Steve Nash and Morrie Schwartz

Steve Nash isn’t dying. He’s fantastically fit, a young man of 40 who would have his best years of productivity and accomplishment ahead of him if he wasn’t a professional athlete.

Fun! Oh my goodness, was it ever not! The SI cover jinx has rarely been more evilly effective.

In the NBA, of course, he is a dinosaur, and a tiny one at that (at 6’3”, such is relativity), and no amount of his considerable brainpower or his incredible competitive drive is making a damned bit of difference. Less than two years removed from a Sports Illustrated cover – shared with Dwight Howard, the two newest Lakers! – the former point guard maestro is pretty much forgotten, except for Laker fans who snipe bitterly about his injuries, his team-hampering salary and his “selfishness”.  At his uselessness, and worse. He’s played twelve games this cursed season, out of 72.

Grantland editor and Fan-in-Chief, Bill Simmons, had been talking book possibilities with Nash for awhile, but the man’s still playing (well, occasionally; actually, not much at all, but he’s still a Laker). He’s still a colleague, a peer, and he quickly realized he couldn’t write it the way he wanted, and wouldn’t be interested in doing so if it ignored all of his best insights. Besides, he is not only a certifiable Canadian sports hero without skates, but he’s already produced and/or directed documentaries and will continue to do so after his retirement from the hardwood. His own agonizing grind toward the end of his basketball career, he thought, might make a pretty good film, something that hasn’t been done before; Simmons agreed, but convinced him to do it in three short installments, and to do it NOW, in vivo, a Portrait of the Athlete as an Old Man, a peek behind the curtain of a sporting hero’s struggle to prove that I can still do it!

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Foot Soldiers of a Different Sort

The TV types back home have been wearing poppies for a week now, and the day of remembrance has arrived. On another front of stylized war, the sporting airwaves have been spiked with tales of a truly offensive lineman for the Miami Dolphins and the out-of-bounds brutality he is said to have inflicted on his team-mate. There is much hand-wringing from the shocked public, which is countered by furious defence by insiders, arguing that civilians – and I use the word purposely – cannot know the ferociously masculinized world-of-the-wars that is an NFL locker-room. For today, I will only say that Mr. Incognito (that’s actually his name) “did not act alone”, and cite a superbly indignant piece on the “warrior culture” and its insistence that Being a Man involve sometimes being less than human. Now, it’s two other offensive lineman – the grunts, the hewers of wood and haulers of water, the spear-carriers of this quite incredible game/industry of football – that I want to mention, for an entirely different reason: they’re done with it, gone too soon as some fans might lament.

I read about them the same day. One was an NFL pro, one a wannabe in the high echelons of the NCAA “student athlete” zone of professional apprenticeship. Josh Williford played for Louisiana State University, a usual top-ten program in the best league in America. He’s 6’7” and weighs way north of 300 pounds, and in a game in October of 2012, he lost his mind.

Cuts heal, but we’re not so sure about concussions. I’ve been there — different field, same blankness — more than once. Man down, way down.

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T-Mac III: McGrady is Finished. HoF Speculation Begins.

Tracy McGrady has announced his retirement, and it’s a black-armband day

Despite years of mediocrity, it was still a story. He was exciting, and such a perfect foil for “what if”s and “if only”s.

for Chinese basketball fans. (Some NBA snobs would say it’s his second retirement, the first being when he came over to Qingdao to play for the Double Star Eagles in the short Chinese Basketball Association season. I would not say that, as I need all the Chinese friends I have.) I’m certain that tears were shed in more than one Middle-Kingdom man-cave, though T-Mac also had a surprisingly big fan-club of starry-eyed young women, too. For a North American, the scenes of his arrival in and departure from Chinese airports were astonishing to watch, even in small doses. “TracyMania”, it was.

While he doesn’t inspire that sort of devotion in America, and certainly not among most Canadian ball-watchers, there’s no time to wait. Like greedy relatives who want to know the contents of the will before the deceased is even cold, writers and fans in the West vault instantly past any of the routine thoughts we have when someone we care about retires. So, what are you looking forward to? Does it feel good to be done? (When it comes to thirty-something men who have been incredibly well-paid for playing games, this would seem like a silly question, though I’m not sure it is, always.) And maybe we’d be bold enough to ask, Are you well set-up financially? How will you fill your days? What gives you a sense of purpose now? None o’ that, in the case of athletes we allegedly love. We are patently uninterested in any of those things. We don’t care a lick about what life for the famous dude will be like. The writers and fanboys go straight at the only question, it seems, that matters to us: is T-Mac a Hall of Famer?  

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Too Bad About Your Gift, Bro (Sis)

Better luck next life…

An acclaimed young architect, with signature projects having been built, with his mind blooming with visions of constructions yet to be, finds that he is less and less able to draw. After years of intense training and the honing of a unique skill, a brain surgeon notices, not long after her 30th birthday, that she’s sometimes a bit clumsy with her scalpel. An ethical young lion of business finds herself hesitant, unable to make up her mind, while the dynamic teacher faces his class and finds, in the second decade of his dream career, that he doesn’t really know what to say to the kids anymore.

These are local tragedies, but what’s up? How does this happen? There must have been an existential earthquake. Cancer, a brain aneurysm, Lou Gehrig’s disease, something dreadful has suddenly snatched away or disabled someone’s essential gift. What a pity! It’s unjust, dispiriting. It just shouldn’t happen like that. If we are wealthy, we fear losing our money and possessions. When we love, we worry about the loss of the beloved one. And if we have a great gift, and we know it, our greatest fear is having that gift abandon us. (Of course, there are those who neglect or abuse their gift: the sellout songwriter without a thing to say after a string of popular hits, the monster athlete who loves bars and strip joints and can’t find the gym. This is not about that.) The imaginary designer, the doctor, the tycoon and the educator above, through no fault of their own, have had their way to shine snuffed out far too soon. We all agree that this would be awful for them, to say nothing of the loss to society.

But then, why dwell on a hypothetical sudden loss for imaginary professionals? Such things happen, of course, and hey, it sucks, but it’s just one of those weird things, we would probably say, just a lonely little box of bad luck. Most of their peers, and most of ours, work for as long as they want, potentially well past standard retirement ages. But listen: imagine if this happened to everybody in a given profession. It’s not difficult, actually. It happens to every professional athlete.

Given the absurdly high salaries that the top jocks pull down, it’s not fashionable to spare much pity in their direction, but it’s hard for them, all the same. Money can’t buy happiness, and fame doesn’t take away the pain (“it just pays the bills”, as Fred Eaglesmith sings). I think about this a lot.

Back To You, Mai Di: T-Mac II (Updated)

T-Mac, all smiles with Wang Hai, Eagles owner.

It’s time for an update on Tracy McGrady’s sometimes bizarre, steadily surprising adventures as a basketball nomad in Qingdao, a coastal city in China. When last I wrote of the former NBA scoring champion, his Double Star Eagles were on an epic losing streak to the start the season, which eventually reached 12 painful games. Things are looking better recently, though most of my main questions remain the same. I’m not one to sneer at an athlete on the way down, but his career in China so far makes an interesting story, and perhaps a sad one.

The Eagles look to extend a recent winning streak to six when they visit the second-place Shandong Flaming Bulls tonight, who are led by Pooh Jeter, Jackson Vroman and the Jordanian forward Zaid Abbas. (Any bells ringing? Jeter played at Portland — and his sister is the gold medal sprinter — and Vroman at Iowa State.) The game may even make CCTV 5. When I last reported back in December, McGrady (Mai Di, as he is called in this country) was about to break loose for 41 points, albeit in the last game of the big losing streak. Here’s how it has looked since then.

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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.

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Too Young to Die

Dearly beloved,

We are gathered here to celebrate the lives and mourn the passing of two fine men. To be truthful, we don’t really know much about them as men – their wisdom, fairness, ingenuity, compassion, responsibility – so we honour, as we often do, their career accomplishments. They were utterly dedicated to their chosen profession, and paid a great price for that devotion during outstanding careers in the graceful, and brutal, exercise of power. Millions had watched their rise, profited (in ways not easy to account for) from their successes, and muttered quietly about their eventual and inevitable fall. And now they are gone. They were thirty years old.

They still are, actually. Brian Westbrook and LaDainian Tomlinson

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