As published in The County Times (countytimes.somd.com)
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
During my, ahem, illustrious athletic career, I ran onto
many diamonds, courts and fields with sparsely populated bleachers. Despite free admission, there was little to
draw patrons to that level of competition other than family obligation, an adolescent
crush or sheer boredom.
Over the last few months, the greatest athletes in the
world have been living the modest rec league athletic experience. Due to COVID rules, mostly or entirely empty venues
have greeted men and women accustomed to competing in packed houses with
raucous fans providing vibrant feedback – positive and negative – on their
performances. Now the cheers and boos
are manufactured and the faces in the stands are peculiar virtual representations
or cardboard likenesses.
Such are these strange times.
With several sports months into bubble life and the
NFL nearing its quarter-pole, I often ponder the athletes as much as the
scoreboard. What must this be like? Certainly all are grateful to be employed and
have the means afforded professional athletes.
But this has to be an incredible grind – the restrictions, risk of
contracting COVID, distance from family and eerie game-day experiences. No amount of money can relieve the
psychological burden. And regardless of
political leaning, there’s the added weight of national events ladled over
these bizarre daily operations.
So I watch and wonder.
Where does LeBron James find motivation?
Drew Brees or Tom Brady? What
about Max Scherzer or Bryce Harper? Or Celtics
forward Gordon Hayward, whose wife just had their first son, a child he won’t
hold until Boston’s season ends?
The Undefeated recently published a fascinating piece
on Miami Heat big man Udonis Haslem. Haslem,
40, is a 17-year NBA veteran and three-time champion. He can’t possibly need the paycheck or relish
any aspect of bubble living – a suggestion validated in the feature. Haslem discussed his approach – purposefully
avoiding interaction with other teams’ players, approaching every day with
discipline and an edge; in other words, being a little salty to cope with salty
circumstances. Haslem then dropped this fabulous
bubble-life quote: “I didn’t want to get too comfortable. I didn’t want to feel
like home. I don’t want to get relaxed. I want to keep my edge. I want to stay
focused on the task at hand. So, I’m sleeping on the couch right now, dog, with
a room full of Chunky soup.”
Udonis Haslem is now one of my favorite athletes.
So why are these guys doing it? Brady and Brees – why, at 40-plus-years-old, are
they going through this implausible season?
Why is LeBron, at 35, laying it on the line in front of virtual
fans? Why is Haslem locked in his room
eating Chunky soup on his couch/bed?
The easiest answer: an athlete’s professional lifecycle
is finite. Father time allows for only so
many opportunities to cash professional checks, build tenure and make
championship runs; a season is just too precious to forfeit to a virus. If you can play, you play.
There are two more common, non-sports-specific
The first is duty – to self, team and profession. James knows the Lakers can’t win a
championship without him. Same for the
Saints, sans Brees. Haslem, while not a
major on-court contributor, is the Heat’s captain. Brady no doubt feels an obligation to his new
organization and teammates. So, to a
man, they play.
The other is the opportunity to be the standard – an
example. Staying limber - of mind, body
and spirit - while facing an uncertain and evolving world, surely affords
athletes a way to use their platforms in a transcendent way and without the condescending
and naïve “stick to sports” criticisms.
Our individual adaptation to pandemic life, no matter
how effective, has undoubtedly had moments of great challenge. A sense of duty to self and employer, and a
responsibility to be an example for our families – personal and professional –
has no doubt provided inspiration. For
the sports fan, an added source of encouragement has been seeing athletes doing
So thank you LeBron, Brees, Brady and, of course,
Udonis Haslem and his Chunky soup.
Thanks for keeping me…us…sane through all this madness.
From my bubble to yours – cheers, fellas.