The Prodigy Trap: LeBron James Jr. and the Weight of Expectation

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Thirty million views.

That’s how many people have watched a three-minute YouTube video from 2008 titled “Amazing 11 year old athlete.”

The star of the video, a kid from Seattle named Jashaun Agosto, shot himself into the viral spotlight after his brief segment with a local news network made its way onto the internet. The piece shows Agosto performing complicated ball-handling drills and draining 3-pointers with ease.

It even mentions that he could run a mile in only four minutes and 50 seconds — the fastest time ever recorded for an 11-year-old. Doctors believed that his speed could be explained by a genetic gift: His lungs could take in more oxygen than those of the average person.

It was as if he were created for the sole purpose of playing sports at an elite level.

Agosto was an overnight sensation. He appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” not long after, during which Ellen introduced him as a “basketball prodigy” and he delighted the live audience with his intricate dribbling and flawless shooting. He was considered to be the best fourth-grader in the nation and played pickup with future NBA stars Jamal Crawford and Isaiah Thomas. The NBA seemed to be just around the corner for Agosto.

This past summer, he went undrafted.

Stories of “wonder kids” who fizzled out once they reached adulthood are too common to even count at this point, but neither the media nor consumers seem to have lost their appetites for supposed boy wonders.

The latest example of such is the fascination with 14-year-old LeBron “Bronny” James Jr.

To be fair, this isn’t entirely surprising given his namesake, but it, too, stinks of the same kind of mindless gawking and unsettling appraisals that typically accompany this strangely stubborn cottage industry.

James Jr.’s mixtapes have garnered tens of millions of views while Las Vegas has set betting odds on where Bronny will play college ball. Fans have already started speculating about the possibility of the father and son playing together on the Lakers and if they could even win a championship together in the near future. USA Today ran a piece on what he and his little brother wore to their first day of school.

I wish I was making this up.

It’s understandable that people are curious to see what the son of LeBron James can do on a basketball court. It’s fun to imagine a father-son duo taking the league by storm. I get it. I’m sure a large chunk of the viewership that watches his YouTube clips are kids themselves.

Yet there’s a fine line between harmless fascination and toxic speculation, and it seems like we’re already approaching the latter.

Social media is full of people critiquing his jump shot and discussing whether he’s really worth all the hype. It’s only a matter of time before he becomes a topic of conversation on mainstream platforms such as Sports Illustrated, ESPN and Bleacher Report. The New Yorker is a step ahead, with a story already written about him.

Lost in all of this is the fact that he’s still just a kid. Kids play basketball because it’s a fun thing to do with friends and it makes their parents proud, not because of abstract notions like saving the Lakers or carrying on their father’s legacy.

Let’s stop projecting histrionics onto a high school freshman who may not like basketball all that much a few years from now, let alone pan out to become the superstar people are desperate to see him evolve into.

For every Peyton Manning or Ken Griffey Jr. who was able to live up to and even surpass their professional athlete fathers’ legacies, there’s a Jeffrey or Marcus Jordan to remind us that even the offspring of the greatest can fail to achieve success in their parents’ field.

The sad thing is that even if LeBron James Jr. fails to live up to the expectations, there will be some other “prodigy” ready to take his place.

Rory O’Toole writes the Thursday column on the transformation of athletes and sports media into the cultural conversation. Contact him at [email protected].