You may not have heard, but LeBron James recently signed with a new team. (Really!)
Expectations for that franchise increased a little, in the sense they went to “NBA Finals at least!” from “Wait, Cleveland still has a basketball team?” overnight.
In honor of King James’ latest coronation—and the new NBA season, tipping off this week—here’s a look at the arrival of other chosen ones, some more successful than others.
Ken Griffey Jr.
Situation: Universally beloved for his complete game and picture-perfect swing, The Kid strived to push his life into total fairytale territory when he joined the team where his father won two World Series: the Cincinnati Reds.
Salvation? It seems Cincinnati is where dreams go to die. After a first season when he managed his usual routine of 100 runs, 100 RBI, and 40 home runs, injuries hit Junior and he struggled just to get on the field, while the Reds struggled in general, failing to make the postseason even once during his time with the team. Griffey ultimately retired back with the Seattle Mariners, in a final season most notable for him having to deny sleeping through a call to pinch-hit.
Situation: Coming off a 32-50 season, the Celtics drafted the Hick from French Lick in 1978. Larry elected to stay in college for another year during which his team went 33-1 while the Celtics dropped to 29-53, their worst season since the arrival of Red Auerbach in 1950. So when Indiana State’s finest arrived in Beantown, all people asked was that Larry restore the Celtic dynasty immediately.
Salvation? In a season that also saw the arrival of Magic Johnson (who misses this list only because he joined a playoff team that already featured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his prime), Larry Legend won Rookie of the Year as the Celtics surged to 61 wins. Incredibly, the Celtics added two more future Hall of Fame front courters the next year, claiming their first of three titles in the 1980s.
Situation: No athlete in America has ever faced similar expectations, in the sense he was expected to carry his entire sport. The three-time World Cup winner left Brazil’s Santos, his only professional team, and took his talents to the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League, in the process causing the U.S.A. to proclaim as one: “Why can’t you use your hands again?”
Salvation? Pelé quickly took soccer to an unimaginable level of popularity in the U.S.—suddenly 40,000-plus people regularly attended games, when it had previously been, oh, let’s say 50—but struggled with the actual winning his first two seasons. Happily, the Cosmos were able to add a second living legend, Germany’s Franz “The Kaiser” Beckenbauer, and at last won a title in Pelé’s final season.
Situation: Check that, there was another athlete facing Pelé pressure. Wayne Gretzky was not only the greatest hockey player ever to live, but he ended the argument so quickly: By the age of 27 he had won four Stanley Cups, seven scoring titles and eight MVPs with the Edmonton Oilers. Then he went to the Los Angeles Kings, causing such heartbreak a member of parliament tried to get the Canadian government to block the move down south.
Salvation? Much like Pelé, Gretzky took his sport to a new level of American popularity. Unlike Pelé, he never got his Beckenbauer and could only lead LA to a single Stanley Cup Final while producing numbers that never quite matched his time with the Oilers. (They were still Hall of Fame level, but when you’re The Great One, mere relentless excellence doesn’t cut it.)
Situation: Hailed as the return of Wayne Gretzky (only bigger and stronger!), Lindros was given the nickname The Next One. Finding this to be an insufficient amount of pressure, 1991’s No. 1 overall pick immediately forced a trade from the Quebec Nordiques to the Philadelphia Flyers.
Salvation: Lindros had what can only be described as the most disappointing career ever by a guy who lasted 13 seasons, made seven All-Star teams, was named MVP and won a gold medal. Plagued by concussions and other injuries, he fell out with the Flyers and played for the Rangers, Maple Leafs and finally Dallas Stars. While Lindros never played on a Stanley Cup winner, he helped create one: the haul the soon-to-be Colorado Avalanche received for their top pick was key to their mid-90s title run.
Situation: Coach Jimmy Johnson and GM/owner Jerry Jones forced out Hall of Famers Tom Landry and Tex Schramm, then ran the Dallas Cowboys together for five years…winning Super Bowls the last two. Having had so much success together, there was only one logical course of action: get in a pissing match for no reason and destroy the partnership. Suddenly Jimmy was available for hire, in a sport where due to the sheer number of players and substitutions, a coach often proves more essential than any mere athlete.
Salvation? Jones has long struggled to emerge from Johnson’s shadow, which must irritate him all the more considering what Jimmy did on his own. Having replaced the legendary Landry with the Cowboys, Johnson took over for the equally iconic Don Shula as coach of the Miami Dolphins. Left to his own devices and with complete control at last, he transformed them into… er, a slightly worse team than they were. He ended his career with a 62-7 playoff defeat, the second most humiliating moment of his life, after signing that ExtenZe “male enhancement” endorsement deal.
Situation: Having led the New York Giants to two Super Bowl titles and acquired a reputation as being the only man bad-ass enough to get away with teasing Lawrence Taylor, the Big Tuna guaranteed that for the rest of his career he would draw as much attention as any player, whether he was coaching the Patriots, the Jets or the Cowboys.
Salvation? While none of his reigns could be termed a failure, returns diminished with each stop, from Super Bowl appearance to winning a playoff game to at least we made the playoffs. More frustratingly, he watched former assistant Bill Belichick reach five Super Bowls (and win three) without him… while the Slightly Shrunken Tuna failed to even make a conference championship game on his own.
Situation: He was the #1 pick as a senior out of Wake Forest in 1997. He most likely would have been the top pick after his sophomore and junior seasons as well. So when Timmy joined a San Antonio Spurs team also regaining All-Star David Robinson after the Admiral spent a season mostly on the bench with a broken foot, fans thought maybe they just might improve a bit.
Salvation? His first year, the Spurs improved by 34 games. His second, they won a title. They also won a title in his 17th season, giving him a total of five championships, six Finals appearances, 11 division titles and zero seasons out of the playoffs… all while somehow getting less press coverage over nearly two decades than Kobe Bryant picks up in a typical weekend.
Situation: He joined a team that went 2-14, succeeding the statistical aberration that is Peyton Manning. Oh, and there was violent debate over whether the team should have drafted Robert Griffin III instead, who had just beaten Luck out for the Heisman.
Salvation? How much impact can a rookie have on a football team? Turns out a lot. The Colts went 11-5 each of his first two seasons (winning the AFC South and a playoff game in 2013) and continue to win in his third despite having a defense that in any given week might give up 51 points to Ben Roethlisberger. Meanwhile, RGIII has battled injuries and seen that unnamable team in Washington turn into even more of a joke than usual. (Nicely done again, South Park.)
Situation: He was a four-time All-Star, MVP runner-up and one of the Killer B’s alongside Barry Bonds on the Pittsburgh Pirates. So the sky seemed the limit when Bobby Bo went to a proper big market team, signing a then-record five-year, $29-million contract with the New York Mets in 1991.
Salvation? Bonilla ultimately had two stints with the team over five seasons, making the postseason once while never matching his Pirate days performance levels. (During that lone playoff appearance, he famously played cards with Rickey Henderson as the Mets were eliminated from the NLCS.) That said, he’ll be a Met forever—or at least the next 21 years. The Mets elected to restructure his contract so it pays him more than $1.1 million every year through 2035… ensuring him a lasting place in fans’ wallets, if not their hearts.