Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Golden Player Mine Since 1999

Now that the first decade of the 2000s is in a two-minute drill, it's time to write about what life was like before the turn of the century.
People looked starkly different.

For one, we stared ahead. Look around now. Everyone’s locked on their smart phone — eyes straight down.

For two, we followed muscular teams that today are pipsqueaks: the Rams, Broncos, Bills, Vikings in the NFL; the Orioles, Indians, Diamondbacks in baseball; the Knicks and Timberwolves in the NBA.

For three, we spotted the ragged that now are rugged: the Jets, Pats, Steelers, Bears, Falcons, Saints in the NFL; the Rays, Twins, Angels, Cards, Rockies in baseball; the Celtics, Mavs, Nuggets in the NBA.

For four, we tracked only big men on campus 11 years ago: UConn in basketball, Florida State in football. Butler back then was the punch line of a murder mystery. Now it’s in the national basketball conversation. As is Boise State on the gridiron.

What about sportsmen? Eleven years are eons in athlete lives. So many stars weren’t even in our conscious universe in 1999. Such as these 11:

Tom Brady. Sure, he started at quarterback for Michigan in 1999. But after he wallowed on the New England bench his rookie season of 2000 and took Drew Bledsoe’s job early in the 2001 season, a pile of fans said Tom who? His answer was an NFL title, then two more in the decade. Now he’s fifth on the list of greatest NFL QBs after Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Bart Starr and Terry Bradshaw. Then again, the way he's darting toward Lombardi Trophy No. 4, he could rank No. 1.

LeBron James. What, we had sports without the man who would be king? ESPN lived before endless footage of James Jams? The NBA sold jerseys before Cav 23 and Heat 6? Yes, yes and yes. Eleven years ago, he was about to turn 15. OK, he could've made the Ohio State starting five. As it was, he skipped college, or kindergartren for him, and flexed right off in the pros. Yet talk about the emperor who wore no shorts. Millions put him on a throne, but what crown has ever won? None. He could turn out to be the Ted Williams of basketball. All underwear, no hardware.

Tim Lincecum. He was 15 in 1999, no doubt into grunge and video games. Just like at 26. Only now he’s rich and just about the best pitcher in baseball. Proof? He won the Cy Young Award in 2008 and ’09. And this year his clutch arm helped wing the Giants to their first world title since moving to San Francisco in 1958. Lincecame, all right.

Roger Federer. He’s dominated courts for so long, you can’t recall tennis without the Swiss Swoosh. Yet in 1999 about the only folks who knew him were Basel boosters. He didn’t start gripping the sport until 2003. Now he owns 16 Grand Slam trophies, the most of any man in history. Is that record untouchable? Hmmm, maybe by the next fellow.

Rafa Nadal. In 1999 he was a 13-year-old twerp living at home. So he’s still crashing with Mom and Dad in Majorca. At least he’s 24 and all man — muscular and mashing out Grand Slam tennis titles that add up to nine, already one more than Andre Agassi amassed in his two-decade run. As Henry Higgins would put it, the reign in Spain falls only when the forehand wanes.

Manny Pacquiao. In 1999 he was a Filipino Fly. The few fans who knew him were hanging around his hometown in the meat of Mindanao, way in the Philippine south. Good for PacMan that he chomped his way out of that Muslim haven toward one of the great careers in boxing history. Now he’s the Filipino Fist, full of 10 titles in eight divisions. Only this Fighter of the Decade could draw 42,000 to Cowboys Stadium to see him bloody Tony Margarito last month.

Sarah Hughes. In 1999 she was 14 and unknown. Now she's 25 and pretty much still foggy. Think great figure skaters and whom do you list? Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Michelle Kwan. And that last one didn't even win Olympic gold. Hughes did. When she was done with that magnificent final at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, the New Yorker was the Ice Queen, and California Kwan had melted in yet another Olympic competition. I'm no skating nut, but Hughes’ big-Game routine is my frozen-in-time moment of the past 11 years.

Ichiro Suzuki. Sure, he was huge in 1999. In Japan. And real American fans know that if the action isn’t here, it might as well be on one of Mars’ moons. In Ichiro’s case, he was swinging and sprinting for something called the Orix Blue Wave in 1990s. Then he took his baseball to Seattle and, man, did we wake up to more than a major leaguer. He was a general leaguer from the get-go, catching every shot in right field, pounding pitchers and vacuuming the 2001 MVP/Rookie of the Year trophies. The dude is a streak, swatting 200 hits in 10 straight seasons. No wonder he goes by the tag of a true star: his first name.

Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben. The Man of Steelers. You can’t miss that 6-foot-5 Berg in Pittsburgh’s backfield. Or his two NFL championships. But you couldn’t find him in 1999. He was 17, about to pass into Miami, and not even the Florida version. He was bound for the college in Oxford, and not the one in England. No, the guy with the marathon name went to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Seven pro seasons later, he’s rising toward the Hall of Fame.

Usain Bolt. The coolest name this side of Thabeet, which sounds like what you hear in downtown Memphis and is really the last name of the Grizzlies' 7-3 center. Back to Bolt, exactly what the Jamaican does to drive enemy sprinters Usain. What was he doing in 1999? Running around his Caribbean hometown like a fast 13-year-old. By 2008, Bolt was living up to his name something fierce. If you blinked from the Peking smog, you missed him Bolting to Olympic golds in the 100 and 200 meters and in sports' most exciting 37 seconds, the 400-meter relay. If not for Michael Phelps, this Usainity would've left the greatest mark on China since the wall.

Michael Phelps. In 1999 he was a Baltimore bass, 14 and hardly making waves. The only people watching him were parents and fellow teens. By 2004 he was a swimming shark, gulping six golds at the Athens Olympics. Then came Peking and his chance to lap the Spitz Seven. He did, winning 8 in ’08. The seventh gold, in the 100-meter butterfly, stopped the clock and every American heart. Phelps fished it out by 0.01 second. You get any closer, you push the timer to infinity. As it is, Phelps floats forever in Olympic lore.

Bucky Fox is an author and editor in Southern Califlornia who at the moment is euphoric over Mizzou and about to take the gaspipe with the Jets.