This story appears in the FUTURE ISSUE, the Nov. 19–26, 2018, edition of Sports Illustrated.
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On election night in Indianapolis, Duke’s Zion Williamson, a 6' 7", 285-pound freshman guard-forward-wing-post-something-everything around whom there has already formed a significant (and deserved) mythology, did remarkable things in a season-opening rout of Kentucky. He threw down thunderous dunks, found open teammates with sharp passes, rebounded powerfully, dribbled adroitly and, in all, looked like the best college hoops player in the country since Anthony Davis, or maybe even before that. It was a fabulous show, worthy of every accolade thrown its way. But, of course, it was not enough just to praise Williamson. There must also be projection.
Over the course of this one game—coinciding with reports on much more important events across the U.S.—viewers and social media users (read: everybody) were transported first to April 2019, with predictions that Duke will not only win the national championship but also do so with an unbeaten record. And from April then to June, when Williamson will be the first pick in the draft. And then from this June to the following June, when he will lead his NBA team to the playoffs and maybe a title, and then to the June after that and the June after that: a threepeat by age 22 and Who’s LeBron anyway? and My God, have we ever seen anything like this? (O.K., maybe few people took it that far, but it was all headed in that direction, a runaway train of presumption and hope.) The point here: Zion Williamson hadn’t stopped sweating, and already the sports fans of America had transported him into near and distant futures, imagining his world domination and the joy it would bring. Every bit of this might turn out to be accurate—and won’t that be fun?—but it’s beside the point.
The latest issue of Sports Illustrated is devoted to the future, an appropriate endeavor given that sports fans are a twitchy, impatient populace reluctant to relish any capital-S, capital-M Sports Moment for more than a heartbeat or two. If something is great now, we ask: How much greater might it be tomorrow, or the day after that? If an athlete is great now, we imagine: How great might he or she be over the course of a career—and how great will that be? If a team is great now: Can it stay together long enough to be great next year and the following year? Can it be a dynasty? The sports world is in a breathless hurry to leave now behind in pursuit of later.
It was ESPN, in a slice of branding wisdom, that popularized the phrase instant classic for a game that immediately appears to have historical significance. It’s a grossly misapplied title, but the subtext is accurate: Once a moment has passed, consign it to history and use a term like classic, which evokes plaques in Cooperstown and busts in Canton. If it’s over, it’s old. Look ahead—the further the better. And this is not all wrong. The future is a place of infinite promise and wonder. But by persistently pondering it, we distort the present.
There is an expression in the mental health community: future tripping. It is almost universally employed with a negative connotation, referring to someone who’s anxious and unhealthy because he or she is unnaturally worried about what the future might bring. Sports fans are not (all) worried about what comes next, but they are generally obsessed with it, often in wildly optimistic ways. They are future tripping, seemingly, every day. The latest issue of SI is itself a 100-page future trip.
This is happening in the NBA (among many, many other places) with the aforementioned Anthony Davis, a 6' 10" center who will be a coveted free agent at the end of the current season . . . which is barely one-eighth over. Davis, 25, has proved immensely talented and versatile, and he will make some other team an instant championship contender (even if he doesn’t do that with his current employer, the Pelicans). Hence, countless NBA fans and media types have placed this incipient season and the Davis Derby in adjacent tabs, to watch throughout the year. In effect, they are equating an actual ongoing campaign—real games, real division races and, presumably, another real championship by the dynastic and evolutionary Warriors (or maybe not, which would be even more exciting)—with the potential signing of a superstar after the season, a process of rampant speculation that is unfolding in sterile offices, with no spectators or ear-splitting music. Because: the future.
This act of divining and dreaming is attached to teams and institutions but most commonly to athletes, for whom we cannot resist building careers based on tiny samples. A few weeks ago Fox Sports college football writer Bruce Feldman tweeted (in good humor) that Cole Leinart, the 5' 7", 11-year-old son of 2004 Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, “has a huge arm . . . shocked that Lane Kiffin and FAU haven’t offered him.” Minutes later Kiffin tweeted that he had, in fact, offered Cole a scholarship, leading the elder Leinart to clarify: Kiffin was “obviously joking.” Doesn’t matter. Cole is now on the clock.
This was all reminiscent of the story of David Sills V, whom Kiffin (then at USC) offered a scholarship in 2010, when Sills was 13. Eight years later Sills is a solid receiver at West Virginia, but only after a circuitous journey that included a stop at El Camino community college in Torrance, Calif.
Sometimes, even more aggressively, we project greatness upon young athletes and, with that, pile the hopes and dreams of entire sports across their unready shoulders. Consider Jordan Spieth. In April 2015, when Spieth was 21, he won the Masters. Two months later it was the U.S. Open. These were thrilling victories, and Spieth looked like an exceptionally talented player. But that wasn’t enough. Shortly after those two wins, fans began calculating how soon Spieth would achieve what the injured and disgraced (back then) Tiger Woods had not: breaking Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 career major victories. And more. Surely Spieth was the new Woods, the young player with the game to restore TV ratings to their Tiger-driven highs of the early 2000s.
Three years later Spieth remains very good at golf. But he has won only one major after that roaring start. A bonus here: Since expectations were so quickly cranked up in 2015, and since Spieth has slowed since—because, you know, sustained success is difficult for even the best players—this all allows for another type of projection: When will Spieth be back?
Consider, too, Mary Cain. In 2013, when she was 17, Cain ran very fast in some very big races at distances from 800 to 3,000 meters, prompting the track and field community to become very excited, not just about these actual performances but about the possibility that she would continue to run faster and faster and someday win Olympic medals and world championships and, because of her joyful youth, help elevate track to its past glory. Or something. All of this was in play because Cain was young. But then she suffered frequent injuries and switched coaches and training locations; to this day she is fighting to regain the form that led to all the excitement. (SI, obviously, has been complicit in all this hype, and I take credit/blame for an enthusiastic story about Cain in that summer of 2013, which also pointed out the real possibility of burnout and unmet expectations.)
Those who write and tweet and think about track and field and other Olympic sports are especially unwilling to remain in the present with their young stars, in part because the life blood of those competitions—track, swimming, gymnastics, skiing—is individual greatness, which attracts attention and invites comparison across multiple Olympic cycles. If a young sprinter looks anything like the next Usain Bolt or Allyson Felix, if a young swimmer looks anything like the next Michael Phelps or Katie Ledecky, he or she will be expected to carry a lot of water for a lot of years. This happened to Missy Franklin, who at 17 won four golds and one bronze in swimming at the 2012 Olympics, and who was expected to keep accumulating medals for at least another eight years. She, too, battled injuries, and she has never won another Olympic individual medal (she won a gold for swimming morning heats in a relay at the ’16 Games), despite trying very hard and enduring her struggles with exceptional dignity.
There is another consequence of looking too deeply toward the future: Athletes are robbed of unalloyed joy in the present. Cain did not stay the face of American women’s middle-distance running, but she was held in that regard for a brief time, and that is no small thing. Yet it was undercut by the immediate expectation of even greater performances in the future. Likewise for Franklin, who won not only those Olympic medals in 2012 but a total of eight world championships in ’13 and ’15, a towering career résumé that is nevertheless demeaned because she didn’t do even more after flashing talent so fast, so young. Alan Webb shattered Jim Ryun’s high school record for the mile in ’01, and he was expected to then accumulate a pile of medals and records. He ultimately broke the American mark for the mile, but he did not win any Olympic or world championship medals; thus, he is considered by many in the track universe to have been a failure, an absurdly unfair measurement based strictly on his accomplishments at a young age. Like so many others, he was saddled with expectations and then punished later for failing to live up to his precocity.
Of course, there are athletes, too, who get proclaimed great at a young age and just keep getting better. LeBron James was declared the chosen one on the cover of SI when he was 17, and he’s spent the next 16 years living up to—and exceeding—that proclamation. But there are far more athletes who fall short of mandated greatness than there are who achieve it.
The NBA and NFL drafts, and the world of college recruiting, are institutionalized projection factories in which pro franchises and D-I programs use sophisticated guesswork to measure the viability of athletes based largely on their performance at lower levels. It’s a system that leads to the Patriots stumbling upon Tom Brady in the sixth round and riding him to two decades of leaguewide dominance.
Yet despite the vast uncertainty of drafts and recruiting, fan bases treat them as if they are games, with concrete outcomes. In some cases, more than games. It is foundational future tripping in which grades are assigned and winners and losers declared based on the selections made from a podium or the letters of intent signed by athletes. These are alluring moments for fans obsessed with the future because there are no consequences; they are foundational What’s next? moments in which there is no now. There is only some vague, distant later in which a draftee or recruit becomes a star. Or the best ever. Or a bust.
The appeal is easy to see: Drafting and recruiting represent the ultimate big tent, and everyone is welcome. You can’t be wrong on draft day or signing day, you can only be wrong much later, when those original predictions are lost in the fog of time. There is no present here, only the future.
But this is the thing about the future: It will arrive. This is a certainty. It will arrive wrapped in mystery, uncertainty, poised to bring laughter or tears. It will arrive in forms often vastly different from our expectations. Zion Williamson will do amazing things for many years—or, unexpectedly, he will not. Watch him now. Watch everything now. And perhaps, on occasion, don’t squint quite so hard in search of what’s to come.