By Stu Hackel
I know very little about what goes on in the NBA — as a hockey guy, some of that is by necessity and some by choice — but it’s impossible to avoid Jeremy Lin. This young basketball player has come out of nowhere to emerge as an instant worldwide breakout celebrity on the basis of two weeks’ worth of performances for the New York Knicks and his name and his image are seemingly everywhere. You can’t miss him if you try, even if you have no clue (as I did until a few days ago) about what he’s done to deserve all the attention and acclaim.
The question here is: why doesn’t something like this happen more often with hockey players? What follows isn’t meant to supply any answers as much as probe the question itself.
It’s no secret that, in the U.S., hockey lags behind the other major sports in popularity and exposure, although it is on the upswing. A breakout hockey player would hasten that process, but the sorts of things we’re witnessing with Lin can’t be manufactured, although that certainly has been tried.
The NHL tried it with Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, and not entirely successfully. Their “rivalry” was seen by some as more of a contrivance as time went on, culminating in the 2010 Winter Classic, an event in which Crosby’s career took a sharp turn for the worst. When a phenomenon like Lin’s explosion to prominence takes place, it’s really just a happy coincidence of circumstances, almost an accident that spontaneously causes someone’s fame to explode.
It’s not uncommon in our culture to witness the creation of an overnight sensation, as Lin has become. We saw Tim Tebow achieve that during the NFL season just passed. Tiger Woods’ rise to regularly mesmerize the nation, not just golf fans, for years epitomized the phenomenon (and his denouement shows how quickly wild adulation can be reversed). Going back to the early 1980s, Lost Angeles Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela suddenly found himself surrounded by Fernando-mania. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were famous rivals before they even reached the NBA. When I was a kid, the ebullient Willie Mays and slugging Mickey Mantle, both rookies during the same season, captured the public’s fancy in the 1950s. The rakish Joe Namath, catapulted to fame when he got a then-unheard of $400,000 signing bonus from the New York Jets coming out of the University of Alabama. He grew to represent more than a mere quarterback.
No one can know for sure whether Lin-santiy will continue or if he’s just a flash in the pan and his momentary brilliance will dull after a few weeks of indifferent performances. Maybe he’ll end up somewhere in between. (SI.com’s Maggie Gray hosts a discussion on that here, which is worth watching).
What is clear is that Lin is, in part, the beneficiary of the NBA coming out of the lockout and searching for a positive storyline. That’s not a new story in sports, either. It’s how home run hitting sensation Babe Ruth changed became the face of baseball in the United States and changed the game coming out of the 1919 Black Sox scandal. More recently, it’s what happened after Major League Baseball lost the end of the 1994 season to a labor dispute: The next season, Cal Ripken, Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games-played record and then the sport went home run crazy, culminating in Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa staging their chase fo Roger Maris in 1998.
As fans were looking to believe in the game again, those players were elevated to celebrity status above their sport. Of course, livelier baseballs, shortened fences, lower mounds and, most shamefully, performance enhancing drugs had a hand in that, too, and it all sort of backfired, but that’s another story — or maybe it’s the lesson we should learn about the downside of manufacturing our heroes.
Now, coming out of the 1994-95 lockout, the NHL experienced something similar with Sid and Ovie, two young, hugely talented stars who captured the hockey world’s imagination and helped erase the ill will caused by the lost season. But their immediate renown didn’t rise, as Lin’s has, beyond the confines of sport.
If Crosby has been elevated more recently to a level of fame that exceeds hockey, that’s due to his concussion problems more than his on-ice achievements — not the type of fame that anyone would want, nor the type that is beneficial to the sport’s image, although awareness of Crosby’s plight has been helped hockey take a more enlightened approach toward head injuries.
For a while, though, I thought Ovechkin would become hockey’s transcendent figure. He has all the right stuff, appealing to a broad section of fans, not just those who root for the Capitals. Like Crosby, he’s hugely talented, but his style of play can be electric. While Sid is all business in public (and that’s part of what makes him excel on the ice), Ovie is charismatic and can be really funny in front of the camera, like when he was given the Key to the City in Washington D.C. after he won the Hart Trophy in 2008, becoming the first MVP of a team in the District since Joe Theismann of the Redskins in 1983.
“Today is a big day,” he said while standing on the front steps of City Hall. “I have a key for the city. And I’m the President this day in the city, so everybody have fun — and no speed limit.”
But unlike Crosby’s Penguins, the Caps have never gotten it done in the playoffs, and championships have a lot to do with lasting public acclaim. Ovechkin also hasn’t played well during the last year and his joie de vivre has been dampened by those frustrations. His reactions to being suspended and the criticism of his perceived showboating also dimmed his star outside of Caps Nation.
And now, it appears, Ovie has been too fun-loving. In The Washington Post today, Tariq El-Bashir interviews former Capitals goalie Olie Kolzig, who is now a coach with the team. Kolzig questions Ovechkin’s work ethic, saying, “He just has to get back to being the way he was in his younger days and maybe not get wrapped up too much in the rock-star status that comes with being Alex Ovechkin.”
Like any player, Ovechkin’s first responsibility is to his team and it can be just as damaging to be concerned with the burden of becoming the game’s transcendent figure as it is to get too caught up with living a glamorous life. Hockey has had a few players in the past whose fame transcended the sport. One of them was Wayne Gretzky, whose work ethic was unquestioned and who resisted acting bigger than the game that made him famous. Another was Bobby Hull, who, as Gare Joyce revealed in his recent biography of the Blackhawks and Jets star, had great difficulty recognizing the boundaries of what fame could and couldn’t bring him and he suffered as a consequence.
Olie the Goalie has it right. For Ovechkin, or any hockey player who finds himself in the same happy predicament as Jeremy Lin, enveloped by a massive dose of the public’s love and attention, the challenge is to never forget what they did to earn that love in the first place.
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