In the sports world, we're always trying to find a duplicate of the original genius — the Next Montana, the Next Arnold Palmer, the Next Ali, the Next Secretariat.

Nobody ever called a physicist the Next Einstein. Or a politician the Next Lincoln. Or a rising painter the Next Van Gogh.

But about a dozen basketball players have been anointed The Next Michael Jordan.

Go figure. For the first 85 years of professional basketball, there was no Jordan, but even before he retired (three times), people were searching for the heir to his Airness.

It's been 10 years since Jordan played in his last championship game, and they're still searching. In the last couple of weeks, they tried to pass the baton to LeBron James, but he gave it right back, for now.

He is only the latest in a long line of Next Jordans. The media and Madison Avenue have tried mightily to attach the title to Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson, Vince Carter, Dwyane Wade, Garnett, James and a few others, but so far none has stuck.

After "King" James took over the Eastern Conference finals for a couple of games, just like that — swoosh! — Nike and the media rushed in to pronounce LJ the next MJ. Nike, which pays James $90 million, ran TV commercials during the finals: "We are all Witnesses."

James, as it turned out, was very ordinary as his Cleveland Cavaliers were swept in four games. He never could take control of a game in the finals, a la Jordan, blowing numerous opportunities with turnovers and missed shots. We were all witnesses.

Memo to Nike: Be careful before you make superstar pronouncements. Better let them earn it first.

But that's not the modern way of course. First, they are anointed with superstar status, then they go out and try to earn it, not vice versa.

Sports Illustrated put James on its cover of its magazine in February 2005 accompanied by the headline: "BEST EVER?" He was 20 years old and in the middle of his second season.

Last week the same magazine put James on the Cover again: "LEBRON ARRIVES." But then he didn't.

A week earlier the magazine ran a story under the headline, "NOT QUITE READY YET," followed by the usual MJ comparisons.

This premature rush to anoint stardom is driven by sponsors eager to cash in — in other words, money — and the media always seems to jump on board. Nike's "Witness" campaign was launched in 2005 with a 110-foot high, 212-foot wide billboard when James was 20. The "witness" campaign "pays tribute to James and acknowledges the legions of fans worldwide who are witnessing his greatness, power, athleticism and beautiful style of play," Nike said in a statement.

Oh, and he also sells a lot of sneakers, by the way.

It's the Michael Vick Syndrome. With the marketing power of Nike behind him, Vick was granted superstardom immediately after leaving college. Several years down the road we discover that he is the most overrated quarterback ever. At first, everyone jumped on the Vick bandwagon, too, voting him to the Pro Bowl and buying his jersey when his performance didn't merit it, but cynicism is growing about his the way he plays on and off the field.

Apparently, nobody learned a thing because it's happening all over again with Vince Young.

When Brady Quinn is being billed as possibly the Next Montana, you know things are getting out of hand.

If the NBA Finals revealed anything, it was that good old-fashioned unselfish team play is still in style and the search for the Next MJ is futile, silly and unfair. There's never been a Next Babe Ruth or Muhammad Ali either.

"People are so eager for a Next Jordan," Grant Hill said once, "they tried to place it on me, or Kobe (Bryant) or Penny (Hardaway) ... People can say ... I'm not like Jordan, but I've decided I'm just going to be me."


E-mail: drob@desnews.com