Not Dead. Just Done.

Chances are excellent that you don’t know who Delvon Roe is. I am slightly daft for games, so I recognized the name in headlines from the world of (American) sports. (Hmm. Michigan State, wasn’t it? Yup. Maybe a third year shooting guard? No, senior forward, but nice try. Right area code.) There is a darkened sky over the land of Spartan basketball today, as young Mr. Roe, 23, has been forced to announce his retirement from the team and the game.

Roe is among those gifted American kids who went to university to study the deeper mysteries of jump-shooting and help-side defence. The most apt of these pupils never complete this most liberally defined of the liberal arts, of course, fleeing their pseudo-education after one or two years for the bright lights and big money of the NBA. (If you are an apologist for the idea of colleges as feeder schools for pro sport, perhaps this reminds you of Bill Gates, leaving his computer studies at Harvard to build a computer empire instead. But his education was not dependent on healthy knees, nor could it be stale-dated by age 35 in the best-case scenario. And Gates scored 1590 on his SAT coming out of high school, while prospective “scholarship” athletes are required to muscle up to 700 in order to be admitted. In basketball, there’s now a whole prep school industry dedicated to helping non-qualifiers to reach the standard, while their dunking brings lustre to the school. Weird world, when you think of it.)

The athletic entertainment business, like the music mill, finds its stars young. Balding, paunchy white men were already gushing, projecting what Delvon Roe’s place would be on the high and frequent flyer circuit, when he was 16. By the end of high school, he was considered among the best future professionals in America. When he announced to the press his departure from Michigan State basketball, writers immediately bracketed his premature demise with the names of the current and future pro ballers to whom he’d been a teenaged superior, including last spring’s darling of the national collegiate championship and of NBA draft day, Kemba Walker. This is tragedy lite in North America, but it’s taken seriously. The millions Mr. Roe was surely going to earn, not to mention his love for a game that had brought him considerable fame and real accomplishment, were undercut by repeated surgeries on knees that had not received the memo: This is a star in the making. He just couldn’t deal with the pain anymore, he said. Some of that pain must have been mental, as his frustration built over the things that he could no longer do on a basketball court.

There are touching stories of his tears – with his college coach, his teammates, his blood family – as he shared his inevitable decision: no more hanging around, no more hoping for what cannot be. But the appealing (and all too rare) subtext of the Woe is Roe press coverage was a slightly bemused and clearly surprising conclusion: this one won’t be spit out by the sports machine, forgotten and unprepared for anything else. There might actually be a credible and useful life for a young black man who had put, necessarily it seems, most of his eggs in the same sweaty basket. Wow. I think he’ll be okay, seemed to be the feeling, a refreshing thing to read and a better one to believe.

Sports have become incredibly important in our culture. (Have you noticed? Sports fans of an earlier vintage — my father, for example — couldn’t have imagined the salaries, the obsessive fan-dom, the high-speed morality-play-on-wheels that is 21st century sport.) Even for those of us that were never 6’8” tall or particularly blessed with the rare confluence of opportunity, motivation and odds-breaking genetics – for so many men, in societies where we have the leisure to love sports too much, there is an aspiration, mostly hopeless, even retroactive, to someday be a has-been. We don’t think of it that way, not consciously, but what we’d have given to live that life! The prematurely aged joints? The hollow feeling that the best is forever behind? Whatever! That guy was awesome. I’d have given anything to be him! The perversely exalted status of this most banal of preferred fates, the has-been, tells us a lot about the emptiness of modern life for too many guys. Better to be a has-been than a never-was, right? Well, isn’t it?

Once upon a time, he end of university was the natural marker of a life that would now leave the things of adolescence – all-night cramming for exams, keg parties, the chase after co-eds, competitive sports – in the rear-view mirror. Family, professional contribution, community service and maybe a softening belly awaited. Necessity has thrust Delvon Roe into that quaint old model, and he claims he is without regret. He wants to be able to play with his young daughter, he says. He has done some acting. He seems to believe there is life after basketball. I hope he’s right, and not just for his sake.

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