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The Vanishing Three-Sport Star

Bucking a powerful trend toward specialization, two athletes in Louisville are excelling in multiple sports--and savoring the challenge

It's a bit disorienting to hear an 18-year-old speak of his youth as if it were in the misty past, but that's how Michael Bush, a 6'3", 225-pound senior at Male High in Louisville, sounds when he talks of his baseball career. Game balls from Little League and Babe Ruth League sit randomly on top of his bedroom dresser, mushrooms in a forest of football and basketball trophies. Every now and then Michael picks up one of the balls and, fixing his outsized fingers on the seams, wonders if he can still bring it the way he did between the ages of eight and 14, when umpires would stop games because parents complained he was throwing too hard.

Though he says he likes pitching more than any other act in sports, Michael hasn't thrown an inning in high school. He has been too busy with football, then basketball, then spring football, then the summer basketball circuit that includes the Nike camp and sundry AAU tournaments, all the while making as many seven-on-seven June football festivals as he can--at least until formal football practice begins in early July. He has attracted plenty of attention as a result of how he decided to spend his time: The University of Kentucky promised him a football scholarship before he played his first high school game, and last year Michael was the leading vote-getter at wide receiver in balloting for the Louisville Courier-Journal's all-state team. (He also received votes for running back, defensive back and linebacker.) He's certain to win Kentucky's Mr. Football award this fall; if he has the kind of basketball season he did a year ago, when he averaged 15.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per game and was voted MVP of the prestigious King of the Bluegrass tournament, he could become the first Kentucky Mr. Football to win Mr. Basketball, too.

Yet if Michael were to follow his heart and play baseball this spring, he'd also likely be the sole male three-sport varsity athlete among the 1,631 students at his school. "The Saturday after our second basketball game last year, he played in the state football championship game," says Bob Stewart, Male's athletic director. "The Tuesday night after that game, he played in our biggest basketball game of the season, against Ballard High. We reached the state semifinals in basketball, and he wanted to pitch for the baseball team. But he'd already missed a month of baseball preseason. Besides, the Monday after our last basketball game, spring football began. He was going to be our quarterback this year, so Michael had to play spring football.

"That's why kids don't play three sports anymore."

That Michael even plays two at such a high level makes him rare enough. That he squeezes in up to 12 hours a week working in the physical therapy unit of Caritas Medical Center makes him rarer still. "The baseball coach has been trying to get me to go out since freshman year," Michael says. "But I didn't want to interfere with the team's chemistry--being there one week, not being there the next. I've sneaked a peek at a few of their games, though, during basketball practice, looking out from the gym."

There's no better all-around high school athlete in Louisville, but if Michael has an equal it's Brian Brohm, a 6'4", 200-pound junior at Trinity High who plays baseball along with football and basketball. Male and Trinity faced each other in the last two Kentucky Class 4A football title games. Each school has won once, and with both unbeaten through the first round of the playoffs last Friday, it's likely they'll meet yet again, on Dec. 7. Or as Michael and Brian might put it, 54 days into basketball season.

Michael is sculpted and black. Brian is rangy and white. Yet the two have in common an even temper, unstinting family support and an acute awareness that they will transit the halls of their high schools only once in life, so they'd best make the most of it. If all that they've taken on is a burden, neither carries it that way.

"I love them all," Brian says of the sports he plays. "It's all about competing." Press him, though, and he'll admit that it's at least partly about scheduling and stamina, too. One day in June, Brian spent the morning with football teammates lifting weights and running through seven-on-seven passing drills. At 2 p.m. he joined the Trinity basketball varsity for an AAU game. At six he played in a Babe Ruth League game. Twice, on very hot days, Brian was sent to a hospital to get hooked up to an IV. "There've been a few times I've asked myself, Why am I doing this?" Brian says. "But that's usually during practices. Then the games come, and I realize how much I love to compete."

Kids who want to play several sports today eagerly look for some sign of support from their coaches. If they don't get it, they'll choose the path of least resistance. "Coaches can sometimes become very selfish," says Trinity football coach Bob Beatty. "If a kid's not spending enough time in his program, not creating that 'family atmosphere,' the coach is opposed [to the kid's playing another sport]. At Trinity, if you're not out for another sport, we expect you to be in our off-season program."

Brian's family believes in a well-rounded high school sports experience, too, if only because the Brohms know nothing else. Both of Brian's older brothers, Greg, 33, and Jeff, 31, played football, basketball and baseball at Trinity before going on to the University of Louisville. There Jeff threw passes to Greg, then played two seasons in the Cleveland Indians' system before kicking around the NFL as a backup quarterback for seven seasons. Their dad, Oscar, himself a quarterback at Louisville, played three sports in high school, while their mom, Donna, played field hockey, basketball, volleyball and softball in pre--Title IX days. Brian's sister, Kim, 22, played volleyball, basketball and softball at Mercy Academy and Spalding University, where her textbook-low stance, whether returning a serve, guarding a dribbler or fielding a grounder, earned her the nickname the Table.

On autumn Sundays, when the Brohms convene in the family home on a cul-de-sac on Louisville's southeast side, there's a touch of sitcom to the scene: an NFL game on the TV in the family room, a marker board nearby in case someone wants to diagram a play, a pile of yet-to-be-clipped newspapers destined for the family scrapbooks. Brian's three male elders will perform a postmortem on his most recent game, with his brothers slagging him for this or that missed receiver, or dredging up some shortcoming from the basketball or baseball season. Ever the competitor, Brian will descend to the basement to exhume an old score book, to throw back in his brother's face that time Jeff took an 0-fer at the plate. "The pressure Brian has had to face outside our family is nothing compared with what he's faced at home," says Kim. "My brothers are on him all the time. It's like they're all dads, and Brian's their little project."

You have to get them out of Brian's earshot before the elder Brohm boys will pony up praise, but when they do, it's generous. "Brian's more of a polished quarterback than I was," Jeff says. "He can throw as well as anyone I've ever seen." And Jeff marvels at how much more demanding a three-sport schedule has become in the dozen years since he played. Neither Jeff nor Greg played travel-team basketball in the summer. And no seven-on-seven festivals; Jeff would simply throw to Greg in the backyard.

Small though Louisville is, it's not altogether surprising that Michael and Brian have never formally met. Michael once walked past Brian at a church picnic but didn't realize it until steps later when a buddy said, "You know who that was?" In leading Trinity to the state title last fall, Brian twice threw completions to a receiver who had beaten Michael; but Brian also remembers a rec-league basketball game when they were in middle school, helplessly trailing the play as Michael broke away for a dunk.

"Shoot," says Jeff, "they're too busy to meet each other."

How did the three-sport athlete become such an endangered species? As early as 1974, in our cover story on Renaissance athlete Bruce Hardy, SI was declaring that "specialization in sport is becoming the rule even in high school." But the trend struck youth team sports hard in the mid-1980s, with the emergence of travel-team soccer in the spring, which carried the high school varsity model to a younger and younger cohort, according to former NBA player Bob Bigelow, author of Just Let the Kids Play. Bigelow urges that specialization be postponed as long as possible, lest an athlete have a late-blooming body or a latent talent. He points to Bill Russell and Michael Jordan, who as high school sophomores stood 5'10" and 5'9", respectively. "About 150,000 boys will play sophomore basketball this year," says Bigelow. "If you were to rank Russell and Jordan by sophomore talent, you'd put them somewhere between 35,000 and 135,000, in that great broad middle."

There are many more examples like those two. Larry Walker didn't take up baseball until age 17, after being cut from a hockey team. Cynthia Cooper first played basketball at 16. Chris Evert and Tiger Woods may have specialized early, but John McEnroe and Jack Nicklaus played three sports in high school. Yet the days are probably gone when a Dave Winfield could get drafted in three sports or a Pat Richter could play three in the Big Ten or a Gary Kubiak could make three all-state teams in an athletic hotbed like Texas.

Three-sport athletes are still common outside big cities; small enrollments leave coaches in need of every available body. If you can still find a few in Louisville, it may be because that city is plopped down within a sea of Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio small towns that influence Louisville's character more than Louisville influences theirs. Louisville, after all, was big enough to produce the winners of the most recent Little League World Series and quaint enough to honor them with a huge, permanent sign at the airport.

With no major league sports in town, high school athletics enjoy a lofty status. That, in turn, can stoke rivalry among coaches who vie for a school's best athletes. "Our football and basketball coaches agree on a date in the summer when Michael Bush turns from one to the other," says Stewart, the Male AD. "But at some schools, they fight."

The biggest skeptics of Brian Brohm's decision to play three sports can be found in the Trinity High lunchroom, where his classmates are apparently already in training for an adulthood spent phoning talkradio shows. "A lot of guys say I should just play football because I'm not as good at basketball," says Brian, with a roll of the eyes.

Beatty, Trinity's football coach, recalls counseling a 6'9", 275-pound lineman who was trying to decide whether to play basketball. This player had to deal with the same noontime second-guessers, half of whom told him he should spend the winter in the weight room getting stronger and half of whom told him he should play basketball, to prove to football recruiters that he had nimble feet. "He came into my office almost in tears," Beatty says. "I said forget about your mom, your dad, your peers, the basketball coach and the football coach, and just ask yourself what you really want." (He wound up playing basketball.) Indeed, it's the kid who isn't as good as Michael or Brian who tends to be dragooned into playing a single sport. He doesn't have the clout to get the football coach to push spring practice back 40 minutes, so he can get his cuts in the batting cage--an accommodation that Beatty has made for Brian.

Michael confesses that he struggles to adapt his body to basketball after a season of football. A football player is gaited for short, powerful bursts, while basketball demands continuous motion. But as differently as a player conditions himself for each sport, basic athleticism and certain intangibles carry over. "If you're a basketball coach and have a chance to get a 6'4" leader like Brian, why wouldn't you wait two extra weeks?" says Beatty. Brian believes he brings concrete advantages from sport to sport: "In basketball you've got to have footwork, endurance and speed. It helps me in the pocket and on rollouts. And baseball is great for developing hand-eye coordination, which helps in every sport."

But nothing transfers from one sport to the next like the kind of confidence that seems to be lifted from a Chip Hilton novel. In his previous job at Blue Springs High outside Kansas City, Beatty had a quarterback who led the Wildcats to a state title on a Saturday. Three nights later the same kid stood at the free throw line with a chance to win a Blue Springs basketball game. "He's standing there with a smile on his face," says Beatty, "and I'm sitting in the stands with a smile on my face thinking, This game's over."

Still, many parents and coaches have come to believe that it's reckless to pursue even two sports, particularly in light of the experience of Ronald Curry. While a senior at Hampton (Va.) High in 1997--98, Curry earned various national player of the year honors as a quarterback and a point guard. Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden called him the finest high school quarterback he had ever seen, yet Curry's love for basketball led him to choose North Carolina, where he was determined to play hoops too. By the end of an injury-addled four years, during which he played for two coaches in each sport, he had thrown more interceptions than touchdown passes and shot 35.0% from the field as the Tar Heels uncharacteristically lost more than 25% of their basketball games. In trying to play both sports, Curry had met expectations in neither. Last April he was drafted by the Oakland Raiders and is on their practice squad as a quarterback.

If they know of the travails of Ronald Curry, the Bushes, father and son, don't give them a care, even though Michael tumbled from the top 30 in Hoop Scoop recruiting service's 2001 basketball rankings last summer after what the pundits judged to be a subpar Nike camp. The Bushes want a written commitment from the college that signs Michael to a football scholarship that he'll be free to play basketball. A handshake deal won't be good enough. The Bushes have oral agreements from the eight schools Michael is considering, and none has balked yet. "Except, I guess, the ones that have stopped calling," Michael Sr. says. "Georgia and Michigan, they don't call as much."

Still, the phone keeps ringing at the family's bungalow in Louisville's west end--an invitation from Kentucky basketball coach Tubby Smith to attend the Wildcats' Midnight Madness; an offer from Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer of seats for the Vols' game with Florida. "I had a meeting with [Louisville basketball coach] Rick Pitino and [football coach] John L. Smith, and they said they wouldn't have a problem if I played both sports," Michael says.

Baseball, however, didn't come up.

Michael Bush has made a pact with a couple of his senior football teammates, Dale Baughman and Casey Shumate, that they'll all go out for baseball in the spring. "You see the way he throws a football?" Casey says. "He can throw a baseball twice as hard." Dale, who used to play youth league ball with Michael, adds his assent.

With Male High football and basketball obligations completed by then, and his choice of college out of the way, Michael regards this spring as his alone--or at least his to share with his dad. "My dad has always asked me if I'd try baseball," he says.

In the halls of Male High people whisper that a scout for the Cincinnati Reds would be willing to sign Michael today, even without an inning of high school experience. That the Toronto Blue Jays have been tracking him for three years. That, at 15, his fastball was clocked in the high 80s. Michael Sr. talks about hiring a private coach to work with his son: "Three or four times, just to refresh his motion. Mike's been able to put things down and pick them up. A little practice, that's all he needs."

On a balmy Saturday over Columbus Day weekend, fresh from Male's 46--7 defeat of Central High the night before, Michael joins his family for an afternoon stroll through Louisville's Shawnee Park. The park is home to the Dirt Bowl, the legendary summer basketball extravaganza, where Artis Gilmore used to pull up to the court in his Rolls-Royce. It's also home to the Juice Bowl, a community festival of sandlot football and barbecue held every Thanksgiving. Michael won a Dirt Bowl title as a seventh-grader and a Juice Bowl divisional title one year later.

And then there's baseball. Father; son; Michael's mom, Toni; and little brother Dawuan come upon the youth league diamonds that Michael once ruled. Toni can't help but begin an incantation: "Batter, batter, batter, swing! Strike 'em out, Mike!"

There's something unfinished about Michael and baseball. The Bushes leave the specifics unsaid, but there's a vague reference to how a certain season ended. Something about a trip to Frankfort, the state tournament--in any case, a loss.

"I'm going to give baseball a shot, just to see if I still have it," Michael says. "I'm going to have fun. I'm only going to be a senior in high school once."

NEXT WEEK High school kids who want to major in tennis--or one of five other sports--get their wish at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla.

B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LYNN JOHNSON STATE'S MAN Bush might be Kentucky's top schoolboy in football and basketball, but what he craves most is a return to his first love--baseball.

B/W PHOTO: PPHOTOGRAPHS BY LYNN JOHNSON FAMILY BUSINESS In the Brohm household, Brian is only one of six three-sport athletes.

B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LYNN JOHNSON HOME COOKING Bush's scholarship offers will come from far and wide, but mom Toni (above) and dad hope he plays nearby.

B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LYNN JOHNSON MALE BONDING Longtime friends and teammates, Shumate (52) and Bush ended the regular season 10--0.


From 1980--81 through 2000--01 participation in high school sports grew by 16.2%, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Here is a breakdown of student involvement for each sport (minimum total of 2,500 boy and girl participants), showing the percentage increase or decrease over that 20-year span.

SPORT 1980--81 2000--01 CHANGE

BOYS' BADMINTON 444 4,184 +842.3% GIRLS' BADMINTON 9,808 9,907 +1.0% BOYS' BASEBALL 422,310 451,674 +7.0% BOYS' BASKETBALL 553,702 540,597 -2.4% GIRLS' BASKETBALL 423,568 456,169 +7.8% BOYS' BOWLING 6,761 12,597 +86.3% GIRLS' BOWLING 8,272 13,029 +57.5% COMPETITIVE SPIRIT SQUADS Not listed 97,216 -- BOYS' CREW 430 2,058 +378.6% GIRLS' CREW 120 2,508 +1,990.0% BOYS' CROSS-COUNTRY 172,270 190,993 +10.9% GIRLS' CROSS-COUNTRY 90,224 160,178 +77.5% GIRLS' FIELD HOCKEY 55,656 60,737 +9.1% BOYS' FOOTBALL 937,901 1,023,712 +9.1% GIRLS' FOOTBALL Not listed 2,870 -- BOYS' GOLF 118,390 163,299 +37.9% GIRLS' GOLF 32,828 59,901 +82.5% BOYS' GYMNASTICS 13,293 2,223 -83.3% GIRLS' GYMNASTICS 64,815 21,034 -67.6% BOYS' ICE HOCKEY 25,925 34,652 +33.7% GIRLS' ICE HOCKEY 56 6,442 +11,403.5% BOYS' LACROSSE 13,501 46,206 +242.2% GIRLS' LACROSSE 4,942 35,186 +612.0% BOYS' RIFLERY 2,991 2,401 -19.7% GIRLS' RIFLERY 795 1,249 +57.1% BOYS' SKIING (cross-country) 2,575 4,878 +89.4% GIRLS' SKIING (cross-country) 2,434 4,982 +104.7% BOYS' SKIING (Alpine) 6,895 6,353 -7.9% GIRLS' SKIING (Alpine) 5,136 4,591 -10.6% BOYS' SOCCER 149,376 339,101 +127.0% GIRLS' SOCCER 41,119 295,265 +618.0% BOYS' SOFTBALL 1,027 2,019 +96.6% GIRLS' SOFTBALL 206,351 373,214 +67.3% BOYS' SWIMMING 90,941 90,698 -0.3% GIRLS' SWIMMING 86,853 141,218 +62.6% BOYS' TENNIS 130,048 139,483 +7.3% GIRLS' TENNIS 118,889 160,114 +34.7% BOYS' TRACK (indoor) 33,275 52,000 +56.3% GIRLS' TRACK (indoor) 15,464 46,415 +200.1% BOYS' TRACK (outdoor) 507,791 494,022 -2.7% GIRLS' TRACK (outdoor) 377,995 415,667 +10.0% BOYS' VOLLEYBALL 11,732 40,567 +245.8% GIRLS' VOLLEYBALL 297,786 395,124 +32.7% BOYS' WATER POLO 26,869 13,735 -48.9% GIRLS' WATER POLO 282 14,792 +5,145.4% BOYS' WEIGHTLIFTING 7,199 14,293 +98.5% GIRLS' WEIGHTLIFTING 385 3,545 +820.8% BOYS' WRESTLING 245,029 244,637 -0.2% GIRLS' WRESTLING Not listed 3,405 --

"I've asked myself, Why am I doing this?" Brohm says. "Then the games come, and I realize how much I love to compete."

Michael wants the college that signs him to a football scholarship to guarantee in writing that he'll be free to play basketball.