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Searching For NBA Meaning
Posted By Travis Heath On October 9, 2013 @ 11:00 am In NBA | No Comments
Perhaps it becomes inevitable as we age. Experiences that once brought us great meaning lose some luster over time. And then a bit of cynicism creeps in. I often tell my students skepticism is welcomed, but cynicism leads to heart disease.
I don’t want to be cynical about the NBA and professional sports in general, but it is becoming increasingly more difficult. Said differently, once you have been to the factory and you have seen how the sausage is made, it no longer appears all that appetizing.
NBA front office people and scouts are generally a pretty cynical bunch. One of my good friends who has worked in the league for nearly three decades often says if an NBA person is not cynical, they probably haven’t been doing it long enough.
I’ve lived in that world for a bit, and I’m sure it hasn’t helped.
Of course, the media world isn’t much better. Young bucks start out with a bunch of enthusiasm. There is something initially intoxicating about being able to cross the border of a world most never get to see in an NBA locker room. There is also a sense of awe in being able to talk to NBA players, who many media members wished they could be at one point in their childhood. And for a lot of media members, when they first start there are still many players in the league who played when they were young.
I can remember meeting players like Dikembe Mutombo, Shaquille O’Neal, Grant Hill and others when I first started covering the league that I watched from the stands for years as a kid. The younger players really didn’t leave me feeling star-struck, but the guys I watched growing up was a different matter. I mumbled through my first interviews with these players with eyes as large as NBA Spalding’s.
Over the years, though, these guys begin to retire and the league becomes younger than you. Talking to players becomes monotonous. In fact, I would talk to most of the big names simply to complete the stories I was assigned and quickly move on to talking to a ball boy, security guard or the dude selling beers. Most of these cats were far more interesting to speak with. In short, talking to Carmelo Anthony for any length of time would stop just short of making my ears bleed. But covering the NBA in Denver, it was a big part of the job.
Don’t get me wrong; I have been fortunate enough to have some great conversations over the years. I remember waxing philosophical with David West after writing a story for the late, great Swish Magazine. Now there’s someone I had something in common with. He was smart, quick-witted and socially conscious. I would seek him out every time the Hornets came through the town I was in.
If only there were more like David West in the league.
There are some others like Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer, Mark Madsen and Randy Foye just to name a few that I really enjoyed speaking with, but most nights speaking to players was mind-numbingly boring.
I had better luck finding conversations with coaches and executives stimulating, but that was only when you could get them away from the herd and the accompanying cliché factory.
Truth is, most NBA players are fairly boring to talk to. Moreover, how many questions can one really ask about basketball? I was always interested in deeper matters that few players had much interest speaking about in any real detail no matter what the context. There comes a point when you realize that NBA players are just dudes. They are tall, athletically talented and rich dudes, but they are just dudes.
Perhaps this is the catalyst for my current cynicism. Growing up watching the NBA these guys weren’t just dudes. They were larger than life superheroes who could do no wrong on or off the court. I was a regular at McNichols Arena in Denver. To me, Mt. Mutombo really was taller than any Rocky Mountain peak. Mahmoud Abdul Rauf was a basketball savant whose up-and-under move occupied me for countless hours on my driveway hoop. LaPhonso Ellis’s thunderous dunks were the stuff of magic and occupied my dreams.
There is the chance that this childlike idolization might still exist to a certain extent had I not covered and eventually worked in the league, I don’t know. On the other hand, part of this is just growing up. It’s like the moment as a kid when you realize that adults aren’t perfect. At first, there is a sense of denial because if it were true that adults weren’t perfect it would turn the world as we knew it on its head. Eventually we come to accept (hopefully) the cold, hard truth of the world that adults aren’t perfect, and that sometimes adults harm one another intentionally. Childhood innocence is lost, and this is the sort of thing that cannot be regained.
NBA players are flawed as people just like everyone else, some more than others. This realization combined with my aforementioned cynicism has caused me to try and create a new relationship with NBA basketball. Every October there is part of my childhood persona that begins to percolate when NBA training camps open. More specifically, there is this drive to know what’s going on with my hometown Denver Nuggets and a hope that this year will finally be the year. I reckon this will be with me for as long as I am alive.
As I reflect, I am reminded that I am glad I had the relationship with the NBA that I did as a young person. Those were special times. The fact that they would not last forever was in hindsight a major part of the reason that they were so special.
The NBA is really nothing more than a gigantic fantasy land. I can’t enter that fantasy land in exactly the same way I used to as a child or even a young adult. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t enter it at all. The magic still exists. It’s just that the magic is now relegated exclusively to what’s happening on the hardwood and not the bigger than life personas off of it.
For my 33-year-old self, that will have to be good enough.
Dr. Travis Heath is a psychologist in private practice, an assistant professor of psychology at MSU Denver and a former NBA team consultant. He also co-hosts a show on Mile High Sports Radio on Tuesday evenings from 6-7 p.m. You can follow him on Twitter (@DrTravisHeath).
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