Bryce Harper is bigger than the NBA Finals this week. He's bigger than the Stanley Cup.
The image of the Las Vegas High School sensation with the desert mountains of Nevada serving as his playground graces the June 8 cover of Sports Illustrated on newsstands today in a tribute fitting of the nation's newest and youngest baseball star.
In large bold black letters, the magazine proclaims Harper as "Baseball's Chosen One." The cover features his biggest numbers: 570-foot home runs, 96 mph fastballs and his age, 16. He is hailed on the cover as the most exciting prodigy since LeBron James and his central placement on the magazine is fit for a king. In the top right corner of the cover, there's a small mention of the NBA Finals. In top left corner, the tease to the Stanley Cup Finals floats as if it has just been hit by Harper's left-handed swing.
The next seven days in the magazine's spotlight belong to the sophomore, but those who know the teenager best say this Thursday is no different for him than last Thursday or the Thursday before that.
Yes, he's Harper the national cover boy, but he's also the same old Bryce. He always has been.
"I've watched him in his freshman and sophomore years and it seems to me that everybody knows what a big deal he is but him," Las Vegas High School principal Debbie Brockett said. "He comes from an amazing grounded and humble family and we appreciate that. The kids treat him the same, like their friend, even though he's in the spotlight."
Brockett was on hand when Harper, who pitches and plays catcher, received the team's Most Valuable Offensive Player Award from Wildcats head coach Sam Thomas during the annual baseball banquet Wednesday night. The guests dined on catered Mexican food and watched a touching slideshow of the season in the school cafeteria. Three Most Improved Player Awards were handed out and surprisingly, no awards were given for Most Valuable Player, Outstanding Player or Defensive standout for a Wildcats team that was eliminated in the Regional Championship by Valley High School.
It didn't matter. Everybody in the room was in a great mood and everybody knew who the biggest star of the evening was. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Harper stood out from the pack even if he didn't want to.
"I saved him for last," Thomas said. "I am very proud to have him in our program. We are lucky he's around and we appreciate everything he has done."
Harper hit .626 with 14 home runs and 55 RBIs in 115 at-bats for the Wildcats this season. He hit 22 doubles, nine triples and stole 36 bases. He only struck out five times.
In the Sports Illustrated cover story, writer Tom Verducci chronicles the story of how Harper evolved from a 3 year old that used to play T-Ball against 6 year olds into a travel team player and 16-year-old wonder that hit the longest home run in the history of Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Verducci writes about Harper's performance at the Area Code Games, a 570-ft home run, and makes reference to other young baseball phenoms like Justin Upton, Alex Rodriguez, and Ken Griffey Jr. in the piece appropriately titled, Baseball's LeBron.
The magazine article also reveals that Harper's parents, Ron and Sheri, are looking for ways to make their son eligible for the draft next year instead of 2011 and that one of the teenager's advisers is Scott Boras. Harper told Verducci that he hopes to play in the Major Leagues when he's 18 or 19.
"I'm going to play against you the way Pete Rose did," Harper told Verducci. "I'm going to try to rip your head off. That's just the way I am. Old school. If I could play for a guy like Lou Piniella or Larry Bowa, I'd love it."
Harper is a natural. He might play like Rose but he talks like the fictional baseball star Roy Hobbs. The teen's goals are what movies are made of.
"Be in the Hall of Fame, definitely. Play in Yankee Stadium. Play in the pinstripes. Be considered the greatest baseball player who ever lived. I can't wait," he told Verducci.
So when Thomas says he is not ruling out any possibility for his star player, he's not kidding. The Wildcats coach said the first time he saw Harper the boy was a big, fun-loving kid and was already better skilled than the other players at the baseball camp.
Harper was 6.
"I didn't see him again until he was 10 when he played against my son in club ball game and he was so far superior to everybody else on the field that it was amazing to me," Thomas said. "There is still no comparison. He has every tool that there is to play the game."
Thomas has an eye for talent. He's been a coach Las Vegas High School for 11 years and estimates he has coached 30 players that have gone on to play college baseball. Sean Kazmar, currently at Triple-A in the San Diego organization, is a 2002 graduate of Las Vegas High School.
Thomas also played catcher for University of Nevada-Reno but his claim to fame dates back to high school. Thomas graduated from Valley High School in 1983 and played on the same team as future Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux, who was one year his junior.
Thomas says he can see some of Maddux in Harper.
"Both are the consummate competitor and they want to win more than anybody else," Thomas said. "Greg had a tremendous work ethic. I say Bryce's is second to none. Looking back, Greg was always working on things. Bryce does that."
Baseball matters, but the importance of school work is not lost on the young star or his family. The Harpers arranged a Friday afternoon press conference to accommodate the numerous interview requests but primarily put the press conference together so the teenager could concentrate on his final exams. They also want their son to enjoy his last day of school Thursday just like every other student not on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
"He isn't as giddy or as excited as other people are and it's kind of weird," Thomas said. "Either it hasn't sunk in or he's handling like an everyday deal. Me, I'm excited because the kid deserves it and to see your high school uniform on a national publication is fantastic."