BY DAVID THORPE
A few months ago we had to allow an animal hospice service to give our dog a sweet and peaceful passing. He expired in the arms of my wife, who cared for him seemingly every moment of his 10+ years. My daughter was beyond distraught. Weeks later his memory choked her up again, and I reminded her that Spalding had earned those tears. Most adults know the feeling of losing something we love--something in which we have invested time, hopes, and dreams. Our tears are an authentic reaction to loss, and a release. They help us mourn and move on.
We don’t often see athletes cry, which is strange. To expect them to play with feeling, yet leave that feeling on the floor is not only unrealistic, it’s unwise. Commissioner Adam Silver sees anxious players in the NBA now. One way to alleviate anxiety is to behave authentically. A painful loss, an injury that requires season-ending surgery, or sometimes just failure can end a dream. Why not cry?
Last week Jeremy Lin cried when discussing his fear of not being on an NBA team this season. How on earth could he not cry at the thought of his life-long dream coming to a close?
Lin’s road is the stuff of legend. Just getting into Harvard is impossible enough. My nephew has done some incredible things as a student-athlete at an esteemed high school. He missed one question on his SAT and has no confidence at all he will be among the lucky few to enroll at Harvard next fall. Jeremy Lin must have lived in the library or at a desk to have the academic record to get into such a prestigious school. But he somehow also excelled at high-school basketball. Graduating from Harvard requires nearly impossible commitment to studies, yet Lin somehow was superior on that basketball court as well. And unlike almost every other Harvard (or any Ivy league) graduate, he made the NBA.
It didn’t stop there, as you know. Lin’s story might be a Hollywood movie one day. We’re talking about an Asian-Amercan combo guard from Harvard coming to the NBA. What are the odds? First of all, he is not that tall, he’s just 6 feet 3, a shrimp in that league. And while Harvard is kingmaker in many professions, the last guy to graduate from Harvard and make it into an NBA game played just as World War 2 was ending. And finally, he’s Asian-American. According to TheMuse.com, fewer than one half of one percent of all Division 1 players were of Asian-American heritage when Lin was at Harvard. Last season, Lin was the only Asian-American to be on an NBA roster.
Lin got to the NBA thanks to an unquenchable thirst to chase his dream and a relentless willingness to work. Students of mine put in 4-6 hours of work on their games and bodies six days a week, typically. In the summer anyway. That does not include active recovery, or the Epsom salt baths at night to help them prepare for the next day. It’s fair to guess that as a young man Lin did at least that much. Remember, this was a 6-3 high schooler who didn’t get any scholarship offers to play at Division 1 schools.
So after all that work--after overcoming all those odds--Jeremy Lin cried when faced with the harsh reality that his long fight might be over. I want more players to do exactly that. Because, the truth is, there is lots of crying in the NBA, it just happens behind closed doors. It’s time that changes. Crying helps us heal. It triggers feel-good hormones and releases endorphins. It’s a stress reliever.
2012-2013 was George Karl’s final season coaching the Nuggets. They were a so-so team that played the first few months winning about as much as they lost. But then something happened in January. They were nearly unbeatable at home and able to race past most opponents on the road. Late in the season, a rash of injuries forced them to play their second unit more, to great effect. They finished the year 33-9. But it came at a cost. The Warriors, Denver’s opponent in Round One, went small due to an injury to David Lee and were able to beat the injured Nuggets. The second unit that had saved them so many times in the regular season was now entirely exhausted.
Corey Brewer, a student of mine for years (and still to this day), had been their lifeblood. I knew going into the final game that he had nothing left to give. His kinetic energy and magnetic smile had grown dim, spent in a series of amazing games heading into the playoffs. Brewer pairs an incredible basketball IQ with a totally selfless attitude. Winning is all that matters to him. Period. He called me after another poor performance by him and his team, crying.
I explained that he had simply run out of gas, but my words had no meaning. “I’m Corey Brewer, coach!!” he sobbed into his cell phone. “I help my teams win, always, and I let all my teammates down today and this series.” He was inconsolable, as he was the other time I heard him crying. He had learned his dad had fallen into a coma, and he had to rush home. Both times I hung up the phone thinking “we need more crying in basketball.”
My daughter wasn’t weak for crying about her dead dog, nor was Corey Brewer somehow acting soft about his ailing dad, the hero of his life, or about the sudden end to a brilliant season for his team. Lin has been speaking to Christian groups, and in his first talk since crying, as reported by Diamond Leung of the Athletic, he said:
“I knew going on stage, I knew I was going to break down, you know?” Lin said. “I knew that was part of it, and I was willing to do it because I was like, hey, this is part of a message or something that I want to push. It’s like, we’re human. We’re not perfect. We struggle.”
Showing weakness, he suggested, was a great sign of strength. Amen. I contend Lin feels as physically sick as anyone who is suffering from tremendous loss or doubt about the future. It’s not just a potential life change, or the fact that 20 years or so of work has now, possibly, run its course.
Crying simply means we care deeply, or we’re afraid, or some combination of the two. It’s as human as breathing. It’s your mind and body acting in harmony.
I told Corey how proud I was of him when he cried after that playoff loss. If every player were as dedicated to winning as Corey was and is, the league would be far more fun to watch. We know most good teams do have such players. We also know they do their crying behind the scenes. I hope every player, faced with the pain Lin is facing now, feels empowered to tell people the truth. If that truth leads them into a public cry, we are all better for it. If it’s OK for Michael Jordan to cry as he hugged his first Finals trophy, overwhelmed with happiness and relief, the opposite should be equally accepted. Why not cry? The NBA has long been a safe place to express emotions like anger, aggression, or joy. But the truth is the people playing the sport, like everyone, feel far more emotions than those, and in that they are just like all of us.
No more dream teams
As long as the NBA season remains so incredibly long, it’s time we stopped using our best players in international competitions. Forget for a moment that it seems like too few guys want to play for their country, citing health concerns. The NBA should be working with young and not so young athletes to protect them. We are already openly discussing a shorter season. Why should we ask the best players to play as many as six intense games (pool play is three games in five days, then it’s the same for the three playoff rounds), plus practices and exhibitions, just before the start of their own season? There’s a better plan, one that removes injury risk from the stars while building on the talents of young players who have yet to make their mark. Build the roster following some simple guidelines.
All players will be 25 or younger before the competition begins
No player shall have played more than 2,000 regular-season minutes the previous season
No more than four players can come from any draft class (to ensure young players are always getting “Royal Jelly”)
Only one player can come from any team
Following these rules, Team USA’s entry into the World Championships later this summer could have a starting five of:
Derrick White (Spurs) 2017 draft class
Justise Winslow (Heat) 2015
Caris LeVert (Nets) 2016
Kevon Looney (Warriors) 2015
Mitchell Robinson (Knicks) 2018
A second unit of explosive athletes, skilled bigs, and an elite shooter could easily mix with those starters:
Jaylen Brown (Celtics) 2016
Terry Rozier (Hornets) 2015
Luke Kennard (Pistons) 2017
Marvin Bagley (Kings) 2018
Zach Collins (Blazers) 2017
Zion Williamson (Pelicans) 2019
Jaren Jackson Jr. (Grizzlies) 2018 (or use Ja Morant from the Grizzlies for another lead guard)
Would that team cruise to gold? Probably not. Would the games be interesting? Most assuredly. That squad would be the most athletic team in the tournament by a mile, with skill inside and out. And they’d be underdogs, a fun space to compete in.
In time we can expect many, if not most, other countries to follow suit, and the USA could pressure the international governing bodies to make those rules (or anything resembling them) universal. With what we know for certain about athletes and their bodies, asking the top players in the NBA to lead their teams to title contention AND spend summers playing for their country is simply unfair. Better to enable young players still learning the game and with far less miles on their knees and ankles to represent America in these contests.
Later this week, Henry writes about love and basketball.