OAKLAND, CALIF. — The most recognizable name in professional basketball these days received his high school diploma less than six months ago. For much of the past year, the buzz on the women's golf tour has centered on a Hawaiian ninth-grader. And in Pittsburgh, the savior for the beleaguered Penguins hockey club is not future hall-of-famer Mario Lemieux, but an elastic-limbed goal tender who turned 19 Friday.
Now, America's premier professional soccer league has pinned much of its hopes on a player who, at age 14, has been wooed by clubs from England to Italy.
The kids are coming to major US professional sports, and they are already changing the caliber and character of their games. In some instances, they are truly unique athletes. In others, they are simply the products of a new and hyper-competitive youth-sports system, lured to big-time athletics by bad advice and the prospect of outlandish wealth and rock-star glory.
This is hardly the first sporting generation to weigh promise with petulance. What has changed is that the money trail for young athletes is leading to new sports and creating new cultural questions.
"The trend continues to escalate," says Dan Tripps, a sports psychologist at Seattle Pacific University who has studied the phenomenon. "There is such a celebrity-centered culture and fame is so significant - [and] this is getting bigger and bigger."
Fame and fortune have always been the motivating factors in teen prodigies heading into public careers, whether it be acting, singing, or smacking a felt ball with a stringed racket. And tennis, in particular, has built an entire infrastructure of coaches and academies to develop and support young talent. Yet, for the moment at least, the trend is away from taking to the court when friends are taking spelling tests.
"Ten years ago, a lot of my students turned pro," says Nick Bollettieri of Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla., which produced Andre Agassi and Monica Seles. "But 75 percent of the sponsorship money has dried up, so my recommendation is to go to college for at least two years."
In other sports from hockey to golf, however, the opposite is true. The money is there, and the rise of traveling teams and personal coaches has done for these athletes what tennis academies have done for budding players: accelerate the athletic learning curve. This year, for example, Michelle Wie became the youngest player, at 13, to make the cut at a Ladies Professional Golf Association event. "Part of this is an outgrowth of the specialization of youth sports," says Dr. Tripps.
For their part, baseball and hockey have extensive minor-league and developmental systems. Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, in fact, has been playing in the Quebec junior leagues for three years.
Basketball, however, has always depended on universities to refine raw talent. Now, for the first time, that burden is falling on the league itself.
To be sure, extraordinary basketball players from Earvin "Magic" Johnson to Michael Jordan have left college early to turn pro. But during the past 10 years, elite players like this year's 18-year-old phenom, LeBron James, have been increasingly joined by the merely middling. The results have reshaped pro basketball in America. The quality of play has declined as players untempered by the crucible of the college game learn in the pros. Off the court, a new generation of athletes is being thrown into an adult world without a safety net.
Reflecting a broader trend, eight of the 22 high-schoolers who entered the NBA draft between 1995 and 2002 have disappeared from the league entirely. Two years ago, the NBA responded by establishing the National Basketball Development League. It's a lesson that the college-dependent National Football League might have to learn as well. Ohio State sophomore Maurice Clarett is suing the league over a rule that players cannot enter the draft until they've been out of high school for three years. A ruling is expected in February.
In essence, experts say, basketball - and perhaps soon football - is learning that a college system ostensibly based on academics cannot fulfill all the needs of pro sports development.
European soccer clubs realized that long ago, starting their own academies for the express purpose of creating pro athletes. That's why Major League Soccer snatched up Freddy Adu so early. Indeed, for America's top soccer stars, the question is not MLS or college, it's MLS or Europe.
The overseas competition has forced MLS to become a model for how to integrate very young talent into a professional atmosphere. Top-level prospects receive a $37,500 scholarship in case they want to go back to college. They receive one of four developmental roster spots on the team, which are saved only for young players. And living arrangements are made.
That's what sold Adu. After finishing as second leading scorer in this year's Under-17 World Cup, clubs such as Inter Milan and Manchester United were already after him. But as a member of D.C. United, he could still live with his family in Washington.
"What's happening [in sports] is that these sorts of [age] restrictions are breaking down," says Ivan Gazidis, deputy commissioner of MLS. "It's not a new thing in soccer, though."