Sunday, January 21, 2018
Human Interest

Opening Lines: Behind all the noise, real deal shines through

I was sitting in my kitchen last weekend, editing Michael Kruse's cover story on a precocious sixth-grade basketball player, when it occurred to me to do a little field research down the hall.

My own middle-school-aged son was in his room, hanging out with a good friend from his lacrosse team. They were doing what they usually do when they're not eating Taco Bell and talking about the technical arcana of lacrosse stick design. They were online looking at videos.

If it fails epically, blows up virally, thumps concussively, swears nautically, they've seen it. Many times. How does a video get a million views, I've often wondered. Well, I know that a certain percentage come on an Apple laptop in a dark bedroom on Albany Avenue in Tampa.

"You guys ever heard of Julian Newman?" I asked, peering into the gloom.

At first, the name didn't mean that much.

"Basketball player?" I prompted. "Crazy dribbling skills?"

"Oh yeah," William said. "I've seen him."

As he spoke, he nodded and pursed his lips with the appraising mien of a connoisseur. This kid, he was signaling, is the real deal.

Of course, what he and the millions of other YouTube devotees had seen was a few minutes of highlights carefully selected by Julian's father. As with so much on the Internet that makes us feverish, the short video is real and also utterly contrived. I don't blame my eighth-grade son for not discerning that. I am less inclined to forgive the credulity of the national media.

Michael's story does what we do best: find some bedrock truth in a story that has teetered too long on a gassy cushion of self-promotion.

If you are looking for a real phenom to cheer, I have a suggestion.

Declan Farmer is one of the youngest members of the U.S. men's sled hockey team, which begins competition next week at the Paralympics in Sochi. Declan is a sophomore at Berkeley Prep in Tampa. He's also a top scorer on the team, and his 8 points helped the United States win silver at the world championship last year in South Korea.

In sled hockey, the players propel themselves across the ice in small sleds using shortened hockey sticks with crampons on the butt end. The speed of play, the checking (sleds collide at up to 30 mph) and the scoring are in every way similar to the game most fans know.

I had the privilege of watching Declan play almost from the beginning of his sled hockey career in 2007, when I was a volunteer for the program sponsored by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Even then, you could see that Declan, born with deformities in his lower legs, possessed a natural athleticism as he zipped around the ice at the Times Forum, shooting — and scoring — with both hands.

NBC Sports Network will feature the sled team's game against Russia on March 11 at 3 p.m. (ET). There's also a PBS documentary called Ice Warriors about this year's Paralympic team that will air Thursday on WEDU.

That's a viewing experience I can recommend without qualification.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to lob a copy of this magazine into my son's room.

Bill Duryea is enterprise editor of the Times. He can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8770.

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