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Freddy Adu is probably the only soccer player most of you know anything about. He's 15 years old, 5-8, maybe 150 pounds. He has a smile that is best described as beatific. He makes TV commercials with Pele, has a shoe deal with Nike rumored to be worth $1 million and possesses a preternatural ability to do things with a soccer ball that many grown men will never be able to do.
I met Freddy about a year ago, just after he'd signed with Major League Soccer, but before he was profiled on "60 Minutes." Freddy and his mom were in New York for a Vanity Fair photo shoot, where he went completely unrecognized by everyone there except for the two guys handling the catering. Then two months ago I hung with Freddy in San Jose, where I ended up having to give him a ride from the hotel to the stadium in my compact rental car. Because sometimes even the rich and famous need a lift.
Last week, I caught up with Freddy in New York City to test-drive the new soccer game FIFA 2005. Freddy was parked on his hotel room couch, where he'd just finished playing a match, losing to a publicist from EA Sports on penalty kicks. "She made the game!" Freddy complained, too young to delineate the vocational differences in game programming and public relations.
For our matchup, Freddy went with DC United, and I selected my favorite team, the MetroStars. Right away, Freddy controlled his cyber-self on a run through midfield, bobbing and weaving through virtual defenders, all the while yelling, "Sickness! Sickness!" I waited until he was just outside the box and slid Eddie Pope into him. The ball popped into the box, where Metros defender Chris Leitch controlled it and booted it out of bounds, smoothly pausing the United charge. "Good clearance," Freddy whispered, as though he suddenly realized what he was up against. "I got too excited."
Minutes later I built an attack, eventually lofting a ball on goal that John Wolyniec gathered. But, of course, being John Wolyniec, he wasn't able to get a shot off before being tackled without a call. Freddy countered and got the ball to United forward Jaime Moreno, who cracked one on goal that Metros goalie Jonny Walker dove to tip away.
"Jonny Walker blank!" I screamed, feeling oddly like Shep Messing. Seconds later, I realized it probably wasn't good to make liquor references in front of a 15-year-old. But Freddy has that effect on people. You hang around with him and he seems like he's 25, not 15. He's funny; he's poised and seems intelligent. (He graduated from an accelerated high school at 14.) When I bumped into him at the front desk of the Sheraton San Jose a few months back, he was wearing glasses and checking his messages with the receptionist, and he appeared for the all the world to be another young Silicon Valley professional, in town on business.
Just before halftime there was a knock at Freddy's hotel room door. I reflexively turned my head to the right and suddenly, from my left, I heard Freddy screaming, "Gooooaaaallll!!!!!!!! That was sickness! Sickness!"
Adu, 1; Whitaker, 0.
The second half kicked off and immediately, DC midfielder Dema Kovalenko crushed Eddie Gaven on a run, marking Kovalenko's fourth foul of the game.
"Come on!" I exploded at the PlayStation 2. "Can you give him a card? What is this, rugby?"
Freddy shrunk back a little bit. "Come on, leave Dema alone, all right?" he said quietly. And I realized that I hadn't just insulted a video game character, I'd insulted Freddy's teammate and possible friend.
I've played video games against dozens of athletes. Drew Gooden may be the world's best at EA's NCAA Football game. Marcus Camby crushed me at Madden. Carmelo Anthony barely beat me in NCAA Basketball (though he was playing as Syracuse and knew the actual plays). I did, however, drill Jason Kidd in NBA Live, even though he had the Nets and I had the Hawks. I generally try to outstrategize the pros, and they usually just flat outperform me.
On this day, Freddy was doing both. He probably stole 10 passes I tried to make. When I'd set him up by feigning one direction, he was still thinking two or three moves ahead. Even though he hadn't actually played the game until earlier that day, he maneuvered like he'd played it for weeks. Which is probably because like any kid, Freddy's a gamer. "I play a lot of Tiger Woods Golf, probably four times a week when I get back from practice. I mean, all my friends are in school, so I get a little bored."
Finally, in the 91st minute, Mike Magee stole a pass and streaked down the field and into the clear. Just after I crossed into the box, I cracked a shot that eluded United's keeper and as it bounded toward the corner of the net, I raised my right hand in triumph.
The ball ricocheted off the right post and just sat there, loose in the box. Game announcer John Motson bleated in his British accent, "Oh, and he's hit the post!" A goalmouth scramble ensued. Freddy and I both jumped to our feet and leaned forward toward the television screen. I had Wolyniec make a dive for it, but Earnie Stewart slid in and booted it out to midfield, just as the three whistle blasts sounded, signaling the end of the game.
We collapsed back into the couch. For a split-second there, we were both 15 years old.
That was sickness.
Something I Learned This Week In An NBA Locker Room
According to Knicks guard Moochie Norris, he wears his socks up to his knees because when he was a kid in Washington, D.C., he once had to go from a baseball game to a basketball game and didn't have time to change. Soon after, many basketball players in the D.C. area started wearing their socks in a similar fashion. "I'm not going to say I was the first one to get it out there," Moochie says, "that I was the first one to get it crunk like that, but ... hey ..."
Game Of The Week
This week we return to the simplistic. Touch the black squares, let the red squares go. Easy right? Now you try it.
Self-Promotion Of The Week
You know how Terrell Owens is always wearing those hats with his homepage address on them? Ignore your instinct and check out his site, if for no other reason than to see the video clips of TO bungee jumping in Vegas. Pretty impressive site, actually. My favorite minutiae: His middle name is "Eldorado."
Punk'd Of The Week
Yes, he's a handsome man and was once a cast member on The Facts of Life, so there's ample reason to hate George Clooney. But I'll give him this: He knows how to get even.
Vigilante Of The Week
Jerry Colangelo recently sold the Phoenix Suns and resigned as president of the Arizona Diamondbacks, so to relax he took his wife on a trip to Paris. The relaxation ended when a purse-snatcher jacked his wife, and the 64-year-old Colangelo attacked the purse-snatcher, and pepper spray got involved. We'll say it now -- Jerry Colangelo is gangsta.
O'Shea Jackson Of The Week
Speaking of gangsta, I had way too much fun with this site. Here you can find the "government names" of hundreds of famous rappers and R&B artists. For instance, Bo Diddley's real name is Otha Elias Bates McDaniel. Xzhibit's real name? Alvin Joyner. (Like the hurdler?) Which singer's first name is actually "Nelust?" Look for yourself.
The Week Ahead
Halloween -- OK, I know it's two weeks from now, but I got invited to a Halloween party. As a general rule, I refuse to wear a costume, and the party's host actually gave me a special ruling that I didn't have to wear a costume. But wifey is demanding it. She's already shot down my suggestions of "journalist" and then "NBA Trainer." So I need your help. Send me some suggestions and I'll sort through them here next week.
The Dirty Birds -- The Falcons weren't exactly steady yesterday, but Michael Vick finally had a good second half and the Birds were steady even without Rod Coleman. Next week should be a good one, at Kansas City. Of course, it's not on TV in the New York area. Thanks, NFL!
Lang Whitaker is the online editor at SLAM magazine and writes daily at SLAMonline.com. He's trying to learn how to balance a soccer ball on the back of his neck.