James Burns: Sharks' Thornton the one shining star in Northern California

James Burns

There was a time when this part of the country was filthy rich with talent.

A time when genuine superstars mopped up messes left by legends, and teams reached places in our hearts only our mothers have seen.

Yes, the 1980s and '90s smiled on Northern Californians.

Aside from the breath-taking mountains to the east, sun-swept shores to the West and ag lands in between, the Big Fella in the sky also sprinkled a fistful of pro sports stars throughout...

Just to keep us entertained.

There were all the 49er greats -- the ones that wear yellow blazers now, live forever on highlight reels and flash gaudy Super Bowl rings.

Guys like Joe Montana and Steve Young. Pass-catchers like Dwight Clark and Jerry Rice.

Blue-collar studs like Roger Craig and Brent Jones -- two future Hall of Famers.

In fact, Craig and Jones epitomized that era of sports bliss.

Both were Pro Bowl-type players who could have been absolute stars anywhere else.

Yet on teams chock-full of household names, their accomplishments were almost always third, fourth or fifth on the list of "Most talked abouts" in bars and barbershops.

There were more, too.

The acquisition of Barry Bonds in 1993 made sure San Francisco Giants fans could continue to root on a marquee name after Will Clark's career faded into obscurity.

And across the bay, Oakland sports teams rolled out names like Bo Jackson and Tim Brown of the Raiders, and Jose Canseco and Mark McGuire of the Athletics.

The Warriors featured an interesting trio of shooters and playmakers, cleverly dubbed Run TMC -- dribbling wiz Tim Hardaway and long-range shooters Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin.

Inland, the Sacramento Kings drafted a dandy in forward Wayman Tisdale.

Every where you looked, no matter which way you turned the TV dial, there was a superstar to latch on to. A name to follow.

These days, times are bleak for those in Northern California.

While the world around us crumbles, homes fall into foreclosure and jobs disappear, sadly, regional sports has offered us little escape. Little comfort.

Our teams have cowered into the darkest reaches of the standings, and the big names have all disappeared, replaced by average players thrust into the spotlight.

Bengie Molina, anybody? How about Mark Ellis or Bobby Crosby?

Anybody asking for a Shaun Hill jersey this Christmas?

Northern California hasn't produced a major world championship team since 1995, when the 49ers -- led by Young and Rice -- ran roughshod over the San Diego Chargers, and that might be genesis of this problem.

But there's hope. If you don't mind waiting on it.

The A's recently traded for slugger Matt Holliday and the Warriors locked up guard Monta Ellis, who thanked the club by injuring himself in a moped accident that breached his contract.

But if you can't wait -- and you shouldn't -- there is one superstar lost in all this dreariness. You'll just have to go into the freezer to find him.

Joe Thornton.

Ring a bell?

If you don't follow hockey, you wouldn't possibly know that Thornton is a former MVP, scoring champ and a big reason why the Sharks are off to one of the best starts in NHL history.

Thornton can pass like Young on skates, swing a stick with the fury of Bonds and knuckle-up like Ken Norton, too.

You wouldn't know that he's built like a bull -- Thornton's 6-foot-4, 235 pounds -- but is as nice as a Sunday school teacher off the ice.

He's also as clean as a whistle -- refreshing, I know -- without a single drop of steroids or other performance-enhancing drug in his system.

My suggestion: If you don't follow hockey, start. Now.

Study up. Read a newspaper. Buy a ticket. Watch a game.

Thornton and the red-hot Sharks may be the only bailout we Northern Californians get.

For a long while.

James Burns is the sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at