By: Adam Hutchinson
Head Basketball Coach
This summer my friend Ben asked my opinion (via email) about the legal troubles facing a prominent sports figure. We rapidly went back and forth about a number of legal fiascos that have dominated sports pages in recent years, but soon enough our conversation crystallized around one central theme. We found ourselves asking (and echoing Charles Barkley’s famous Nike commercial from the 1990’s) “Do athletes have a responsibility to be role models?”
A little background on Ben helps to understand his opinions in our discussion. We were college teammates in the early ‘90’s, and he was a GREAT basketball player: lightning quick 1st step, could stop on a dime, finish at the basket, automatic mid-range game, and a very good 3 point shooter. Ben translated these skills into a career as a professional basketball player in Ireland, Cypress, Malta and Costa Rica. I offer only an abbreviated summary of his athletic career, since he was always more than a great player. As long as I have known Ben (going on 20 years now) he has been a basketball philosopher.
Ben was the first guy on our team to grasp that the SCIENCE of basketball is a strategy to score more points than your opponent, but the MAGIC of basketball is how teammates work together to accomplish that. Any time we talk basketball, he never talks about his stats or honors or awards he won. He always talks about key turning points in games and seasons long past, funny stories about teammates (like the one about the only teammate we had who DOES like to recite his career stats to anyone in hearing range), and the impact his coaches had on him as a player and person.
Following his retirement from professional basketball, Ben spent a year travelling the world (the whole thing). He has since started a family and established a successful career in finance . . . all while maintaining a blog that often (but not exclusively)focuses on . . . wait for it . . . wait for it . . . the lessons he learned, the relationships he developed, and the memories he has from playing basketball. Not simply an ex-athlete trying to relive the days when “he coulda been a contendah”, Ben is a family man, an established professional, an intellectual, and a true believer in the character building opportunities that sports offer (not to mention a poster child for D3 and Ivy League athletics). And Ben believes that participants in sport DO have a responsibility to be roles models. IN YOUR FACE Barkley!
I, too, am a true believer is sports, but I reached a slightly different conclusion than Ben. Hopefully a little of my background will help you understand my opinions in our discussion.
Growing up in the 1970’s and early ‘80’s, my first exposure to big time sports was watching them every Sunday afternoon with my brother Jason and my grandfather in my grandparents’ kitchen. Anyone who came of age at that time probably watched a similar TV: a small black and white job, with aluminum foil on the ends of the antennae, and pliers resting nearby in case you wanted to change the channel. This relatively primitive device was enough of a window for my brother and I to become convinced that Julius “The Doctor” Erving was the coolest man on the planet (a sentiment I apparently share with our current president). Back in the day, around the way, we all wanted to play the game like Dr. J. The first 40 seconds of this video will help you understand why: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsqE_yKfkhE. It is by no means an exhaustive display of his highlights, but it will only take 40 seconds to understand where I am coming from.
While I am on the subject let me say this: Dr. J is hands down the most spectacular basketball player I have ever seen, and it’s not close. We would watch Magic make a move, and the next day at whatever park you went to in NJ, all the guys would be trying to replicate it. Same thing when Jordan played. The day after he did the switch-hands thing in the Finals against the Lakers, EVERYONE at Spring Lake Park, including me, was simulating that move (simulating, NOT replicating). I’m sure this tradition continues to the present day with current stars. The stuff Doc did? The only place you could even THINK of simulating that was on the Nerf hoop in your bedroom.
Ok, back to my grandfather’s kitchen, where my brother and I watched most of the sports: baseball, basketball, football, tennis: if it was showing on Sunday afternoon, we watched it. And every Sunday, NO MATTER WHAT SPORT WE WERE WATCHING, at some point Grandpa would wake up and say . . . “Yep. Good ol’ Jimmy Brown.” Doc just did the up & under move in the NBA Finals against the Lakers? “Yep. Good ol’ Jimmy Brown.” Connors vs. McEnroe in the US Open? “Yep. Good ol’ Jimmy Brown.” Reggie Jackson hit 3 homers in the World Series against the Dodgers? If that had happened on a Sunday afternoon, our cheering would have awoken Grandpa and he would have said . . . “Yep. Good ol’ Jimmy Brown.”
Grandpa had watched Jim Brown do his thing, and somewhere along the way decided that Brown epitomized athletic achievement, and no one, in any sport, was ever going to match or surpass him. I don’t know when this happened in Grandpa’s life, but I think a similar moment happens to all of us, in various areas of our lives. I think of it as a tipping point of sorts; call it the moment when we cease to be young and start to become old, the moment when the future can never equal the past.
Oddly enough I have had 2 of these moments as a sports fan, both courtesy of the same guy. On April 20, 1986 Michael Jordan went off for 63 in a PLAYOFF GAME, against a BOSTON CELTIC team with 5 FUTURE HALL OF FAMERS, in BOSTON GARDEN (sorry Kobe, but 81 in a January game against a bad Toronto team is not comparable). I was 14, and because I knew no one would EVER approach that performance, that night I took my first step over the tipping point and started getting old. 6 years later MJ made me young again.
By 1992 Jordan’s dominance in the NBA was well established. He consistently led the league in scoring, transformed a previously wretched Chicago Bull team into NBA champions, conquered Bird, Magic and Isiah Thomas, and was widely considered to be the best player in the league, and maybe ever. I was not a fan of Jordan’s seeming arrogance, and was rooting for someone, anyone, to at least challenge the guy. The 1992 NBA Finals brought a viable contender in Clyde Drexler of the Portland Trailblazers. Drexler was a spectacular player, a future Hall of Famer, slightly bigger than Jordan and seemed to be equally athletic. When asked about a point by point comparison between the two, Jordan conceded that Drexler was “probably a better 3 point shooter than I choose to be.” Did he really say “than I choose to be”?!?!? Yep. Apparently his arrogance knew no bounds.
Well I’ve heard it said that it’s not arrogance if you can back it up. All Jordan did was set an NBA Finals record by going 6 for 6 from 3 point range in game 1. So much for Drexler being a better 3 point shooter. Turns out that while the rest of us were playing basketball, MJ was playing “I Can Do Whatever I Want Out Here, and Nobody Can Do A Thing About It.” Needless to say, everyone in Spring Lake Park was shooting long jumpers the next day.
So I grew up watching Michael Jordan, and was convinced on more than one occasion that no one would ever top something I saw him do. It seems my grandfather had a similar experience watching Jim Brown. I am certain that when my sons cheer for LeBron or D-Wade, at some point I am going to wake up and say “Yep . . . Good ol’ Michael Jordan.” Does that mean MJ was, or should have been my role model? Nope.
My grandfather’s name was Tump. He was a man of few words, strong, and amazingly consistent. He left the house every weekday at 5 am to work construction. Rain, sleet, snow, hot, cold . . . it didn’t matter. He was out the door AT 5 am, not around 5 am. On Saturdays he would work around the house or the yard, take his grandchildren various places, maybe have a few beers with “Brother-In-Law”, and on Sunday he dozed in the kitchen while his grandsons watched sports. When my brother and I would complain about chores Grandpa would remind us that “Any job worth doing is worth doing right”, and he lived by those words.
His daughter, “Ma” as I call her, is very much like him. She worked first as a teacher and then as a principal for 40 years in the Newark school system. She left the house every day at 6:45 am. By the time she retired, she had YEARS of sick days accumulated (which she never used). The job was never just a check to her. Right up to the day of her retirement she worked to provide an education for her students and fought passionately for them to have a future that they or their parents often didn’t believe was possible. Sometimes these students were sweet grammar school kids, and other times they were middle school and high school kids whose behavioral problems resulted in their expulsion from other public schools in the city. It really didn’t matter, because all of those kids learned the same fundamental truth that I did: when you became Wilma Findley’s responsibility, education was of paramount importance, everything would be done the right way, and it was not negotiable.
Which is not to say that I didn’t try. Like all kids I hated chores, homework and bedtime. As a teenager, whatever I was told wasn’t good for me was EXACTLY what I wanted to do, and tried to get away with whenever I could. My success rate at this was a robust 6%. I’m not kidding. She even found a Catholic high school for me to attend, with Benedictine monks that must have shared a Vulcan mind meld with her. My first week at St. Benedict’s Prep, I decided to toe the line, because I had seen this film every day growing up, and the ending never changed. Several of my classmates had to learn the hard way as those cagey monks used their psychic powers to sniff out every teenage plot. (Naturally the ONE time in four years of high school that I decided to ditch, I got caught.)
Fast forward 20 years, and as I coach my team who do I find myself quoting? Benedictine monks, Grandpa Tump, and Big Wilma (a reference to Ma’s presence, not her stature). When I talk to my sons, I find myself telling them that any job worth doing is worth doing right. And of course my wife tells me that I remind her of . . . Big Wilma. I never told Ma this, but being compared to her is the highest compliment I have ever been given (spend a day or two around her and you will understand). She has been my role model all along (as I suspect Grandpa was her role model), and as I have matured I have come to realize she is my hero as well.
So what of athletes as role models? It seems clear to me that all of us have a responsibility to be role models, but mostly to people in direct proximity to ourselves, people who we see every day. I certainly thank Michael Jordan for many thrilling memories, but I would never expect him to be accountable for my children’s behavior: that is a job I share with my wife. And heroes? The most unappreciated heroes in America are the educators who commit their lives to enriching the minds, developing the spirits and raising the horizons of young people who don’t always have appropriate role models at home.