Discover more from The Sports Column
IS WEMBANYAMA MANIA JUSTIFIED? SAY ‘SACRE BLEU’ AT YOUR OWN PERIL
Hype suggests the French phenom will make more impact than Antetokounmpo, Durant and Curry — combined — but before doubt settles in, consider his skill, maturity and the NBA success of fellow Euros
Hype may be the frenemy of hope, but it’s also the soulmate of fun. Even the bouncy pronunciation of Victor Wembanyama’s name brings merriment — Wem-ban-yama is much easier to say than Antetokounmpo, though Isiah Thomas was among those botching it — while tapping into our stirring fascination with Next Big Things in sports.
Baseball brought us Shohei Ohtani. Football brought us Patrick Mahomes. Golf once brought us Eldrick Woods. As sure as time marches on, say hello — bonjour — to the latest generational unicorn. Wait, Wembanyama already has made that term obsolete, as a one-time unicorn points out. “He’s more like an alien,” LeBron James said. “No one has seen anyone as tall as he is but fluid and graceful as he is on the floor.”
Disruptor? Transformer? World takeover beast? Is any description enough? ESPN is calling him the “greatest prospect in the history of team sports.” Should Jesus Christ be nervous?
Of course, unless one has a crystal ball that thrashes through this raging Wembymania like a machete, we have no idea about the ultimate career arc of the Parisian phenom. Is he an alien, a media creation or a little of both? Maybe we should check for spaceships considering he was listed at 7-2 last year, 7-3 last month, 7-4 last week and 7-5 on Tuesday night, when San Antonio — hope he’s ready for Gregg Popovich’s wrath — became the home base of the NBA’s most ballyhooed prospect since James. By October, he might be taller than the basket, keeping in mind his great-great-grandfather was a 7-footer in the Congo. For certain, he has a wingspan of eight feet, and his repertoire is said to be more advanced and versatile than any 19-year-old who has touched a round leather ball. He blows up traditional positions, numbers and strategies. He can play anywhere and do anything on a court. He controls the rim. He dominates the paint. He rules the perimeter. He throws down dunks. He bangs 28-footers. On defense, he’s an octopus, all arms and limbs.
If that isn’t enough, he loves to draw sketches, read novels and listen to classical music, which sets him apart culturally from, say, Ja Morant. Forget basketball. Forget sports. Once he spends time in America, might he change the way we view athletes, and the way athletes choose to present themselves?
On the court, he is likened in style and body to Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The giddiest projections have him becoming better than all three, with sprinkles of Stephen Curry. “He’s like a 2K create-a-player, every point guard who wants to be 7-foot,” said Curry, dropping gamer jargon for the kids who will love him. “Cheat code-type vibes. It’s great to watch.”
“He’s going to be one of the best to play this game,” said Antetokounmpo, whose words sound underwhelming in the global sound-chamber fury to offer the loudest praise.
Only ping-pong balls can stop him, it seems, with the Spurs losing just enough to win the lottery, despite the exhortations of Houston owner Tilman Fertitta for fans to “Pray for Victor.” Wembanyama belongs in a major market, so a presumed astronomical legacy arc can be consumed and appreciated by the most millions. I’m sure Disney Company agrees, as it prepares the Wemby movie to help its streaming business, not to mention a wheezing ESPN. Silver, too, knows his arrival comes with perfect timing, as he tries to triple rights fees in the next round of broadcast negotiations. For now, Wemby is to the Alamo what Antetokounmpo is to Milwaukee, the league’s way of maintaining some semblance of competitive balance while keeping fans interested in flyover cities. That is, until he makes his way to Los Angeles in a few years, like James. Or, in commissioner Adam Silver’s wildest dreams, he forces the NBA to start a franchise in Paris, whereupon Nikola Jokic will want one in Serbia, Luka Doncic in Slovenia, Joel Embiid in Africa and Giannis in Greece. For a night, the Euro-icons and American stars took a back seat during the draft lottery to Wemby, unless someone has a better nickname.
The French Kiss, anyone?
“I can’t really describe it. My heart is beating,” Wembanyama said as 3 a.m. approached in his native land, where he earlier finished his regular season with Boulogne-Levallois, scoring 22 points in a victory observed by national football hero Kylian Mbappe. “I’m a team player, and I’m going to try to win as many games as I can.”
Then came the hammer for a future documentary. “I’m trying to win a ring ASAP,” he said. “So be ready.”
That’s not happening anytime soon in San Antonio, where the Spurs have been stripped down for years. But there is no better immediate mentor for him than Popovich, who pointed Tim Duncan to the Hall of Fame and will emphasize the need to strengthen his slender frame and size 20.5 feet and stay healthy for the NBA long haul. Recently, Pop growled, “I’m alive. I have ears and I can see TV and there’s a lottery. Yes, I’ve thought about it. Duh. Did you think I didn’t, that I live in a phone booth?” Now he has a very big reason to delay retirement at age 74.
Our first instinct in America, having watched monstrously hyped prodigies fall short of expectations, is to wait and see and stop hyperventilating. Wait until LeBron bull-rushes him. What until Curry shoots, shakes and shimmies. Wait until Draymond Green stomps on his chest. Wait until Jayson Tatum steps back and buries another three. Wait until Jimmy Butler glares. Wait until Morant flashes a handgun. There will be attempts to intimidate him, remind him of the massive pressure and otherworldly expectations. Imagine knowing, at 19, that people will be disappointed if you aren’t the Greatest Player Ever.
But a wave of celebrated Euros before him, from Dirk Nowitzki to the current onslaught of NBA MVPs and title-caliber studs, haven’t wilted under enormous challenges. In Las Vegas last October, as he introduced himself to the world with a powerhouse performance in an exhibition series, Wembanyama seemed unfazed by burdens.
“I feel like I deserve it so I’m not going to be surprised by all this attention,” Wembanyama told reporters. “If I was amazed by all this, that would mean I’m satisfied with it. I’m not. I want to get better every day. The state I’m at right now is not enough.
“It’s just something that’s inside of me that’s always been there. It could be basketball or just a card game. Under pressure, I’ve been twice as good.”
That’s encouraging. Because he’ll have to be appreciably better than the rest. Before the world knew about cheat codes, or just didn’t explore them deeply enough, James was a rookie in the league. The first time he played in Chicago, I waited in the United Center bowels for Michael Jordan to come down from his suite. I asked for his assessment.
“What do you think?” he said, adding nothing, already missing the game after retiring for the third and final time.
Twenty years later, as James bids for an 11th Finals at 38, what we know is that no one’s basketball prime has extended longer than his and that no one has scored more points in the league. He is not quite Jordan, who converted all six of his championship opportunities with ruthless ease and transformed the way competitions are waged, blood is extracted, dunks are executed, images are marketed, sneakers are sold, tongues are wagged and shrugs are shrugged. LeBron somehow has exceeded the hype, symbolized by his Sports Illustrated anointment as “The Chosen One.”
But Wembanyama enters a world where the fanfare, driven by social media and a sports industry soon to be worth $1 trillion, is beyond suffocating. It’s fair to say no athlete of his age ever has carried heavier weight into a career. Consider how a week doesn’t pass without the firing of an accomplished NBA coach. Young Victor will face the same daily grind. “I think the nature of the world we live in today is behind it, the power of social media, the value of these franchises,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who still has his job thanks to four titles with Golden State. “I would say 30 years ago, most of the owners were people who had bought their teams at a really relatively low price and were probably more likely to be content with having someone go ahead and operate the franchise, and they weren't taking hits themselves from the media about their job or their performances as owners. You think about how everything has changed. Suddenly these franchises are worth billions and billions of dollars and social media is crushing every player, every coach, every day. There's so much pressure on every franchise to win, and it is hard. It is so hard to be the only team standing at the end of the day.”
Welcome to the association, Wemby. The questions will linger about how he’ll handle life in America, but to hear those close to him, he’s even more developed emotionally than he is athletically. They say you can’t reach him at night — not because he’s on Twitter or Instagram Live or hanging with a posse, but because he’s buried in a book or drawing something new. “An incredible young man,” said Silver, in the same interview where he slammed Morant and suggested severe consequences for his latest handgun post. “I don’t want to put any more pressure on him, but he appears to be a generational talent. A lot of players have entered the league as generational talents. Some have met the expectations, some have not, and I have no reason to believe he won’t.”
The acclaimed actor, Michael Douglas, has taken an interest in him while filming an Apple biopic about Benjamin Franklin in France. Douglas told the Associated Press that he’s more impressed by Wembanyama’s character than even his basketball skills. “I found Victor highly intelligent, he speaks English well, taught himself by English-speaking television shows,” he said. “He has a close-knit family and is very tight with his management team. He seems to have an inquisitive mind, interested in many things off the court.”
What advice does he dispense? “The pressure of being No. 1 is a high-quality problem,” Douglas said. “Don’t let it overwhelm the joy of the moment. Victor is an impressive all-around young man.”
Impressive applies until he makes his NBA debut this fall. That’s when we’ll expect Wembymania to ascend into the spectacular, an English derivative of the French spectaculaire. Anyone in this country who shouts “sacre bleu” will do so at his own peril.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.