Taking the Magic out of sports
Ready or not, here it comes. Genetic testing of children to determine athletic traits is at the door. Much like the trend to ever-younger talent eschewing the traditional path of education and collegiate sports, there is no stopping this next wave. Our challenge is to use this new technology, information and tool in the best and most ethical manner possible.
Knowledge is power.
But do we really want a society where we're testing babies in the crib and telling them, "Here's your life"?
I don't know enough about genetics to qualify as an expert. I just know the life that I've led, and what I've seen. I do know, though, that I don't like to see overbearing parents who are trying to push and steer their children in ways that the parents' dreams can come true. Sadly, in my experience in the money sport of basketball, some parents and relatives see a child's success as a route to riches for themselves. These parents become little more than pimps.
Not everyone is going to have the same body as Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal or Kevin Garnett. A lot of people who eventually make it to the NBA level are the winners of the genetic lottery. But those people also have levels of character and humanity in their lives that drive them to become the best. In my sport, two of the absolute greatest players of all time -- Larry Bird and Magic Johnson -- were very average physically. They certainly weren't fast and they could barely jump. There is no way that Larry and Magic would ever be characterized as athletically gifted, in a relative sense. The real strengths of these legends' games were their heart, soul and mind. They are both geniuses of the human spirit. Is that genetics or the environment? Have life's influences made them who and what they are?
I grew up in a home where my parents tried to help me create a life for myself. My dad was the most un-athletic guy I ever knew. I never shot a single basket with him. I did see him run one time at the church picnic and I fell over laughing. But my parents gave me a life based on education, love, trust, confidence, hard work and a love of life that has left me forever intrigued and challenged as to how I can make this a better world. My dad, who worked three jobs, gave up his life so that my dreams could come true.
I knew from the earliest days that I wanted nothing more out of life than to play ball. And my parents still ask me to this very day: "Billy, when are you going to get a job?"
I have tried to provide these same goals and models in raising our four sons. I encouraged my children to play sports for fun, health and to learn life's great lessons from being on a team. I have tried to create opportunities where they can find their own ways, all the while learning how to build their own dreams and fun. I have tried to expose them to as many different things as possible. While they ultimately all chose basketball, my sons regularly played volleyball, tennis, soccer, Little League baseball and flag football.
In the end, my dreams became nightmares as my career was ruined by genetic structural defects in my feet. There were the endless string of stress fractures, the 32 operations, and two fused ankles. But that was my life, my choice and I played until I could not take another step.
Studs Terkel put it best in his most recent book, "Hope Dies Last." Isn't it the job of parents, teachers and leaders to inspire hope? To create an environment where young people wake up every day and say, "Hey, let's go! Give me that ball," or " ... Give me that computer," or " ... Give me that library card"? For me, the worst thing in life is destroying someone's dream.
So I don't know about the wisdom of genetic testing. And I certainly wouldn't share the results with the children.
But, then again, I never liked sonograms, either. I simply didn't want to know the sex of my unborn children. I only wanted them to become who they are.
Bill Walton, an ESPN and ABC analyst, won NCAA and NBA titles during his injury-marred Hall of Fame career. Each of his four sons -- Adam, Nate, Luke and Chris -- went on to play Division I college basketball. Luke is now with the Los Angeles Lakers.
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