Tuesday, December 22, 2009

December 22, 2009--Are high-level athletes really low on self-esteem?

"I'm focused, man."--Jay Z

It occurred to me as I ran through my drills today (my third straight workout day!) that Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, Jerry Rice, Kobe, Lance Armstrong, and the rest of the legends of athletic history must have low self-esteem.
This occurred to me as I ran along the curves of the beach and found myself stride for stride with a middle-aged man with an orange biker's hat pulled down low over his eyes. I had been running for less than a minute when we crossed paths, with him having run for an indeterminable time. In a show of bravado, I ran to his left, as per the runner's code that allows passing on the left and put him in my rearview mirror. Feigning a look at the beautiful apartments straddling the beach, I noticed with great satisafaction for the first five minutes or so that only his shadow was even with me.
After these five minutes, however, he returned the favor and passed me quietly to my left. After another ten minutes, his orange hat had become dulled in the twilight sun, and his figure, though not the "ant" seen from high above in an airplane, wasn't highly visible either.
It is a universally-accepted tenet of athletic greatness that he or she must have a certain cockiness, arrogance, or, in 2009 parlance--"swag." MJ was known for demeaning teammates, owners, and opponents. If you don't believe me, read any book about him, or just watch his 2009 Basketball Hall of Fame acceptance speech. Ali almost made tough-guy Joe Frazier cry, and there is still an uneasiness between the two that lasts to this day, based on the fact that Ali called Joe Frazier a "gorilla" and an "Uncle Tom," among other things. Kobe is still hated by some as much as he is beloved, for his purported aloof nature and negative comments about teammates--see Bynum, Andrew.
It occurred to my amateur psychologist-mind that the great athletes must have low self-esteem, as they always see someone as better than them. Michael Jordan was known for increasing the intensity of his off-season conditioning program even while in the midst of three consecutive NBA titles; Kobe went right back to the gym this summer after winning his fourth NBA title, reinvigorating his game with the help of post play tutelage by the great Hakeem Olajuwon, worried about the Young Turks like CPIII, 'Melo, Le'Bron, etc., coming to take his throne.
So is it endemic among athletic stars, this feeling of inferiority? Even those on the top of their athletic universe feel that there might be, nay, there is, somebody who will overtake (or has overtaken) his spot at the zenith of sport.
Mr. Sigmund Freud, meet Michael Jeffrey Jordan...

I am 12 or 13 years old, fresh off an all-tournament selection at the Zephyr Trail Basketball Camp, an acclaimed camp in the area. I am smack in the middle of the euphoria of a championship in the Green Division (the Young Bucks), the all-tourney selection, and a stoked and stroked ego from the glowing comments ("Great attitude," "great feel for the game," "quick off the dribble," "willing and able passer...") provided on the "Player Evaluation" form filled out by my coach from the week.
In the folder provided for each player at the end of the camp, among the advertisements for off-season conditioning, AAU teams, and camp certificates, there lay a pale green sheet that looked like it'd been copied out of a 1930s-era college media guide. On the sheet were sobering statistics:
-Each year in the NBA, approximately 60 players are drafted. Factor in the number of graduates from Division I college basketball, and the chance of you making the NBA is minute.
Whoa. I'm stunned. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss, and the subjectivity of dreams and aspirations can progress due to a lack of facts and statistics. It's the first time that the front of my mind has come to terms with the knowledge rusting away in the back of my mind: There are many, many (many), players who are better than me, and they will get to the NBA, and I won't.

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