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 reasons.
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 the same.
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.