Athletes, show some personality!
Far from the wistful type, I'm pretty good with the evolution of the major sports. I think basketball -- pro and college combined, if not separately -- possesses a breadth of talent comparable to any era in history. I think baseball players are stronger (I know, I know) and better-conditioned than ever before, and I believe that has created a game that is played at a level of physical (not to be confused with mental) prowess that matches any other time. Football is a slightly different story, at least in the NFL, since I think it's been hijacked by overbearing coaches who follow the latest trend like wild dogs tracking a scent.
But those are topics for another day. Today we're wishing, and more than anything in sports today I'm wishing for personality. I'm wishing for guys with something to say and the desire to say it.
I'm looking for some righteous anger, or bilious disenchantment, or even a goofy, Barkleyesque pronouncement. I'm tired of everyone in the media getting lathered up over a middle reliever "guaranteeing" a win in an important game. That's not news, and that's not personality.
And how about some old-fashioned clubhouse dissension? Remember when that word -- dissension -- was such a part of the baseball lexicon? When's the last time you heard it used? Like everything else these days, it's mostly used speculatively, as in "I wonder if Manny Ramirez's return from steroid purgatory will create dissension among the Dodgers?" There's never any real dissension, like there was during the '70s, only speculation and denial of speculation.
I long for personalities such as former All-Star shortstop Garry Templeton, who got so indignant over being picked as a reserve in the 1979 All-Star Game that he issued the famous line "If I ain't startin', I ain't departin'." And he didn't on either count: He wasn't voted to start, and didn't depart. Even Templeton's nickname -- Jumpsteady -- wouldn't occur to anyone these days. These days, personality is a pair of puppets created by advertising people who sit in meeting rooms slurping down hyper-caffeinated energy drinks. Like the athletes they serve, they just don't want to offend anyone. That's how we get nicknames like "King." Zzzzzzz.
I wish guys would be weird sometimes, and not A-Rod weird (Madonna is like the starter kit for the personality-challenged athlete) but Derek Bell weird. After hitting .173 in 2001, Bell was unhappy to find that he would have to compete for a job in the Pirates' outfield in spring training. "I ain't going out there to hurt myself battling for a job in spring training," he said. If he had to compete, "then I'm going into Operation Shutdown."
I also wish we didn't live in a sports world where too many people eager to fill the vacancy have decided that facial expressions (Kobe) and choreographed pregame (LeBron) and post-touchdown (Terrell Owens, Chad Johnson) celebrations are adequate substitutions for personality. Think about this: What kind of personality does Peyton Manning have? He might be funny and intelligent and a great storyteller, but I'm guessing your first vision is the same as mine: A guy standing on a hotel balcony in his robe talking to the maid in the next room. In other words, a vision created by someone else.
I don't know what the answer is, or if there is one. I just know I don't like it when controversy takes the form of LeBron James' walking off the court without shaking hands or speaking to the media after losing a playoff series. Weird as it was, give me Isiah Thomas and Dennis Rodman diminishing Larry Bird on the basis of his Caucasian-ness any day.
If it looks like I'm picking on the LeBron-Kobe-Tiger-Peyton level of athlete, that's not the intent. At the moment, they're the most obvious examples of athletes who have reached the level of fame that leaves them afraid to say something that might damage their own corporate interests. They're afraid to offend anybody.
They're afraid of the media, wary of saying anything that could be construed as controversial or critical because they believe the media are always "trying to start something." They think the media will "blow everything out of proportion." They are understandably wary, but they don't understand the overriding tenet of the relationship between athlete and media: If you are open and honest, occasionally funny and usually available, you can use the media to become a star. That's right: We can be used for your benefit. Ask Charles Barkley. Every beat writer and local broadcaster is dying to have a go-to guy in the clubhouse or locker room, someone who is there with a good quote or a concise summary of what just happened. The smart guys get this, and that's why most of them -- Dave Winfield, Orel Hershiser, John Kruk, Barkley, Magic Johnson -- end up on television.
When he was coach of the Sacramento Kings, Jerry Reynolds was asked about the lingering career of center Duane Causwell. The Kings and their fans waited far longer than was reasonable for the 7-foot Causwell to give them some sign of well, just about anything. By the mid-'90s, it was clear he wasn't going to give it to them, and the sign that the organization was tired of waiting came from Reynolds, who said, "Sometimes potential becomes notential."
Just four words -- or, more accurately, three words and a nonword -- that said everything that needed to be said, with personality and conclusiveness. It wasn't that long ago, but it's almost unthinkable that an NBA coach would be that honest today. We'd get something like "Duane's working hard to put in the time needed for him to become a productive member of a winning team."
Reynolds isn't a big name, and never was, but he had personality. And what's he doing now? Working as a television commentator.
Other things I wish for:
Just one: I wish for the Bengals to draft Chris Ochocinco, so Chad Ochocinco has to wear a jersey with CHA. OCHOCINCO on the back. My life would be complete.
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