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The NBA Sacrifices
Posted By Travis Heath On May 14, 2013 @ 4:00 pm In NBA | No Comments
The NBA is a brutal business. Such sentiment about professional sport has become cliché these days in the media, and it’s easy to understand why. Professional athletes and coaches were reality television before reality television existed. They have essentially become cartoon characters, caricatures of themselves.
A group of people get paid to question every move made by athletes and coaches and speculate about their job status. This is quite a unique environment that would be difficult for most people to tolerate no matter what they might believe from the outside looking in. When the media criticism reaches a certain vitriolic level, it is often rationalized by saying something like, “That’s why (enter athlete or coach’s name here) makes the big bucks.”
I have had the unique opportunity to be on both sides of this equation having covered the league for a number of years and having worked in it, too. Of course, my job in the league was not highly scrutinized or high profile. In fact, I preferred that people didn’t even know what I did or whom I did it for. However, I developed friendships with people who were routinely harpooned by the media. Some of it was personal, some of it just commentators looking to generate attention for themselves.
I have witnessed friends getting fired in the last several years and this season has been no different. It is true that folks in prominent positions in the NBA who have been fired made plenty of money so feeling sorry for them on a financial level can seem a bit out of touch with reality. Thing is, there is much more to this equation than money. Many people in the industry construct much of their identity around working in the NBA. When this is taken away, it can often have a devastating impact that most fans never see.
As a youngster, my dream involved playing in the NBA. While I was able to make it to the collegiate level, my 5’ 10 frame didn’t exactly do me any favors in making it any further. That, and the fact that I just wasn’t very good. That’s why when an opportunity to work in the league presented itself a few years ago, I couldn’t have been more excited. And it was a fun ride. So fun, in fact, that I had the opportunity to quit my work in academia and do it full-time. This was a seductive proposition.
Enter one of my best friends in the league, who has been in the business of basketball for over 30 years.
“If you want to do it, I’ll help you,” he said. “But you would be making the biggest mistake of your life.”
I responded by saying, “Sounds like the cynical voice of someone who has been in the league too long.”
“Not cynical, just realistic,” he fired back. “This business is so [messed] up. Look around, almost everyone is divorced and they never see their kids. All for what? To watch 18-year-old kids bounce a ball and put it in a basket?”
Now he had my attention.
“Yeah, but if you do it right you can work for a relatively short time and make enough money to live on,” I said.
“It doesn’t work that way,” he responded shaking his head. “The game gets in your blood. It is like an addiction, you can’t get enough. It becomes all-consuming. You’re too smart for this [stuff]. Yeah, you may make some good coin today, but it can all be gone tomorrow. There is no security in this business. If the guy who brought you in gets fired, you’re going to be looking for work, too. And so much of getting a job isn’t about how good you are but it’s about who you know.”
Now he had more than my attention. He was appealing to the very things I had witnessed during my brief tenure working in the league that made me feel uneasy. Why should I give up everything I had worked for in academia for a job with no stability, especially when I could continue to consult on a part-time basis?
It should haven been a no-brainer, but it wasn’t. There was just something about fulfilling my childhood dream of working in the NBA that was intoxicating. There was also undoubtedly an ego-driven component to all of this.
I wrestled with this decision for months. Had I wanted to jump on full-time, the position was there for me.
The pros? I would be working in the NBA and making substantially more money that I ever had previously while simultaneously fulfilling a childhood dream.
The cons? It would have required me to move to another city, be on the road for over half the year and give up my job as a professor, something that I cherish deeply. Not to mention the fact that it would pull me away from my wife, who we had recently found out was pregnant.
Nobody in my life knew about the opportunity that was extended to me. I kept it quiet, as I didn’t want to invite any turbulence into my family dynamic unless I was seriously considering taking the job. Finally, I had a conversation with my father about it. At the time, my father was dying of brain cancer. He had always been someone I could go to and get concise and honest counsel.
When I told him about the opportunity, he replied: “Well, you’ve always wanted to work in the NBA, right?”
I responded by nodding my head affirmatively. After a period of silence that lasted somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 seconds, I said: “But here’s the thing, I don’t think I’m going to take it. I know it pays well and that I’ve always wanted to work in the NBA, but…”
My father smiled and said, “I think you made the right decision. Don’t get hung up on finances. You’ll have plenty of chances to make money, but you won’t get another chance at being a husband or parent.”
Sometimes childhood dreams look decidedly different through the lens of adulthood wisdom and experience.
I ultimately decided to turn down the job and commit to a career in academia. It has been one of the best decisions of my life. I still have the flexibility to do some private consulting and scouting without compromising my family life.
As for the job I was offered? Well, the person in charge of the operation has since been fired. This likely means had I taken the job, I would have been fired too regardless of my performance.
Shortly after his dismissal, I sent him a text. I’ve found it best to call a bit later as everyone reaches out to someone immediately after the firing, but a few weeks down the road is when all of the “well wishers” seem to vanish.
My text read: “Wanted to let you know I’m thinking of you and grateful for the opportunities you extended to me. I’m sorry it ended the way it did for you. Let me know if you need anything.”
The return text read: “You’re a good man, Travis. Everything is relative. I imagine there’s a #%#@storm in Denver today, too.”
His final comment referenced the fact that I live in Denver, and indeed, the fan base and media have been out in full-force with torches and pitchforks pointed in the direction of head coach George Karl. The irony, of course, being that Karl won Coach of the Year in the midst of this.
The Karl that the media is going after is the reality TV figure or cartoon character, not the person. However, the person is human and has human emotions regardless of the size of his paycheck. That human side shined through when Karl started talking about his partner and their young daughter at the press conference formally presenting him with the Coach of the Year trophy.
“So much of coaching is you cheat your family,” a tearful Karl said as he seemingly tried to stuff the emotions back from whence they came. “I wanted Kim to be here and my daughter Kaci because I know I’m cheating them.”
I suppose all of us cheat our family to a certain degree regardless of what we do for a living, but these words rang especially true for me as I watched Karl’s press conference. I thought of my best friend in the league referenced earlier in this story who did everything short of beg me not to take the full-time job in the NBA. I called him and thanked him for his advice at which point he informed me that since his boss had been fired, he didn’t know what the future held for him. He would continue on with the organization through the draft in June, and then… well, who knows.
Welcome to the glorious life of working in the NBA.
Every yes to something in life involves a no to something else. We have a finite number of times in which we get the privilege of advancing one of the two responses and some carry more impact than others. What are you willing to sacrifice?
Dr. Travis Heath is a psychologist in private practice and an assistant professor of psychology at MSU Denver. He has served as a team consultant in the NBA. He also co-hosts a show on Mile High Sports Radio weeknights from 6-8 p.m. You can follow him on Twitter @DrTravisHeath.
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