But then came the Age of LeBron; of entourages, Hummers and bling.
Surely you remember all those articles and news segments decrying the commercialization of high school sports (never mind the fact that many high schools have A.D.s and shoe contracts)? Surely you recall how LeBron was the poster boy for excess, over-hype and glorification?
Well, now LeBron is a potential NBA MVP. Such is the nature of hype: it's can be right, even when it's wrong.
Right now, Greg Oden is the focus of the hype. If you don't know who Oden is by now, here's a quick study.
He's the best player in the country. He's a can't-miss pro. He's a once-in-a-lifetime talent. He's Tim Duncan. He's David Robinson. He's the big man's answer to LeBron.
Or maybe he isn't.
Maybe he's 16, a high school junior, a big kid with big hands and a lot of people watching him. Don't forget, here's a kid who insists he wants to go to college, that he needs to go to college. And every time he says it, it's laughed off as a joke, as the naive ramblings of a kid who doesn't know what's coming. Maybe so. After all, this is the kid who has been hailed as the best high school player in America, regardless of class. He's 7-foot-one, an athletic freak. So, he'd be stupid not to go pro, right?
Judging by his first national television appearance on Thursday night on ESPN2, opposite another top prospect, senior forward Tyler Hansbrough, two things are definitely clear. First, Oden has a ways to go to live up to his advance billing. Second, the hype's not going anywhere anytime soon.
The matchup was, ostensibly, Poplar Bluff High School from tiny Poplar Bluff, Missouri, taking on Indianapolis-area power Lawrence North High. But there were plenty of games this year that didn't get on national TV. So, we'll simplify it and just call it Tyler Hansbrough against Greg Oden and leave it at that.
In the first half, folks tuning in to catch the next big thing saw a 16-year-old kid battling stage fright. Oden looked tentative and displayed no aggressiveness (though he was triple-teamed) and was lapped by Hansbrough. Despite possessing all the physical traits needed to dominate any high school game, Oden was nowhere to be found, like the homecoming king suddenly turned wallflower at the prom.
Hansbrough, meanwhile, found his groove doing what he does best -- running the floor, muscling up down low and keeping his head up. Despite being noticeably limited athletically (at least in comparison to the other top 10 talents he routinely plays against), Hansbrough more than holds his own by simply outplaying superior athletes. He boxed out well, displayed a willingness to spin to the hoop with either hand and dunk with authority. Oden, meanwhile, had his chin to his chest and loped around the floor, seemingly winded and disengaged. At the end of the first half, Hansbrough had 10 points and almost double-digit rebounds. The next Duncan? He had 2 points and a single, solitary rebound.
So it's that easy? The hype is just hot air? The kid's a bust, right?
In the second half, Oden erupted. The big man dropped in 14 of his 16 points after the break, most of them on dunks and power moves close to the hoop. The timid kid suddenly grew fangs, blocking shots or altering them, leaping a good half-foot over the rim to snag rebounds and showing a fire in his gut as he screamed after a made basket. And his team responded, closing out the smaller and Oden-less Poplar Bluff squad and winning going away.
Hansbrough seemed to wilt as the only scoring threat for his team. Luckily, he'll rarely have that problem as a North Carolina Tarheel next fall. But while taking a few stiff hook shots and scoring on a nifty inside play, Hansbrough was methodical at best, appearing simply the best player among a crop of less-talented high schoolers.
Oden, on the other hand, looked like a pro. A young, raw, fragile pro, but a pro nonetheless. Whether it was his athleticism, his already pro-sized body, his ability to dominate the paint or just that feeling you get when you watch a man among boys, it's hard to say.
But maybe that's what hype is all about. Maybe that's what the hype is for, to help folks sift the wheat from the chaff, the real gold from the pretty rocks.
Maybe it's how you tell the nice college player from the future lottery millionaire?