The First Death of an Athlete

By choice or by circumstance, exiting sport is inevitable. What happens after is less certain.
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Steve Nash giving an interview in June 2014. (Photo: lev radin/Shutterstock)

Steve Nash giving an interview in June 2014. (Photo: lev radin/Shutterstock)

For the majority of his 18-year NBA career Steve Nash was a better basketball player than anyone had expected him to be. The wiry, soft-spoken, 6’3” Canadian—diminutive by League standards—was drafted with little fanfare out of the small collegiate program at Santa Clara, the only Division 1 school that offered him a scholarship.

Nash remained in the league’s proverbial trenches for much of his first four seasons. In year five, he took the sort of talent leap that separates the great players from the very good ones; by year 10 he was a two-time NBA MVP, the leader of the Phoenix Suns’ “seven seconds or less” offense and a historically deft dead-eye shooter.

There’s an oft-repeated phrase in sports, its recurrence having washed away its origin, but the premise is this: Athletes die twice, and the first death comes in retirement.

The team was captivating to watch during the Nash-led era, and though it fell short of a championship, other lasting work was achieved. The Suns’ style of play was something of a counter-culture movement—an insistence for speed and offensive fire-power in a sport where defense is king—and Nash, its leader, vaulted his way to Hall of Fame status, reviving the sagging careers of several teammates in the process.

He could have ended it there, legacy fully intact—and he probably should have ended it there—but he chose not to. Few athletes do. Dedication can be a tunnel. The single-mindedness required to achieve success keeping other considerations, like life after sport, out of sight. Eventually, by choice or by circumstance, the tunnel opens up. A new life begins.

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In a 2012 sign-and-trade deal Nash was shipped to the Suns’ division rival, the Los Angeles Lakers. In his second game with the team he collided with another player, resulting in a non-displaced fracture in his left leg. Though he had battled lingering back issues for much of his career, this was different.

The climb to the top of the sport for Nash was steady, slowly incremental, and the descent was the opposite. A career’s worth of injuries seemed to exact their toll all at once, Nash’s body grimly paying up the debts. He would spend weeks recuperating only to be hobbled again—an old injury flaring up or a new one surfacing—soon after returning to the court.

In the moments where he was spry, it was easy to forget that Nash, the visionary playmaker, sneaking pinpoint passes between giant bodies, was bound by the same physicality as everyone else. At his best, he was mesmerizing.

Other times, opposing point guards made his deficiencies glaring. Young athletes, still finding their footing in the league, exploding past him en route to the basket, the former MVP left standing feebly off to the side.

Heading into this season, Nash was dealt the final blow, which was crushingly cruel in its mundanity. He aggravated his back carrying luggage and shortly after it was announced he was out for the season—the final year of his contract—his career effectively over.

Now, other notes have been attached to his name. Not MVP, or All-Star, but accusations of greed and selfishness, hurled by despondent fans, as Nash—living away from the team—collects his final paycheck while unable to contribute on the court.

In November, Nash took to Facebook to explain the reality of his circumstances:

I understand why some fans are disappointed. I haven't been able to play a lot of games or at the level we all wanted. Unfortunately that's a part of pro sports that happens every year on every team. I wish desperately it was different. I want to play more than anything in the world. I've lost an incredible amount of sleep over this disappointment.

Competitiveness, professionalism, naiveté and hope that at some point I'd turn a corner has kept me fighting to get back. As our legendary trainer Gary Vitti, who is a close friend, told me, 'You're the last to know' - and my back has shown me the forecast over the past 18-20 months. To ignore it any longer is irresponsible. But that doesn't mean that life stops.

Then, earlier this month, Nash tweeted that he was feeling so good that “maybe he shouldn’t have hung them up.”

This was done in jest but it’s also easy to read this earnestly, that it’s honest sentiment wrapped in the guise of a joke. In Nash’s situation, it would be natural to ponder that question. It was not his decision to leave basketball. He fought hard not to—and what he lost stretches well beyond 94 feet of hardwood.

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There’s an oft-repeated phrase in sports, its recurrence having washed away its origin, but the premise is this: Athletes die twice, and the first death comes in retirement.

In The Sociology of Sports Tim Delaney and Tim Madigan write that sports are a focal point for socialization and leaving sport results in a process of “desocialization” and “a modification to the sense of self.”

This is an unkind and inescapable truth for athletes. The identity, the celebrity, the adoration, the money, everything they’ve attained is ultimately diminished, if not lost completely. The role of an athlete is temporary. Nash has yet to publicly acknowledge that first death, though it seems certain enough now.

Studies prove, and examples abound, that the transition into life after sport is not easy. Athletes are often unprepared, mentally, emotionally, and financially.

This is an unkind and inescapable truth for athletes. The identity, the celebrity, the adoration, the money, everything they’ve attained is ultimately diminished, if not lost completely. The role of an athlete is temporary.

The cruelest fate an athlete can be dealt, according to Delaney and Madigan, is that of injury, where a hand is forced, an exit involuntary. Decades of physical and mental investment, the high of competition, the comfort of camaraderie—all of it erased in an instant. There is no way to prepare for that.

Kris Draper played for 20 years in the NHL, 17 for the Detroit Red Wings, where he captured four Stanley Cups. His knowledge and experience in the game is boundless but still he struggled in retirement.

“Hockey was such a part of my life, as well as my family’s, that I knew we were all going to miss it,” he told Forbes. “For the first few weeks my son was in tears sobbing, ‘I miss you being a Red Wing daddy.’ I didn’t know what to say so we just cried together. Nobody prepares you for that kind of stuff.”

The difficulty of retirement is not limited to athletes who play in the most popular or highly mediated sports. A 2007 study in the Psychology of Sport and Exercise examined five women who had dedicated their lives to gymnastics. In retirement they reported feeling a sense of purposelessness.

“After prematurely adopting an identity based solely on their role as a gymnast,” the study reads, “many of the participants knew little about who they were and what they wanted to do with their lives.” Consequently, in order to establish a new identity, they were forced to distance themselves from their past, from everything they had worked so tirelessly to achieve.

The study concluded that pre-retirement planning can aid in transition out of sport but it must begin at a very young age and be maintained throughout a career. Beyond that, a meaningful replacement must fill in the absence.

All of this considered, it’s erroneous to assume retirement from competitive sport automatically creates problems. Each individual case is, of course, unique, and other social factors—age, gender, race, education, the status of support networks, and financial security—shape the transition. The way an athlete exits sport can also set them up for life after it. We often see popular players return to the sidelines as coaches or to the broadcast booth as announcers, these opportunities partly afforded through status.

Still, even the greatest players are not immune to difficulty—Michael Jordan, Brett Favre, Gordie Howe—athletes that built lasting legacies, only to spend their final playing days stuck outside them, tearing at the walls, trying to get back in. Their last moments spent chasing a specter of the past.

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Last year Rashard Mendenhall retired from the NFL at 26, the age when most athletes begin to enter their prime. He played six years in the League, which is actually longer than the average career length (the National Football League Players Association claims it to be just over three years, while the NFL maintains it’s closer to six years).

Mendenhall cited the stress and physical and emotional toll of being a pro athlete, the racism he endured, and the overarching business interest of football, which limited his enjoyment of the sport, as some of his reasons for walking away early. He also spoke of other interests: art, literature, travel, recognizing the extraordinary position he’s in of being young and financially secure.

Mendenhall wrote about his decision:

The box deemed for professional athletes is a very small box. My wings spread a lot further than the acceptable athletic stereotypes and conformity was never a strong point of mine. My focus has always been on becoming a better me, not a second-rate somebody else.

Mendenhall was criticized for this deviation, but, writing again six months later, from his home in Los Angeles, where he’s pursuing a career as a screenwriter, he appeared at peace:

I wasn't supposed to walk away from the NFL, but I did. I wasn't supposed to be writing television, but I am. I'm supposed to be lost after football. I'm not. I've reinvented myself.

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Reaching the top tier of athletics is a lonely, isolating march. The practice venue becomes something of a sanctuary. Skills are grown there, identities are formed and reinforced. To be an athlete means to embark on an endless chase of perfection, to want to achieve as much as possible, again and again, year after year, until the ability disappears.

For Nash that comfort was found, and presumably still remains, on a basketball court. Now, when he steps on it, he’s a different version of himself. The gap between his past and present ever-widening, until his former self becomes inaccessible, lost to the churn of time.

During his first turbulent season with the Lakers, Grantland was there, filming the process. In episode one, Nash spoke candidly about reaching the end of his career.

“Every athlete, when they lose their skill, they lose a big part of themselves, a part that they built their life around,” Nash tells the camera. “It’s been part of their purpose, self-esteem, identity. So when the skill or ability goes, it’s like there’s been a death.”

He takes a moment and considers his own situation.

“On the one hand, I’m lucky I’ve gotten the better part of 18 years of it. On the other hand, it’ll never be the same again.”

The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.

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