The Steve Nash "The Finish Line" comeback video series on Grantland starting this week really made me think a lot about how we view professional basketball players, similarly to how Bill Simmons already touched on here
He chews over the idea of Nash the person versus Nash the cap number, which I felt was an interesting springboard for a more serious post than I have tried before. As some of you who are reading this know, I am living with chronic back pain that has, among other things, taken away my ability to play the game of basketball that we all love so much. This brings about a duality in my thoughts when I think about Nash’s situation. As a die-hard fan of the Los Angeles Lakers, I want what is best for the team that I root for, which by this point is looking like it may be for Nash to retire. At the same time, as someone who is also suffering pain when I try to do the daily activities to which we all become accustomed, I can respect the hell out of what Nash is trying to do. Seriously, if you have not already, watch the video
Are you back? Good. Some of the imagery in there is cringe-inducing, specifically the long cuts of the various shots and needles Nash was taking into his bruised and battered back. Nash is a smart guy and does not seem to have a tremendous ego. He knows he is not worth around $10 million at this point, and that money is guaranteed. He could just sit back, enjoy LA, do the bare minimum of rehab required, and cash his paychecks. Instead, he is working his ass off, clearly to the detriment of his quality of life, to try and work his way back out there and do whatever he can to earn as much of that money as possible. Again, I can really respect that, and it has made me re-evaluate across the board the types of judgments that myself and other fans make about basketball players. Take for instance, and I know this is going to an unpopular example, Dwight Howard last year on the Lakers.
No, wait, hold on don’t exit the article I promise I will explain!
Yes, Dwight did handle the media aspect of his season about as poorly as he possibly could have last season, although I honestly do not know how we expected any different given that by all accounts he is surrounded by cronies and yes-men. Putting all the stupidity to the side--
Okay, NOW putting all stupidity to the side, on and off the court purely in terms of hard work, what Dwight did last year was impressive to me. Despite what would have been debilitating pain for most of us between the torn labrum, an ongoing recovery from back surgery, and a variety of other maladies that all professional athletes have to go through throughout the year, Dwight (mostly) stayed on the court and still put up what would be impressive numbers for any big man without the expectations that come with being Dwight Howard, especially as the year went on. I think that if not for his horrible bungling of public relations, Dwight’s work here would have been a lot more respected.
The list goes on to guys like Derrick Rose, who has been the butt of countless memes and jokes throughout his two rehabs now, when by all accounts all he has been trying to do is get his body best prepared in order to be able to succeed the next time he does step out to play. Can fans really begrudge him that? Can anyone really say that they would do any differently? While going through my own "rehab" type process now for my back, I can honestly say that I would not. I have given up countless activities that aggravate my pain issues, and have to be smart and manage my activities every day. I am not asking for sympathy and I do not want it, I am simply stating that it has changed the way that I think about these types of issues; it has humanized these larger than life characters in my eyes now that I can empathize with their struggles a little bit more.
It has also made the seemingly superhuman exploits of Kobe Bryant all the more amazing to me. This is a man who, within just the last 7(!) professional basketball games he has played in has shot free throws on a torn Achilles and closed out a basketball game ON A FRACTURED LEG! That is why a Lakers fan could disagree with the amount of money he was just given on his recent two year extension, but can also easily see why Mitch Kupchak and the Laker front office would have faith bordering on deifying him that Kobe Bryant will live up to it. Everyone has a different pain threshold, a different standard of what they are willing to endure for sport, or for work, or in the case of these athletes; both.
It would seem that the biggest difference in how we as fans perceive the work that these men do is how the media writes their narrative and how their quotes portray them. This does not, especially the narrative part, seem fair to me. Fans need to be critical thinkers about these injuries and their affects if they want to consider themselves fair judges of character in these situations. I know that before I start criticizing an athlete for lagging on their projected recovery time, I will try to get as many available facts as I can, or just not do it. Everyone has to ask themselves "would I do any differently if I were in their shoes?" This thought process seems especially prudent given the way that NBA players seem to be dropping like flies these days, with seemingly a new, significant rotation player having their year ended prematurely every other week.
I am not trying to moralize to anyone here, that is one of the most insufferable tropes of sports writing in my opinion; so my apologies if it comes off that way. I guess the conclusion that I am coming to is that aside from any other factors off the court, you have to at the very least respect the heart of these athletes like Nash, Amare Stoudemire….. that at are trying their best to go out there, contribute to their team and do as much as they can to earn their salary; even when they know they are not going to live up to it. They signed these contracts, and they are doing their best to live up to them even when they know that they could just use the excuses they have been dealt by their bodies to just give up. There is something honorable about that. At the same time, I also think that it is okay as a fan to still root for the best outcome for your team of choice in these situations. So while on a human level I can respect what Nash is trying to do… I still want the Lakers to do what is best for the Lakers this summer whether that is keeping him or "stretch-provisioning" his contract. I also can respect the fact that Howard went out and performed last year in spite of all of his health problems, while still hating how he handled himself off the court and thinking he is an insufferable man-child. Everyone has different ways that they look at "how to be a fan" so to speak, I just have been thinking about this a lot lately, and wanted to get it out there and be part of the discussion. I also wish that the discourse could be a little bit more civil, especially when it comes to guys like Rose.
Please share your opinion in the comments, I would love to hear it! Lastly, if you made it this far, thanks for reading.
Shout out to Jennifer, without your tutelage getting my thoughts out even this close to coherently would not have been possible!