Stories That Don't Suck: SportsFeat's Guide To Prodigies

Every Friday, SportsFeat picks a few great weekend reads for Deadspin. This week's theme, in honor of Rory McIlroy and Kyrie Irving, is sports prodigies. A note to those two: enjoy this moment. If these stories are any indication, there's a slight chance it won't last.

For a daily selection of top-shelf sports writing, both new stuff and classics, check out SportsFeat.com or follow @sportsfeat on Twitter.

Stories That Don't Suck: SportsFeat's Guide To Prodigies

The Man Who Never Was


Mike Sager • Esquire • May 2009

On the desolate career of Todd Marinovich, who was engineered from birth to be the greatest quarterback of all time and ended up a junkie.

Todd returned to football for the last time in the spring of 2000 — a mercurial stint with the Los Angeles Avengers in the Arena Football League. His first year, he tied the record for most touchdowns in a single game despite undergoing severe heroin withdrawal; after shitting his pants during warm-ups, he came out and threw ten touchdowns to win a game against the Houston Thunderbears. That same year, at age thirty-one, he was named to the all-rookie team. The next season, he became L. A.'s franchise player. The day he picked up his signing bonus, he was busted buying heroin. With him in the truck was $30,000 cash in an envelope. Toward the end of the season, he was ejected from successive games for throwing a clipboard and a hand towel at officials. Finally, he was suspended from the team.

"At that point, heroin became my full-time job," Todd says.

Stories That Don't Suck: SportsFeat's Guide To Prodigies

Shoot the Moon


Susan Orlean • The New Yorker • March 1993

A profile of Felipe Lopez, can't-miss high school star:

White men in suits follow Felipe Lopez everywhere he goes. Felipe lives in Mott Haven, in the South Bronx. He is a junior at Rice High School, which is on the corner of 124th Street and Lenox Avenue, in Harlem, and he plays guard for the school basketball team, the Rice Raiders. The white men are ubiquitous. They rarely miss one of Felipe's games or tournaments. They have absolute recall of his best minutes of play. They are authorities on his physical condition. They admire his feet, which are big and pontoon-shaped, and his wrists, which have a loose, silky motion. Not long ago, I sat with the white men at a game between Rice and All Hallows High School. My halftime entertainment was listening to a debate between two of them — a college scout and a Westchester contractor who is a high-school basketball fan — about whether Felipe had grown a half inch over Christmas break. "I know this kid," the scout said as the second half started. "A half inch is not something I would miss." The white men believe that Felipe is the best high-school basketball player in the country. They often compare him to Michael Jordan, and are betting he will become one of the greatest basketball players to emerge from New York City since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. This conjecture provides them with suspended, savory excitement and a happy premonition. Following Felipe is like hanging around with someone you think is going to win the lottery someday.

Stories That Don't Suck: SportsFeat's Guide To Prodigies

So Much Got Lost in the Translation


Dan Le Betard • ESPN The Magazine • December 2001

What happened to Danny Almonte in the months after his age was exposed? Not much.

Danny Almonte was untouched by the stench, like a rose growing implausibly in a sewer. American shame and outrage swirled noisily around him after his baseball triumph had been exposed as fraud, but Danny didn't understand the commotion, and still doesn't. He is a painfully shy kid, staring at the floor a lot, but when asked about his recent experiences with Little League Baseball Incorporated, he lifts his head, smiles and says in Spanish, "It was so much fun and happiness." All of it? "All of it," he says.

Stories That Don't Suck: SportsFeat's Guide To Prodigies

The Justin Bieber of Bullfighting


Laurence Lowe • Details • December 2010

A profile of Michelito Lagravere, the best young bullfighter in the world.

Then again, it isn't metaphysics that has carried Michelito so far at such a young age. If there is one quality that gives him the courage to stand in the path of a charging bull; to triumph in the world's largest ring when a fighter twice his age might have folded; to set himself the goal (don't believe for a moment he won't meet it) of becoming, at 14, the youngest person ever to achieve the status of professional matador-and to do so undeterred by all the animal-rights activists and child-welfare advocates who see him as a paramount example of primitive brutality and parental neglect—it is this: a preternatural confidence in his own future greatness.

The day before he killed those six bulls in front of an adoring crowd of 4,000 in his hometown of Merida—at a time when the fight was under ban by the mayor, who'd deemed it illegal for children under 18 to put their life at risk before the public-Michelito was defiant. "No one can stop me from fighting," he said. "I was born a bullfighter, and I will die one."

He had just turned 11.

Stories That Don't Suck: SportsFeat's Guide To Prodigies

Brooklyn Heights


Katy Vine • Texas Monthly • June 2005

On the bizarre existence of Brooklyn Pope, basketball goddess.

Hype like this is probably inevitable when you're the first female superstar at Dunbar, an institution best known as the home of the winningest high school boys' coach in the country, 77-year-old Robert Hughes, and therefore the home of one of the most rabid basketball communities in the country. And it's been like this for Brooklyn since the seventh grade, when she opened the mailbox to find her first recruiting letter, from Princeton. Since then she's accumulated so much fan mail from scouts—at UCLA, Duke, UConn, Stanford, Baylor, Texas Tech, Tennessee, UT-Austin, and every other upper-echelon college program—that her mailman told her he wants a raise. No matter that she won't be able to step onto the court at anyone's university for another three years. Brooklyn is a can't-miss recruit, the coaches say, the kind of impact athlete who can relieve the pressure of a few losing seasons or even save their jobs just by signing her name. So they stare at their keyboards searching for new and inventive ways to praise her. Like the letter from Notre Dame that arrived a week after a camp Brooklyn attended in July: "We had the opportunity to see you at the Adidas Top Ten camp in Atlanta and all I can say is 'Wow.' That move in the all-star game? I don't even know what to say." Brooklyn Pope, in other words, already knows that she's been tagged the Next Big Thing.

She also knows she isn't supposed to believe any of it. From the time she was nine years old, her coaches have been preaching humility and teamwork and respect. They tell her that the recruiters and the scouts and the player-ranking Web sites are a dangerous hype machine that will forget her just as quickly as it has built her up. They tell her that being able to dunk won't be enough to make her a special player. Last year, after all, Candace Parker, a high school senior from Illinois, won the slam dunk contest at the McDonald's All American High School Basketball Game—against a field full of boys. To get to the next level, she's told, she'll have to learn to play vanilla. Don't let your head get full of helium, the coaches say. Can't let yourself think you're all that. But when you're a fifteen-year-old freshman being told repeatedly that you are all that-and told just as often not to believe a word of it—how do you know whom to listen to?

Stories That Don't Suck: SportsFeat's Guide To Prodigies

The Man. Amen.


Charles P. Pierce • GQ • April 1997

A legendary profile of a 21-year-old Tiger Woods, published just before he won the Masters by 12 strokes. He would never again be as candid with the press.

This is one of the jokes that Tiger told:

He puts the tips of his expensive shoes together, and he rubs them up and down against each other. "What's this?" he asks the women, who do not know the answer.

"It's a black guy taking off his condom," Tiger explains.

He tells jokes that are going to become something else entirely when they appear in this magazine because he is not most 21-year-olds, and because he is not going to be a 45-year-old club pro with a nose spidered red and hands palsied with the gin yips in the morning, and because—through his own efforts, the efforts of his father, his management team and his shoe company, and through some of the most bizarre sporting prose ever concocted—he's become the center of a secular cult, the tenets of which hold that something beyond golf is at work here, something that will help redeem golf from its racist past, something that will help redeem America from its racist past, something that will bring a new era of grace and civility upon the land, and something that will, along the way, produce in Tiger Woods the greatest golfer in the history of the planet. It has been stated—flatly, and by people who ought to know better—that the hand of God is working through Tiger Woods in order to make this world a better place for us all.

Is that blasphemous?

Is it?

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Top photo by Jennifer Szymaszek/The New York Times