Somewhere in Serbia, Ivan Renko is smiling.
Practicing his impressive post moves with his powerful 6-foot-8, 235-pound frame in some dank gymnasium perhaps, but smiling nonetheless.
Why wouldn’t he smile?
Renko is again relevant.
The story of his 1993 rise as a teenage basketball star in a war-torn nation — hailed by one scouting service as a “white Larry Johnson” — now gets a postscript.
Renko is no longer college sports’ greatest hoax.
Move over, Ivan, make room for Lennay Kekua.
Just as Renko was a complete fabrication eagerly digested by a gullible sports media, so, too, was Kekua, the “girlfriend” of Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o.
The Stanford senior grew even more famous than wannabe IU basketball star Renko when she tragically died from leukemia last September, just before the Irish played Michigan State.
We all went along for the ride, willingly sharing the angst of Te’o over Kekua’s passing.
Now, months later, we learn what Te’o either didn’t know or refused to acknowledge: the girlfriend was pure fiction. She was nothing more than a Twitter site, a voice on the phone and purloined pictures, a fabrication who never existed.
Somehow, we are expected to believe that Te’o, who called Kekua “the love of my life,” was totally duped. At least that is the conclusion of Notre Dame administrators investigating the matter.
At first glance, that seems implausible.
But then, professionals who are paid to get to the truth of a story went along on the Kekua bandwagon, as well.
Indeed, the South Bend Tribune reported last fall of the pairs’ first meeting:
“Their stares got pleasantly tangled, then Manti Te’o extended his hand to the stranger with a warm smile and soulful eyes. They could have just as easily brushed past each other and into separate sunsets. Te’o had plenty to preoccupy himself that November weekend in Palo Alto, Calif., back in 2009..…Lennay Kekua was a Stanford student and Cardinal football fan when the two exchanged glances, handshakes and phone numbers that fateful weekend three seasons ago.”
We know now that never happened.
As we are reminded again, even when a sports celebrity is not real, their legend has a way of taking on a life of its own.
Their stares got pleasantly tangled? Please, the facts got unpleasantly tangled here.
Why did it happen? Respect for Te’o’s privacy, eagerness to jump willingly at a great story, or just journalistic laziness?
Whatever the reason, no one managed to ask whether Kekua was really a Stanford student (she was not); whether Kekua really died (there is no death certificate or funeral records, although the Associated Press reported her death) or whether someone named Lennay Kekua even existed (she apparently did not, despite some strange first-person claims to the contrary).
The network news shows picked up the story, romanticizing the tragic paradox between the Heisman Trophy candidate and his fallen girlfriend.
A fund drive on the Notre Dame campus raised more than $3,000 for leukemia research.
The enormity of the hoax is incredible. After all, the Irish were the biggest story in college football, and Te’o was their best player.
An entire sports nation and those who cover it were duped.
That brings us back to Renko, whose 15 minutes of fame two decades ago is now dwarfed by Kekua.
IU coach Bob Knight invented Renko as a way to illustrate the gullibility of recruiting sites, which he believed opined about players with little knowledge.
As it turns out, he was correct, as evidenced by one site’s infamous comparison of the fabricated Renko to NBA star Johnson.
That charade did not last long, though. It was soon sniffed out by print journalists as a ruse.
The same cannot be said here.
An elaborate hoax was eagerly embraced and emboldened by journalists who should have known better.
I am reminded of the line in Lyin’ Eyes by the Eagles: Did we get tired or did we just get lazy?
Whatever the answer, the Kekua hoax is a black mark on those who perpetrated it. But it is also is a somber reminder for those journalists who were willingly used in the process.
Bob Johnson is a sports correspondent for the Daily Journal. His columns appear Tuesdays and Fridays.