More thoughts on the Coolest Athlete thread on Twitter.

This isn’t an original observation – I even think I’ve written about it before – but something else struck me about how we view athletes while reading through the Coolest Kansas City Athletes meme on Twitter over the weekend: athletes are a lot cooler when we’re kids.

The reasons are pretty obvious. We don’t see the flaws as clearly when we’re little. We don’t hear the rumors about how players act off the court/field. We don’t see selfishness and instead see superior talent. We have less technical understanding of sports so we see their raw physical accomplishments outside the realm of what is proper and what is not.

I thought of two clear examples from my own fandom that show how our perception of athletes changes as we grow: Darnell Valentine and Jacque Vaughn.

We moved to Kansas City when I was nine. At the time Darnell Valentine was about to begin his senior year at KU. All I knew about him was that he was KU’s best player, so he immediately became my favorite. His number, 14, became my favorite number (still is). I wanted to be 6’2″ when I grew up, like him. (I should have wished for 6’6″!) When I listened to games on the radio (this was back in the day when it was rare that games were on TV before March), I paid closest attention to what he did. When I heard that he earned Academic All-American status for the third-straight year, I decided next to George Brett, there was no better example for a young boy to follow than Darnell.

Fast forward 15 or so years. By then, I had discovered the Internet and discussion groups and had latched onto a group of likeminded KU fans. At some point, we were listing our all time favorite Jayhawks. I put together my list, which included Darnell. I expected that to elicit all kinds of cool stories about him from people who were in school at the same time he was.

Instead I got a bunch of “Mehs”.1

I didn’t understand it. He was clearly the best player in the program between the early 70s and Danny Manning’s arrival. He was an All-Conference and All-American player. He hit the books. He was a first round draft pick. What wasn’t to like?

I asked a few of the older fans and the responses were similar: Darnell was a good enough player, but he was supposed to carry KU back to the Final Four. He never got the Jayhawks past the Sweet 16 and could only win one conference championship, when he was a freshman. Many mentioned his failure late in the Battle of New Orleans, when he missed the front end of a one-and-one and then blew an open layup as KU let a late lead slip away against Wichita State in the 1981 Sweet 16. 2 He was good, but he didn’t deserve a spot as one of the greatest players in the program’s history, according to them.

Idiots, I thought.

Then Jacque Vaughn came along. He entered KU with a similar amount of hype that Darnell did. He was also an outstanding student who, for four years, was used an example of all that was right with college sports. And he, too, had an awful end to his KU career, playing like garbage for 39 minutes against Arizona then passing the ball rather than taking the shot that would have tied it up after a furious comeback.

All the good feelings I had for Jacque went away in an instant. That night, in the bars of Sacramento, fellow KU fans and I cursed Vaughn. We erased all the good things he had done over four years and replaced them with his two big failures: never getting KU to a Final Four and choking in the biggest game of his career. Suddenly, what those alums from the 70s said about Darnell made sense.

When I was young, I could follow Darnell and revel in his accomplishments without seeing the flaws. I didn’t know about the promise he arrived with, the expectations that fans hoisted upon him. I just knew that he was my favorite player on my favorite team, and for that he earned my adulation.

By the time Jacque came along, I was older, wiser, and getting more jaded. Still, I believed the hype he carried with him. I bought into the myths surrounding him that the program pushed to the public. Even when I saw flaws in his game, I could look past them.

But, for the first time in my life as a fan, I was seeing those flaws. The Arizona game was a tipping point in how I viewed players. No longer was I blindly loyal. I began to view games more like a coach, always finding something to pick apart even in an otherwise excellent performance. “Sure, that guy scored 20 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, but he missed that block out that nearly cost us the game.” 3

I think that’s a change we all go through, to one extent or another, as we get older. It’s especially rough in the age of hyper-information. Back in the day, athletes could cover up all but their worst misdeeds. Now, even the smallest transgression gets broadcast across a slew of information outlets. Our cynicism and the scars we’ve developed over the years make it hard enough to be a fan, but the onslaught of data makes it even harder.

We all know people who are still blindly loyal as they grow older. They can be annoying, especially when they constantly defend a point guard who turns the ball over every other possession or a receiver who will always drop a pass in a key situation. But there are times when I wish I still had that innocence I had when I was younger. The belief that my teams and players were unconditionally good and their opponents were unconditionally bad. It was a lot easier to watch games when I could view the world through that kind of lens.

  1. Well, not Mehs. That term wasn’t in en vogue yet. So whatever the mid-90s equivalent was. 
  2. Worth noting, I cried shortly after Darnell blew the layup and Mike Jones drilled his second-straight long jumper to win the game for the Shockers. 
  3. See: Darrell Arthur, 2008 National Championship game.