I recently had the awesome opportunity to write a feature I hope will be published in a magazine I won’t announce because I don’t want to jinx it about a rising NBA player—called Player X here.
For this story I had the excellent interview with Player X, who is a highly intelligent, articulate and thoughtful dude. He was able to answer questions that got to the very root of why he loves to play basketball, a feat that many writers who’ve played for years (like myself) would have difficulty committing to a page. Yet he extemporaneously explained how he came to desire that grind that is necessary for all but the very privileged few to reach the NBA.
As a part of my research on this unnamed athlete, I talked to his high school coach, an Assistant coach from his college team and the Assistant GM of his new NBA team.
Although I tried my best to remain focused on my subject, I became fascinated with the clear delineations in how each interviewee viewed the player visa vis the level of basketball they represented.
The high school coach had a molasses smooth Southern drawl and an extremely endearing way of repeating the points he felt were most salient. “And he did that in a practice scrimmage… a prac-tice scrimmage. It was clear that he was in the profession of establishing emotional connections with his players and that he viewed himself as a teacher of habits like hard work and discipline as much as the triple threat position and taking charges.
The engaging coach was both self-deprecating and self-congratulatory, managing to avoid credit for his player’s success while, by the very way he told his stories, implying he was there every step of the way. I admit, by the end of our twenty minute talk, I was ready to run suicides and earn floor burns for the guy.
I talked to the college coach third, but for the sake of narrative structure I’ll describe him next.
A longtime assistant coach at a BCS conference program, he was no less of a teacher than the high school coach, but there was a decidedly more clinical tone to his stories of Player X. It was not unlike the way a college professor might talk about you, versus your 9th grade English teacher. In both cases the teacher will (hopefully) have some nice things to say, but the professor might focus a bit more on the quality of your work.
The college coach, like his high school counterpart, stressed the player’s coachability and his desire to improve on his own—but the coach’s loyalty was to the program. He constantly referred to how “the program was proud that Player X is one of ours.” He was also far more technical in his evaluation of Player X’s experience within the program.
While the high school coach talked about the character development of his player, the college coach was more eager to focus on the new techniques and skills that they were able to teach Player X in preparation for “the next level.” There was a very real and necessary emphasis on teaching “NBA ready” skills instead of simply becoming ready for adulthood.
I hesitate to say that either approach is better—it was clear that both had the player’s best interest in mind. They simply adopted different approaches, each appropriate to the point in the player’s life at which they coached him.
The NBA Assistant GM had a very different view of his new player.
Now, unlike the preceding men, this man was not a coach, nor did had he known the player for longer than a couple months. Obviously, he shouldn’t have the personal connection to or intimate knowledge of the player that the previously discussed coaches would.
However it was clear that his approach, generally speaking, to his involvement with the player was that of a businessman. Again, should this be surprising? After all, the man’s job is to acquire talent best suited to make the franchise successful, not necessarily to develop the player.
The Assistant GM neither evaluated Player X purely on the merits of his character, as the high school coach did, or on the technical nuances that the player’s excellent character allowed the Player X to learn, like the college coach. Instead, he saw how Player X fit a need within the organization, and seem to view his role as that of acquiring a set of skills that would improve the success of the team.
Player X was a good guy who would do things to help his team, so mission accomplished.
What are the implications of this transformation in expectations and relationships for a basketball player travelling up the rungs in a NBA career? I’m sure that most are not as lucky as Player X, and aren’t surrounded by the type of people I spoke to for the majority of their basketball lives.
I suppose in some ways, the journey mimics what could be termed my professional path, from high school student to liberal arts major to someone who primarily writes (not fun stuff like this) for a living.
Yet though I apply skills learned in high school and college to my current job, I am not doing fundamentally the same thing as I was in high school (reading, analyzing and commenting on literature) today. For the professional basketball player, the road to getting paid to play necessarily involves a deconstruction of some of the fundamental joys of playing in the first place.
I can’t decide to what extent the joy I once found in writing about The Great Gatsby remains in my work today, and how it would compare to how much an NBA player enjoys professional basketball as compared to high school hoops.
Certainly, they get paid a great deal more than I do for any sacrifice in enjoyment. The player I spoke to, for one, loved the grind.
In any case, to what point do players maintain their athletic innocence in an era where they are routinely conditioned for professional basketball from the time they are barely teenagers? When, as one former American born professional player who plied his trade in Europe once told me, does “everything change once you start playing for your livelihood”?