March Madness is around the corner and once again most of America will ignore the blantant commercialism and exploitation of college basketball players while cheering on teams they barely know. Nevermind the depressing stats about the liklihood of said players making it to the NBA or graduating from college, will I win the office pool??? Awesomeness.
Every once in a while though, a sports writer somewhere remembers a young phenom who has now disappeared from the headlines. That’s when you get stories like this one about high school basketball star, Lenny Cooke. Cooke was a top NBA prospect back in 2001 but was generally thought to keep bad company and lacked focus. Still, his basketball skills carried him to the top of every recruiter’s list until one fateful day when a lesser known high schooler by the name of Lebron James, bested him in a training camp game. Cooke, who expected he would be picked up in the first round of the draft, barely made it onto the Celtics practice squad. He bounced around in lesser known leagues until succombing to weight gain and injuries.
I was still pondering Cooke’s downfall when I happened to also catch an Unsung episode about Temptations star, David Ruffin. For those of you who generally don’t know enough about 60/70s R &B stars to ever watch the show, Ruffin was the beautiful voice behind “My Girl.” Literally high on success, Ruffin demanded more star time and eventually was fired from the Temptations. He had only one hit as a solo artist and quickly devolved into an abusive, drug user. He died of an overdose at age 50.
There is a theme that runs through stories like Cooke and Ruffin’s beyond the sadness of their downfalls. There is a period when the desire to remain relevant, to claw the way back to the spotlight, becomes destructive. Instead of returning to their craft, falling stars seem to always turn to those who tell them they deserve to be on top and blame others for their failures. For example, look at the frighteningly quick decline of Lamar Odom’s career. Last year (last year!), he was voted the NBA Sixth Man of the Year for a team generally considered to be one of the best in history. Odom was traded late last year and is now putting up a lackluster performance on and off the court in Dallas. And I can barely speak of my former favorite Pat, Number 81, Randy Moss who went from being one of the league’s leading wide receivers to retirement well before his time. Moss was generally considered to be one of the most difficult players in the NFL.
Maybe it’s not fair for me to judge. The impulse to make Lindsay Lohan-type decisions, turning to defensiveness, drugs, entourages, and material goods, surely mollifies the pain of watching yourself become irrelevant. But the stories of fallen stars like Cooke and Ruffins are so common that you do wonder if these cautionary tales have any effect on those at the cusp of falling stardom.