five-time champions 104-99. The sellout crowd in Shanghai was rocking, and the thoughtful giant who once didn't like to dunk was jumping up and down with the emotion of an American after making key plays down the stretch. You're sorry you missed it. But that's okay. You get the feeling you'll be seeing Yao soon enough.
Here are the obstacles that have to be overcome before Yao can pull on an NBA jersey. The team seeking to sign him must:
• receive approval from the mayor of Shanghai, who has the biggest say in the decision; * receive approval from the Shanghai Sharks' GM; • negotiate compensation with the Shanghai Sharks; • receive approval from the Chinese Basketball Association; and * receive approval from the Chinese Basketball Federation in Beijing.
THE ROAD FROM CHINA
The preposterously tall prospect has always intrigued the NBA, if only for the chance that he will be a once-in-a-generation player who truly changes the game. Sure, such pros pects often get cut down to size, but you can dream, right? That's where China's 7'6" Yao Ming stands today. "The picture is really incomplete," says one Western Conference assistant GM, "but if you want to dream, you can have big dreams about this kid." The consensus scouting report on Yao: aggressive shotblocker, jump-shooting range out to 20 feet, good hands, good agility, very good passing skills and touch around the basket. Slowly developing a repertoire of post moves. Runs the floor well for his size. A certain first-rounder, if not the top pick in the draft. The hands and feet are key because, despite all that size, it's the talent in the extremities that separates the gifted from the merely gargantuan. "He's a terrific basketball player with very good footwork, excellent hands and a nice touch," says one NBA assistant coach, who first worked with Yao three years ago and has seen him play an estimated 50 times. (League rules prohibit management from commenting on undrafted players.) "One of the keys to evaluating a big guy is the progress he makes, and Yao's made big strides in the past two years. He's for real. With his combination of size and skills, he's as close to a 7'6" sure thing as there is." Yao's agent, Bill Duffy, believes his client should be "the No.1 pick without lifting a finger" based on his Sydney Olympics performance, in which he blocked a pair of shots against the Dream Team. Several NBA scouts support Duffy's contention. Because Yao has no military commitment blocking his exit from China, his draft position is considerably enhanced. One scout warns, though, that being picked first doesn't guarantee success, and most acknowledge that Yao is nowhere near a finished product. The primary concern is his lack of upper body strength. "The risk of another Shawn Bradley is there," the scout says. But as the draft approaches, and the stories multiply about Yao's feats—he scored 38 points in 20 minutes in a recent game—expect any concerns to give way to visions of a Ming dynasty. Of a nimble giant rejecting Shaq's jump hooks, lofting impossible-to-block high-post jumpers and whipping perfectly timed outlet passes over the defense. You can just hear the GMs mumbling in their sleep: Yao-za. -Ric Bucher
As we approach the halfway point of the Age of Shaq, the search for a successor has extended to the least likely of places: China. Why? If you watched the Olympics, you know. I was there, and after watching Yao Ming compete against the best players in the world, I left Sydney dizzy with the possibilities. Simply put, the 20-year-old Yao has a chance to alter the way the game of basketball is played.
I've seen hundreds of talented prospects look promising in tryouts, only to disappoint once they got on the court against polished performers. I'm sure that won't be the case with the 7'6" Yao. This guy has skills, competitiveness and basketball intelligence that far exceed his limited background. As I watched his crisp and imaginative passes, felt the energy surge when he'd whip an outlet to launch a fast break and noted his decisionmaking and great court demeanor, I knew I was peering into the future.
The first thing that struck me about Yao in Sydney was the way he combines grace with size. He carried a beautifully sculpted physique (he weighs 265 pounds) despite only recently committing to formal weight training and conditioning programs. His base is solid—size 18 feet under a powerfully muscled lower body—yet he's amazingly nimble. The mechanics of his jump and hook shots, while not classic, are most certainly sound. And consistent. His jumper is dangerous out to 20 feet, and he can hook you to death with either hand.
The two best young players I've ever seen were Lew Alcindor (before he was Kareem) and Arvydas Sabonis. At this stage, Yao is not the equal of either. But his upside is so unlimited that when he does enter the NBA draft, I can't conceive of any other player being chosen before him.
It usually takes a foreign player at least two years to adjust to American culture and perform at his best. The language barrier is always the initial hurdle, though that should be a lesser concern for Yao. Three years ago he spoke no English. Since then, he has been to the U.S. as a guest of Nike and been a participant in Michael Jordan's summer youth basketball camp, and he's learned enough English to communicate adequately with coaches and teammates. Yao will have more of a challenge adjusting to the NBA lifestyle: rich restaurant food instead of the Chinese staples of fish and rice, a different hotel room every other night, the constant trips in and out of airports. His life will be quite different from the one he leads now.
Yao was recruited to play for the Sharks' junior team seven years ago, but it's an enormous stretch to compare the Chinese developmental process to ours. The facilities in China do not measure up to our standards either. Nor does the equipment. It's ironic that much of the world's sporting equipment is now produced in China, but that equipment is available to its own athletes on only a limited basis.
The poor quality of coaching in China and the multiple levels of bureaucracy are also hurdles for Yao. Basketball innovation and creativity are absent in China, where longer, harder and faster practices are thought to be the true path to success. And while the Chinese are aware of the need to upgrade the level of coaching, the extreme nationalism in China and noncompetitive salaries prevent the much needed influx of U.S. coaches. There's only one American now coaching in China. Former NBA player Mike McGee coaches a team in the league Yao plays in, and his impact is severely limited since he isn't associated with the all-important national team.
I think the quality of international competition, especially in China, holds back Yao as well. The international game is slow-paced and almost contact-free, and you face a top opponent no more than a few times a year. The speed, intensity and physical nature of every possession in the NBA makes Chinese basketball look like it's in slow motion.
Despite these hurdles, the people who run basket ball in this country continue to dream of a truly international NBA. Why not? If you can find a Larry Bird in French Lick, Ind., a Kevin McHale in Hibbing, Minn., or a John Stockton in Spokane, Wash., why can't you find a future star in Russia, Brazil or China? A year ago, the Mavericks used a second-round pick to draft 7'1" Wang Zhi-Zhi, the first Chinese national selected by an NBA team. Wang is a good player, more along the lines of a Toni Kukoc, and the Mavericks are still working to get him under contract. But it's Yao who has the NBA truly excited.
Granted, I can't predict Yao's continued good health. Or how hard and long he'll work to develop his game. Or how he'll stand up to playing 100 NBA games a year. Or whether he'll be able to overcome his relatively short arms, suspect explosiveness and less-than-great lateral mobility.
Yes, Yao is unquestionably a work-in-progress. But if I were an NBA coach, I'd like him to be my work-in-progress. He's 7'6" and incredibly graceful and coordinated. Over the past 15 years, the NBA has put a higher premium on physical talent than on skill. The international game favors the opposite, skill without the physical prowess. Yao Ming has the chance to be the bridge that spans both worlds. -- bill walton
The infighting, the threats, the graft. It was almost too much to handle. But we persevered, and when all was said and done, we tabbed our NEXT Athlete of 2001—the Shanghai Sharks' Yao Ming—with very little blood and only a modicum of tears. Still, the choice was closer than a Palm Beach County school board election, which is why we offer these three NEXT runners-up: jocks who were just 7'6'' away from making our year-end cover. Cynics will no doubt say that we're hedging our bets. We say to them: Well, yeah—we told you there was graft involved.
The truly great ones aren't afraid to say what they can do. Or to go to any lengths to get it done. So when Steve Francis was asked before a game against the Suns last year about facing the NBA's best point guard, Jason Kidd, he politely sug gested that the question might better be put to Kidd. "I think I can say I'm the best at my position," Francis explained, not so modestly. Outrageous? No more than Bird telling his man how he planned to hit the game-winner. Or Magic assuring victory even if he had to play center. Or Jordan predicting a sixth title minutes after winning the fifth. Stevie Franchise not only outplayed Kidd in that game, he also stuck his mug in Rodney Rogers' chest when the 6' 7'', 255-pounder threw Hakeem to the floor. Keeping elite company is nothing new for the NBA's latest star-in-the-making. Only Wilt, Oscar, Bird and Elgin had more impressive triple-doubles than Francis' career first of 25 points, 17 rebounds and 14 assists last year. But Francis knows that the great ones do and lead. The week Rockets players were told that their chartered plane would not wait for late arrivals, Francis was locked in afternoon traffic 15 minutes before takeoff. He called team trainer Keith Jones and said, "Go ahead and leave. Make me the example." Not a single Rocket has been late since. -Ric Bucher
They say he could be the next Willie Mays. Who's they? Say Hey, that's who. When asked which of today's players most reminds him of himself, Willie Mays didn't hesitate to tab Andruw Jones, and that was before he knew about the nifty little basket catch the Braves' centerfielder recently added to his Gold Glove-winning repertoire. Signed at 16 out of Curaçao in the Dutch Antilles, Jones made it to the big leagues in 1996, when he was 19. That October, he became the youngest player ever to hit a home run in a World Series. One inning later, he became just the second player to homer in his first two World Series at-bats. An entrance like that can crush a young player under a freight car of impossibly high expectations. Not Jones, who has responded by slowly, steadily outdoing himself. Each of the last five seasons, his batting average has gone up and his strikeout frequency has gone down. Last season, he set career highs in home runs (36), RBI (104) and slugging (.541). And, after some early growing pains, Jones has emerged as baseball's best all-around outfielder. He led the majors in OF putouts (438) in 2000, with just two errors. "He makes defense the focus of his game," Mays says. "That's something I always prided myself on." But Jones' most significant number is this one: 23—as in years old. -Brendan O'Connor
"Y'all are all idiots," the NFL scout rails into the phone at us. "Dumb-as-a-doughnut idiots. All you know are statistics. 'He don't throw for 400 yards a game.' So what?! Did you see what he did to Boston College? He ripped their hearts out. That's what we look for—a playmaker. Don't try and tell me Michael Vick's a fluke." Talk all you want about Vick's numbers being down. The guys who know are more sure than ever that Virginia Tech's 20-year-old sophomore QB will be a revolutionary talent in the NFL. "We've seen the kid go through the fire," says another scout. "We've seen him get beat around, and we like the way he fights." What they've also seen is the most mind-boggling package of skills any man has ever brought behind center. The 6'1", 214-pound lefty has the arm of Marino, the moves of Iverson, the cool of D'Angelo. Marketers believe he has Jordan-like appeal, too. In October, Vick said he'd be back in 2001. But that was before 500 pounds of Pitt Panthers fell on him, crunching his right ankle, forcing him to miss most of three games and making him reconsider whether he wants to risk another season of college ball. So the only real question is this: Will Vick be NEXT now—in the NFL's April 21 draft—or a year from now? -Bruce Feldman
In Nashville, where they grow their stars young and venerate them forever, 20-year-old Casey Atwood has been famous longer than the Dixie Chicks. He was 13 when he took a four-cylinder Pinto onto a mean-spirited little oval on the outskirts of town and proceeded—over the course of a single season—to win a dozen races. Since then, he's become Music City's favorite prodigy. Brooks & Dunn sponsored him to run under the lights of the Nashville Speedway, where announcer Buddy Baker said the Opie-clean teen looked like a "young Fireball Roberts." By 17, Atwood was racing men twice his age in the Busch series. This fall, a war broke out over who'd get to sign him in the big leagues. The winner: Ray Evernham, who makes his debut as a team owner in 2001 with Dodge. Can the man who turned Jeff Gordon into a star do it again? Everybody in Nashville thinks so. -Shaun Assael
It's the most famous clank in Bayou hoops history. Spring 1998. Tiny gym in Baton Rouge. Seimone Augustus steals, breaks, lifts the ball toward—then above—the rim. Okay, she missed the flush. The girl was in eighth grade, people. In fact, the 16-year-old Augustus has always been years ahead of her age. She played against 5-year-old boys when she was 3, took on top preps in seventh grade and balled with 20-year-olds as a junior on a tour of Europe last summer. Now, some consider her the best 2-guard in her class. "She is a phenom," says recruiting expert Mike White. The 6'1" Augustus has played all five positions in leading Capitol High to two parish titles. She averaged 26 points and 10 boards a game last season. "It looks like she never went through that awkward stage," says one Top 25 coach. Yeah, it's the recruiters who are tripping all over themselves. -Eric Adelson
It wasn't supposed to be like this. Not yet anyway. Sure, he won three straight 125cc outdoor motocross titles. But a successful jump to 250s on his first try? That's like clearing the Grand Canyon on a Big Wheel. Only nobody told Ricky Carmichael that. The 21-year-old won nine of 12 races—including the last six in a row—on his way to the 250cc championship as a rookie last summer. Let's see: five seasons as a pro, four national titles. Not even motocross god Jeremy McGrath pulled that trick. Now the 5'4" racer from Havana, Fla., finds himself just four wins away from the outdoor record of 37—while his peers find themselves in awe. "He hangs on the throttle to the very last minute," says indoor king McGrath. "I don't know how he does it." -Chris Palmer
Los Angeles Clippers
They're called flashes of brilliance—those moments when someone so young does something so special. Like swatting away Shaq's jump hook. Like dunking on Dikembe Mutombo. Like connecting on an oop from a halfcourt alley. The younger the player, the brighter the flash. How's this for young? Collectively, these five players are younger than the starting lineups of UCLA and USC. They'd be a lock for the Final Four, but (from left) Corey Maggette (21), Darius Miles (19), Lamar Odom (21), Keyon Dooling (20) and Quentin Richardson (20) aren't headed for Minneapolis. They're Clippers. And they're busy being the most promising young quintet ever assembled—each playing two or more positions, all but Odom with a 40-inch vert. But don't try to equate success for the youngsters with wins and scoring averages. Not yet. The goal for now is to learn the pro game. Give 'em time, and they're sure to show us a thing or two about flashes. -Chris Palmer
It was all so cute. On the day last February when D.C. United selected Bobby Convey in the Major League Soccer Super Draft, the club threw an XXL jersey over the kid's XXS shoulders and walked him up to the podium. There, the then-16-year-old from Philadelphia stuck his hands in the pockets of his painter pants and said something like, "Uh, cool." When Convey stepped onto the field for the first time in March, Galaxy coach Sigi Schmid cracked that it reminded him of the day the 3'7" Eddie Gaedel stepped up to the plate for the St. Louis Browns. That was like a million years ago, though. Convey, a 5'8" forward, is no longer cute—okay, maybe a little—and opposing coaches have stopped cracking wise. Instead, they're marveling at the kid's touch, field vision and strength. They're buzzing about his precociousness—so young, so much savvy. And they're counting down the days until he realizes he's too big for MLS and bolts for Europe. -Jeff Bradley
Donovan McNabb, Corey Simon
How, exactly, did the Philadelphia Iggles turn into the Beast of the NFC East? Coach Andy Reid had something to do with it, but Philadel-fans probably would yell two other names at you: First, Donovan McNabb (standing), who's resuscitated the rumors-of-death-are-premature Philly offense with his arm and legs. The 24-year-old sophomore isn't a scrambling quarterback; he's a throwing running back, evidenced most recently by his 125-yard ground game against the Redskins, the sixth-best QB performance since 1940. When Eagle lovers finish screaming about McNabb, they start shouting about first-year defensive tackle Corey Simon, who has not only turned into a most-wanted QB killer (8.5 sacks through Dec. 3), but has freed linemates to do some mauling of their own. We should've seen it coming: His first play as a pro, Simon put Troy Aikman on his Cowboy butt. It's enough to leave an Iggles fan hoarse. -Monica Lewis
He's no chip off the old block: Pierre Gagne was a power forward, but Simon's a finesse guy. Dad had bad hands, but a surgeon would envy the son's. Pierre never made it out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, but Simon is one of the NHL's hottest comers. Gagne scored 20 goals for the Flyers last season—second among rookies—and tied for the lead in rookie playoff scoring. NHL players and coaches talk about the 20-year-old's vision, the way he can thread the needle. And the native of Ste. Foy, Quebec, has already developed a flair for the dramatic. "He's like a home run hitter," says teammate Rick Tocchet. "The game might be boring for two periods, and he'll make a great play to turn it around." Dad couldn't be prouder. -Lindsay Berra
If a guy blasts 47 bombs to lead his league and nobody notices, does he make a sound? Not if he's Troy Glaus. The third-year third sacker for the also-ran Angels did it pretty quietly last summer—and quiet's the way he likes it. Most fans don't know how to pronounce his name—say "gloss," Hoss—but the 24-year-old Tarzana, Calif., native is too shy to correct them. A converted shortstop, Glaus (6'5", 230) has Gold Glove quickness and a rifle arm. After an up-and-down rookie year, he found the stroke that had set the single-season Pac-10 HR record (34 for UCLA) in '97. The former recordholder? Mark McGwire. Anyone who's seen Glaus swing wouldn't be startled if someday he challenged another of Big Mac's marks. Every body would hear about that. Just not from Troy. -Brendan O'Connor
In a sport demanding razor-edge precision and laser-beam focus, Helio Castroneves somehow remains a blithe spirit—charmingly Brazilian, engagingly gregarious and so laugh-out-loud funny he could pass for Roberto Benigni's kid brother. The 25-year-old has experienced his share of trauma in CART; his first team owner died in a plane crash, his second team folded. Then the tragic racing death of Greg Moore in October '99 opened a spot for Castroneves on legendary owner Roger Penske's team. After Helio's first win in Detroit last June, he leapt from his car and tried to jump the fence to mosh with his fans. No luck, but the Brazilian did scale two more fences—wins at Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca—in a breakthrough year on his way to a seventh-place finish overall. For 2001, Penske is also readying a machine that could be the fastest dark horse in the Indianapolis 500. A win there would make Castroneves the newest—and most expressive—face of American open-wheeling. -Shaun Assael
He's only been able to drink legally for six months. He still wears braces on his teeth. He always "sirs" and "m'ams" his elders. He's failed in his first attempt to get the union card he needs to compete with the big boys. So why should we take Charles Howell seriously? Because he can torque Tiger-like distance from his 5'11", 155-pound frame. And because he has the composure and instinct of a born winner. "Charles is stronger than he looks," says Mike Holder, his coach at Oklahoma State. "When he turned pro in July, he could bench 220." That was evident at the NCAA championships in May, when he outdrove the field and won the individual title by eight strokes. The kind of strength Howell's going to need most is mental—after all, he's got to bench-press the reality that for the next couple of decades he'll be playing in the shadow of a guy only four years his senior. First, though, he'll have to battle his way onto the Tour in 2001 through sponsor's exemptions, having his failed to win his Tour card in Q-School last month. Don't bet against him—no, sir.-Seth Wickersham
They all crack jokes now. He's the David Wells of football, the Hefty Lefty. It didn't help that Jared Lorenzen—all 6'4", 285 pounds of him—was both dynamic and dreadful as Kentucky crashed to a 2-9 record this season. The rookie QB led the SEC in passing yards, breaking several of Tim Couch's UK marks along the way (including 528 yards in one game). "Scary," says one NFL scout. "That's the word I'd use." Yes, Lorenzen tossed 21 picks (tying a school record), and yes, he eats too much pizza. But this big-boned Cat also has the skills to chew up defenses. "Jared's got the strongest arm I've ever been around," coach Hal Mumme says. "And he can really move." Translation: Like Daunte Culpepper, only bigger. No joke. -Bruce Feldman
Her teammates called her "The Baby" in Sydney—and not just because she carries a tattered old Lady and the Tramp blanket to every meet, stretching on it before she runs. Monique Henderson is only 17, but she's the future of the 400 meters. Last spring, as a junior at Morse High in San Diego, she ran one lap of the track in an eye-popping 50.74, a national prep record. She placed eighth at the Olympic trials, then served as an alternate Down Under for the 4x400 relay, watching Marion Jones show how it's done. This spring she'll choose whether Stanford, USC or UCLA gets the services of a likely four-time NCAA champ (maybe eight—Henderson has run a nifty 23.19 in the 200). For now, circle August 2004 on your calendar. Blanket or not, Henderson won't be the baby in Athens. -Dave Kuehls
It wasn't pretty. By the International Ski Federation's account of the race, "the downhill form book was blown away." Daron Rahlves fought through menacing winds in Kvitfjell, Norway, last March 3 to become the first American man to win a World Cup race since 1995. But he actually started to break form a week earlier. Discouraged by his results—he'd never finished better than 15th—Rahlves junked training for some R and R at home in Lake Tahoe. The highlight? A big-powder day with Olympic mogul champ Jonny Moseley and world-renowned rippers Shane McConkey and Rob and Scott Gaffney. "It brought back the fun of skiing," says the 27-year-old Rahlves, a former world Jet Ski champ. No kidding. On March 4, Rahlves reignited U.S. hopes for gold in Salt Lake City by winning his second World Cup downhill in as many days. Oh, and his form was perfect. -Derek Taylor
We've seen this before: The good-looking guy with the skill to make everything look easy. That's Marat Safin—talented enough to dominate men's tennis, handsome enough to land a guest spot on Dawson's Creek. Born in Russia and schooled in Spain, the 20-year-old Safin stamped his signature on men's tennis with a near-perfect performance against Pete Sam pras in the 2000 U.S. Open final. He needed just 79 minutes to make Sampras look like he was ready for the Senior tour. Long (6'4") and lean (180 pounds), Safin started the year as a talented but ill-tempered pretty boy who seemed destined to break more rackets (he had smashed 48 in '99) than top 20 opponents. By year's end, he had come within one match of bouncing John McEnroe from the record book as the youngest player to become No.1 in the world. Can Safin be as good as Johnny Mac? His game shouts yes. If not, there's always the WB. -E.J. Hradek
The 22-year-old righthander asked Tommy Lasorda, "Hey, Skip, who we playin'?" The question told Lasorda that the strongest arm on his U.S. squad was loose enough to turn the invincible Cubans vincible in last summer's Olympics. And that's just what Ben Sheets did, allowing three hits in a 4-0 shutout in the gold medal game. "It's that way every time Ben goes out there," says fellow Olympian Mike Neill. "He's always painting something great." It's been that kind of career for Sheets. As a senior at Northeast Louisiana, the native of St. Amant, La., went 14-1 and had 156 strikeouts in 116 innings. The Brewers picked him 10th in the 1999 draft after scouts said his mound rhythms and icy glare recalled Tom Seaver. Now he'll take his 96 mph fastball, nasty curve and work-in-progress change to spring training. Good thing he doesn't know what he's up against. -Seth Wickersham