A sports insider cries foul at America's obsession with big-time athletics
- University Press of Mississippi
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OF THE GAME
The summer after I had decided to stop chasing the dream of a career in the NBA, a college teammate was getting married in Charlotte, North Carolina. The church was not more than a mile from the arena in which we had played most of our college games. I was in the wedding.
I had completed a very successful Division I career at Davidson College just two years earlier, having scored more points than anyone else in the school's history. After being picked in the third round of the NBA draft by the New Jersey Nets, I spent a season playing professionally with the Maine Lumberjacks in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA).
During that long, cold winter in Bangor, Maine, I had decided to give the NBA one more shot the following fall and, if that did not work out, retire from competitive basketball to find a "real" job. I came to this decision after observing far too many twenty-six-, twenty-seven-, and even thirty-year-old CBA players who refused to accept the fact that their chance to make the NBA was long past. By mid-season I was determined not to follow in their footsteps; thirty years old and still chasing that NBA dream with nothing to show for a twenty-year career but a few faded newspaper clippings. Old newspaper clippings are of little use in getting a job. So, after being released by the Golden State Warriors the following fall, I returned to Charlotte to work as a director of youth sports programs at a YMCA.
One of my wedding responsibilities was to escort family members of the brideand groom from the back of the church to the front before the ceremony. A friend of mine later told me of a conversation he overheard while I was performing these duties. A woman seated in front of my friend pointed at me and asked her companion, "Who is that tall guy walking down the aisle?" The man replied, "Oh, him? That used to be John Gerdy."
Apparently, when I stopped playing competitively, I not only wasn't a basketball player, I wasn't even John Gerdy!
Despite having a great deal of athletic success, I prided myself on being more than simply a dumb jock. My mother had always emphasized to me that while athletic accomplishments were great, what was most important was being a well-rounded and good person. I earned good grades in school, had many outside interests, particularly music and social work, and consciously tried to avoid talking about or calling attention to my basketball career. But that I might be something other than a basketball player, possibly an intelligent or funny person with interests other than basketball, or that I might be someone who he should consider hiring in his business never crossed this person's mind. To him, I was simply a gladiator.
What I failed to appreciate at the time was that my athletic career had, at that very moment, come full circle. From an athletic perspective, I was where I begannot as John Gerdybut as someone else.
My earliest athletic memory was of kicking a football in the side lot adjacent to our house in Little Falls, New Jersey. I spent thousands of hours kicking that football, often alone, but never lonely as I would visualize game scenarios, imagining myself to be a member of the New York Giants. A fullback named Tucker Fredrickson was my favorite. The Giants had great plans for Tucker, a first-round draft pick out of Auburn. Although he had a few good years, he never met the high expectations of a first-round pick, due to a series of knee injuries. Those were the days when a knee injury often meant the end of your career. But there I was, not thinking about knee injuries, but rather of all the touchdowns I was scoring, not as John Gerdy, but as Tucker Fredrickson.
One of the beauties of sports is the way you can lose yourself for hours with the aid of nothing but a ball and your imagination. One's ability to imagine and construct vivid mental images and concepts is a valuable developmental characteristic, which sport can nurture. Whether playing with others or by yourself, the number and types of games in which you can participate, all with varying sets of rules, each set unique to the particular number and abilities of the players involved, is endless. For example, the rules were different when we played baseball in the school playground as opposed to the park. They had to be because the playing areas were so different. In the park, any decent shot to left field wound up in a busy street. Consequently, left field was out of play. In fact, if you hit two straight balls there, you were out. In the playground, right field butted up against the backside of School No. One, only twenty yards beyond first base. It was our own version of Fenway Park's Green Monster. But unlike Fenway, where a ball hit off the wall results in a hit, in our game, a fly ball off the wall could be caught for an out.
From touch football in the street in front of our house to basketball behind the police station in the center of town, the rules varied. The rules could also be changed depending upon who was playing. Older kids might be required to bat opposite of what they were most comfortable with, or shoot with their "off" hand. But whatever the scenario, we negotiated and policed the rules ourselves. It required imagination, creativity, flexibility, mediation skills, and the ability to communicate with others. Most important, it was fun.
I began participation in organized baseball and football by age seven and in basketball by age twelve. But, despite the excitement of team uniforms and the prospects of winning a team trophy, my fondest memories as a youth are of those pick-up games. There were no adults managing those games and telling us what supposedly was the "right" way to play them. Those games were truly ours. Whether stickball, pick-up basketball, or street football, because they were ours, they were much more fun than any of the games played as part of an adult-organized team. They were more fun because there was no one between us and the game itself. We were just a bunch of kids with a ball playing a game for no other reason than the sheer joy of it. While I dreamed of playing in Madison Square Garden as a New York Knick, I played because it was fun. That is why we all play. When it is no longer fun, we stop, or should stop, playing.
Sports' most fundamental purpose centers on the alleged benefits that accrue to the athletes. Whether a footrace at a county fair in 1800, the Super Bowl in 2000, or the gathering of a group of out-of-shape executives seeking exercise and camaraderie during a lunch-time pick-up basketball game, the most basic purpose of athletics has centered upon the needswhether they be competitive, physical, or communalof the participants. Long before athletics were formally incorporated into the framework of our high schools and colleges, people engaged in "free play" or loosely structured, energetic "games" for the sheer joy of participating in a strenuous, competitive, and fun physical activity. To the athlete, the game has always been about being actively involved in what was happening on the field or court. It is the pure enjoyment and challenge of testing your abilities against another that is the essence of sport. Sports' entertainment function, like spectators, is a byproduct of the game, evolving from the competition itself. If anyone was interested enough to watch the action, so much the better. Whether spectators watch, however, is beside the point. The origin of sport in our culture centered on the value or benefits that accrued to the participants.
The most obvious benefit of participation in sport is physical. Virtually every piece of medical research indicates that moderate exercise contributes significantly to a longer, more healthy life. If there is anything that can be said with certainty about sport, it is that regular exercise promotes good health. In short, the ancient Greek ideal that a sound body contributes to a sound mind is, in fact, sound.
But what lured me to sports and what continues to hold me is the essence of the game. What I knew instinctively at the age of eight and know now, after almost forty years of experience in athletics, is that ultimately, what matters in sport is the essence and purpose of the game itself; to have fun, to develop the mind and body, and to connect with others through competition. When sport is done correctly, there is nothing more exciting, rewarding, or powerful. The purity of the gamethe beauty of a team meshing together to where the sum equals far more than the parts or of an individual playing to his or her full potential; of looking a teammate in the eye and connecting on a level that needs no explanation, whether it be a back door cut and pass perfectly executed in basketball or a perfectly timed sideline pass in football; the realization that your talent and effort has merged as one with othersremains. That is the essence of the game. And it is why, even to this day, I continue to lace up my sneakers to play lunch time pick-up basketball. This, despite the fact that I will pay a dear price in the form of sore muscles, painful knees, and aching back, for doing so. It is the possibilities inherent in challenging yourself and in connecting with others through competition that keeps me coming back. The lure, to this day, remains irresistible.
It was for those possibilities that I started playing and why I continue to play. It is fun, and it is great exercise. Unfortunately, the forty years of involvement in athleticsbetween being a kid with dreams and becoming an ex-jock with lots of aches and painswas much more complicated. Whether it was the uniforms, the coaches, the fans in the stands, the television coverage, the media hype, the governance organizations with their endless meetings of administrators, or the corporate sponsors, it is everything that has happened in the forty years between when I was kicking that football around the yard and now, creakily making my way up and down the court at the YMCA, that has been so complicated, confusing, and ultimately, disappointing.
Excerpted from SPORTS by John R. Gerdy. Copyright © 2002 by University Press of Mississippi. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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