Bill Simmons is nearly finished with his book on a subject near and dear to my heart, the NBA. Avi Zenilman of The New Yorker interviewed Simmons on the NBA Finals, and the topic of the modern athlete came up:
The lack of college experience also means that you probably have less of a chance to have a conversation with a Finals player about English lit or political science. For instance, if you’re a reporter, maybe you don’t ask for thoughts from modern players on the Gaza Strip or Abdul Nasser, or whether they read Chuck Pahlaniuk’s new book. These guys lead sheltered lives that really aren’t that interesting. Back in the seventies, you could go out to dinner with three of the Knicks—let’s say, Phil Jackson, Bill Bradley, and Walt Frazier—and actually have a fascinating night. Which three guys would you pick on the Magic or Lakers? I guess Fisher would be interesting, and I always heard Odom was surprisingly thoughtful. I can’t come up with a third. So I’d say that the effects are more in the “didn’t really have any experiences outside being a basketball player” sense.
I can’t wait to see what happens to KG, Kobe, T-Mac, Carmelo, Howard and others when they finish with basketball. These guys have been mini-corporations and basketball machines since the age of eighteen. What will they do? What will be important to them? When I was researching my book, one thing that blew me away was how brilliant the guys from the fifties and sixties were. Not as players, as people. Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Bob Cousy, Wilt Chamberlain…these were thoughtful, well-rounded human beings who cared deeply about not just their sport, but about their place in society and (in the case of the black guys) their stature during such a tumultuous time. Everyone knows about Russell’s eleven rings, but did you know about everything he did to advance the cause of African-Americans? Everyone knows about Oscar’s triple doubles, but did you know that he filed the lawsuit that paved the way for a real players union and free agency? These were truly great men and the N.B.A. just wouldn’t be where it is if that wasn’t the case.
Nowadays, the mindset seems to be more, “What can I do to raise my profile? How can I become more famous? How can I make more money?” We need more David Robinsons and Steve Nashes and Ray Allens. The N.B.A. does a terrific job of getting their players into a community, but I wonder how many of those players actually understand why it’s important, or if it’s just something else on their schedule right between “Make a cameo on Kendra’s reality show” and “Meet with E.A. bigwigs about a possible N.B.A. Live cover.” Five decades ago, when Russell wanted to get his point across about something that was important to him, he would write a first-person account in Sports Illustrated. Today, Shaq gets his point across in a 140-character Twitter post. I don’t think this is progress.
[Click to read more of Studying The Finals: News Desk: Online Only: The New Yorker]
Amen to that.