As the Bo Jackson’s Hip “mission statement” and each subsequent post here at the site hopefully impart, I like to write about the way sports and life intertwine. Sometimes this connection is direct and undeniable. As we watch athletes live their lives and interpret their motivations, see real-world events collide with the sporting life, or witness the humanity of competition, it’s easy for sports to strike a chord. Sometimes the connection is a bit more indirect. Sometimes it is about the self-applicability of a sports story and the life lessons it can teach, as in the case of Bo, who eventually inspired the name of this blog when his hip injury removed the veil of innocence from my young, bright eyes. I saw how quickly things can change for the worse, and how fragile life can be. The lesson was easily applied and I have never forgotten it. Right now, that lesson is also running hand in hand with my personal life, and another, more recent sports story, so let’s explore, shall we?
The trade that sent Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers happens to coincide with the collapse of a romantic relationship for me, and both bring up ideas about loyalty, honor, faith in something, and the sometimes icy coolness of reality. I won’t get into too many details concerning my now former old lady, but in the words of Big Daddy Kane, “I look at the toilet bowl and wonder what's up/cause I know damn well that she don't piss with the seat up.”
What happens during a break up (especially the ones foisted upon you) is that you are placed in a situation that leaves you open to analogy and kinship in other spheres. As I hope Bo’s story illustrates, sports, like any form of art, is rife with just such opportunities. We seek out meaning and understanding in a variety of outlets, from books and film to music and other mediums. In my case, it’s usually athletic competition. It never surprises me either, because sports are what I know best and I've watched them evolve for so long that their advice on the human condition has flowed naturally out of games, seasons, athletes and careers.
Dwight’s saga reminds us of how the tenuous relationship between player and owner seems to consistently ignore the fan, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t fascinated by it. At this point, it has played out in seemingly every way, good or bad, and it is never uninteresting. From Wayne Gretzky’s departure from Edmonton, Joe Montana’s exile from San Francisco, Babe Ruth’s curse-causing move from Boston to New York, or LeBron James' figurative bitch-slap to the face of the city of Cleveland, a player changing uniforms is the basis of many enthralling sports stories.
In the case of Howard and his departure from Orlando, Dwight left the Magic when they needed him most, and did so in the most surreal, self-serving, and ultimately destructive way possible. I wrote about this very fact a couple of posts back, when it looked like the Magic might turn to of all people, Shaquille O’Neal, to right the ship. The Magic tried time and again over the years to surround Howard with the level of talent that could bring him a championship and what did he do? He wiggled out of Orlando the easy way and acted as childishly as possible, making a fool of himself and his franchise.
For some perspective, let’s get back to LeBron James for a moment, whom Mr. Howard, more than LBJ’s recent NBA Championship with the Miami Heat or gold medal with the United States Olympic Team, has made look like a favorite son again. The fans and media lambasted James for the way he left Cleveland, but in light of Howard’s behavior, many now regard James’ decision to leave with a quiet admiration. “The Dwight-mare” has officially replaced “The Decision” as the NBA’s worst free agency/trade rumor debacle. And remember, James left via free agency, at the end of his contract, his right to do so inarguable, and made a calculated decision to end his relationship with Cleveland. The fans there are still bitter, but the media has softened on James. The way he left is still derided, television special and firework presentation and all of that, but his reason no longer is: he wanted a change.
One cannot condemn James for falling out of love with his hometown and deciding to move on, but Dwight Howard does not deserve that kind of consideration. What he did was whine, cry, demand a trade, take it back, demand a trade again, and then force his way out of town, leaving Orlando with nothing but a lineup of NBA roster-fillers and a hand full of future draft picks in return. He told Orlando, in essence, “I want out”, but he did it in a way that was personally easy and professionally cowardly. He did not honor his contract, he did not honor the fans of Orlando, and he comes out of all of this as petulant, selfish, and indiscriminate. Did I mention that he’s headed to my favorite team, the LA Lakers?
I’ve never felt so torn about such good news. I know that while we secured the best center in the league and perhaps, if he should find it in his clearly large heart to grace us with a new contract, the centerpiece of our franchise for the next half-decade, we also got a player that has never shown any fondness for fairness, proclivity for passion, or lust for loyalty. We get a physical specimen with the personality of a rich girl demanding more out of her Sweet Sixteen party. He, like so many athletes in the modern NBA and the sports world at large, has no interest in deferring gratification and building something special. He would rather moan, complain, get his coach and general manager fired, and leave his current employers and fan base holding a bag of air.
I mentioned earlier that I turn to sports for life lessons and perspective often, but that such insight can also be found in other forms of art, like music. I’m no exception on that front either, and who better to turn to than the best rapper alive? I mention to friends and colleagues often that Jay-Z means so much to me personally because thanks to a career that spans 11 (12, if you’ve been watching The Throne) albums, he has lyrically explored nearly every aspect of life on earth, and thanks to his genius as a rapper, provided fantastic insight into many of the highs and lows of existence. I always say that I can fit one of his lines around anything that life throws at me, and two in particular keep coming back to me in my current situation, one in which I’m dealing with an emotional loss and watching Dwight Howard shift to his new digs in LA:
Are you listening Dwight? Because I sure as hell am. That wealth that Jay’s referring to isn’t just money or fame, it’s success, achievement, satisfaction, self-fulfillment et al. I want you to take a good long look at the three things he puts before “wealth”. As far as the second line, it makes me wary of anything that comes out of Dwight Howard’s mouth right now. He got what he wanted, out of Orlando, and while he tells us that this will imbue him with an unselfish desire to win a championship based not on personal, but mutual goals that the Lakers will set, all I can think of is the guy who bolted out of Orlando with a trail of lost jobs, disenfranchised fans, and a depleted organization twisting in his wake.
James and Howard, while now on opposite ends of the “how-to-fuck-your-team-over” spectrum, do still share an unfortunate motivation: winning now. This phrase, “win now”, is something that is relatively new to sports, but in our present day, is near-ubiquitous when discussion arises regarding athletes, fan-bases, franchises, and even the four major sports themselves. As Brooks Hatlen might say, “the world went and got itself in a big goddamn hurry.” No one–owners, players, or fans–seems capable of building something real, holding on to a shared camaraderie, and pushing towards a goal, regardless of whether or not it is achieved.
Michael Jordan’s six championships taught a lot of young athletes some terrible lessons about success and what it means. It doesn’t mean you have to be like Mike and fill your fingers with rings in order to be successful, and even Mike stuck with Chicago, let them build, and then flourished. Today’s athletes only see his success, and not the process that got him there, and think that they are entitled to instant gratification. How’s making millions of dollars coming out of high school or your freshman year in college for instant gratification? Don’t you think that you can learn something about yourself and the value of hard work by taking the time to earn the achievement of your goals, and not circumvent that necessary hard work in any way that seems fit?
If I sound bitter, I’m at a bitter spot right now. Hell, the country is at a bitter spot right now. The last thing we want to hear living check to check and slowly salting away the money for a better tomorrow is how yet another entitled player or greedy owner took a shortcut to success at the price of what the Jigga Man already laid out: honesty, loyalty, and friendship. Again, sports has much to teach us as fans about life, but Dwight Howard’s story reminds me how much athletes themselves have to learn about life from their fans. It’s a two-way street, and fans understand struggle, adversity, and dedication to one’s own self-worth just as much as athletes do, if not more.
Dwight Howard shows us the definition of the easy way out, and he shows us how to cheat better than any baseball slugger on performance enhancing drugs or lover stepping out. He did not just cheat his contract, or the NBA collective bargaining agreement, or the organization that nurtured him, or the fans and citizens of Orlando. Most importantly, he cheated himself. Trouble is, like so many of our modern athletes, he has been rewarded for his bad behavior, stepping into a team with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and the also new-to-LA Steve Nash. If life was fair, the Magic would have dealt Howard to the Toronto Raptors or the Sacramento Kings and let him see just how good he had it in Orlando. But that is the definition of wishful thinking, and the ultimate lesson of the interplay between sports and life is that as fair as we want both to be, they simply never are.