(Dear Reader: Nine years ago in January, I lost my father to suicide. The last time I saw him in person was Christmas day, 2007. My father served in the U.S. Army for over a decade, and worked 50-60 hours a week until the day he died. In thinking about his life of hard work—and how it still left him poor and unhappy—I sought to write something that addressed this ... without really addressing it.)
The old “Hair Club for Men” commercials used to be anchored by a guy who boasted, “I’m not just the president of the Hair Club for Men, I’m also a client.” He wasn’t just selling you cheap toupees—he was wearing one. The implication: No reason to be embarrassed--like the characters in a Stephen Crane novel, everyone was sitting in the same sinking boat.
Welcome to the life of the sportswriter who covers his favorite team. Hell, who cares about that? Welcome to the life of anyone who covers any unsuccessful team in any sports. If you’re a baseball beat writer who covered the Cubs for the last 40 years, you’ve got my respect—you waited a long time to cover a truly great baseball team. I can’t imagine what it was like to spend 40 years trying to find slivers of hope ... but forced to reckon with a team stuck in the mud.
Losing, as it turns out, is hard on everybody.
But hey, at least when the game is over, and I’ve written my 3,000 words on the parts of a Dallas Mavericks loss that I cared most about, I can tune basketball out for a day or two if I want. I can get away. I can take a week off for the holiday. It’s not my job to be invested 100 percent of the time—and that fact keeps me sane. It’s like having a tiny life raft I can use to float away from the wreckage at any point.
That’s not how it works for the athletes.
Lose a tough game, and there’s another to prepare for. Get out-rebounded by 20, and you might not get to go home and sleep off that embarrassment—you might get held after the game to watch film in the locker room.
It cannot help that this Mavericks team seems to play with a lot of energy. Stay with me for a second: Let’s say you’re a team that doesn’t care much—like the Lakers when they knew Kobe was gonna chew up minutes and shots that kept them from being competitive. Or, maybe you’re a Sixers team over the last couple of years, and you know that they’re trying to lose—that by the time they field a winning club, you might not even be in Philly.
Maybe you don’t go 100 percent on every play. Maybe you can’t fathom diving onto a parquet floor to save a ball that’s skipping out of bounds—because the bruises, cuts, and breaks you get for your sacrifice won’t lead to the playoffs, and they might lead to a trade to the Sacramento Kings.
So, if you lose 60 games on a team that’s operating at 80-percent effort—you kind of expect it. But, if you’re the Dallas Mavericks, you’re a team that’s giving great effort every night. Even the Mavs losing plays are not often plays that lack energy—but rather plays that are energy that’s out-of-control. I make fun of Justin Anderson’s ability to turn a good play into a bad one, but I have to press this idea: he makes those plays because he’s working TOO hard—not because he’s being lazy.
This makes me wonder just how much harder it is, when you play with every ounce of energy you have, to lose 20 games before Christmas. To know that you’re trying as hard as you can — and that it’s only been enough seven out of 27 times this season, the dismal numbers following Monday's loss at Denver — must be brutal.
Is it any wonder that someone like Dirk is musing about retirement a year early?
If anyone embodies that 100-percent effort, it’s Dirk. When Harrison Barnes came into the program, Dirk half-joked that he’d finally found a guy who actually was a gym rat, and not just a guy who said he was a gym rat. Is there any doubt that Dirk is working as hard as he possibly can to return from his injury? No. Of course not—but he’s still not back. Is there any doubt that Dirk worked as hard as he could, for 18 seasons, to win the NBA title? No. Of course not—but he only won the title once.
Hard work guarantees nothing.
I learned that a long time ago ... and I’m sure a lot of us have. When I was working on my master’s degree in writing, poet Paul Otremba shared a very sobering realization he’d had while working on his PhD: He did all of that graduate work, so he felt the world owed him something. Thousands of hours of reading, writing, workshopping, teaching—they had to be worth something. Right?
Sure. Those things are all worth something—but that doesn’t mean the world, or even your university, owes you anything. The only thing you’re “owed” at the end of a PhD in writing—according to Paul Otremba, and everyone else in a capitalist society—is a big stack of poems, or stories, or essays.
To quote a hero of mine, the late Ralph Wiley: “All a man’s got is the integrity of his work.”
But, I can tell you from experience and observation, the integrity of our work does not always lead us to the zenith of our professions. It’s lead Dirk to the zenith one time in 18 Hall-of-Fame seasons.
Look to Arlington and you’ll notice Tony Romo in pads and a baseball cap during Dallas Cowboys offensive possessions. He’s been among the best QBs in football for a decade, and he’s barely sniffed the playoffs. Now, he’s holding a clipboard for a rookie quarterback. Is it because Romo didn’t work hard? Nope. In fact, he worked hard before and after breaking his back a couple of times, before and after puncturing his lung, before and after being replaced for Dak Prescott.
It doesn’t always lead you to the mountaintop. But integrity is worth something.
It makes success sweeter. But, yes, it also makes failure more painful.
So, when a guy like JJ Barea expresses glee over finally being able to participate, as he did in the loss at Denver, believe in how weighty that is. And when a guy like Dirk says something like, "Maybe, if everything hurts, I won’t come back next year'' —remember that he might not only be referring to that aching Achilles, but also to the aches of pride, heart, and spirit that batters the mind as much as any workout batters the body.
Sometimes, what hurts too much, is working harder than everyone else, and still failing.
I might just pick a lounge chair and a cold drink over that feeling. I might just prefer to spend time with my growing family over another 1,000 jump shots, full-court sprints, and leg-days.
Or, I might write 1,200 words about it, know that’s all I’m owed, and hope that that’s enough.