In the last decade or so, a new brand of athletic virtuoso has emerged: the foreigner genius.The globalization of sports has brought foreign superstars into two of America’s biggest leagues, Major League Baseball and the NBA. They’ve improved the quality of the sports, raised the leagues’ profiles overseas, and made announcers’ jobs twice as hard.
But they’ve also introduced a new form of hype to the sports hyposphere.
This hype is fundamentally different than the hype American phenoms experience. It’s not just that foreign phenoms can be great. It’s that they posses an ability that no one has ever had. They are said to be able to do things that no one has ever done.
Here’s two quotes from old Sports Illustrated profiles to illustrate this point:
(1) In a cover story shortly after Ichiro came to America in 2001, the Mariner’s first base coach at the time said of the Japanese star, “It’s almost as if he has a tennis racket in his hands. I’m gonna lob this one—and it’s a blooper over the shortstop’s head. I’m gonna ace this one—and it’s a liner down the rightfield line. He’s toying with guys, and there’s nothing they can do about it.”
(2) In a 2007 SI piece debunking the myth of Daisuke Matsuzaka’s rumoured gyroball, Tom Verducci wrote, “Here’s the truth: Matsuzaka’s change is so wicked, so unlike most every changeup anyone has seen, that people don’t know what to make of it.”
The way Verducci writes about Daisuke’s changeup is a perfect of example of how we mythologize the foreigner genius.
Verducci asks us to imagine an unimaginable pitch. He suggests that our assumptions about the possibilities of a changeup are false.
Ultimately, this is the promise of the foreigner genius: he can redefine what is possible.
Our assumptions about the limits of possibility in sports inform the way we react to on-field performance. We shrug when a player does something ordinary. We gasp when a player’s mastery of a sport verges on impossible.
But what if that mastery is only partial? What if there is a whole realm of unknown skills and abilities that American athletes have yet to touch?
Often, foreign phenoms represent the possibility that there might be more to a sport than there seems.
Whether its Daisuke’s magic changeup, Ichiro’s bat control, or Darko’s ability to dominate at five positions, foreigners are consistently rumoured to posses skills we’ve never seen before.
And then we see them play.
And it becomes clear that what we thought was impossible before is still impossible.
American phenoms are never expected to push the limits of possibility. They are hyped as “the next Jordan,” but they aren’t hyped as having an impossible ability.
The same should be true for foreign players. Yet we want so badly for there to be a new form of genius that we disregard what we know about sports. We suspend disbelief, imagining new forms of the games we love.
Yesterday Spanish phenom Ricky Rubio held a press conference in Minnesota.
From everything I’ve heard, he’s a promising guard who needs to improve his defence and his jumper to be great. Maybe he can be a slightly worse version of Rajon Rondo. Maybe he’ll be a bust. Or maybe he’ll be a superstar.
But he won’t be like nothing we’ve ever seen. And that’s OK.
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