They say you never know a good thing until it’s gone. Now we know.
It’s a shame that the simplest fables which we learned as children are often dismissed by us as too simplistic when we grow up. The beauty of those tales lie in their simplicity, the very factor which leads us to dismiss them. Life isn’t as black and white as ‘children’s tales’, right? The wisdom of the ages, passed down to us in a simplistic form, is scorned as something meant for gullible infants, to instil positive values in their character; not practical enough for the murky waters of ‘real life’.
Recall the story of the frog who climbed up a slippery pole while all his brethren shook their heads around him and yelled at him to give up. He persisted and made it to the top. When he was asked how he managed to do it in face of all the jeers, he replied with astonishment that he was deaf and he had mistaken their hand wringing and all the hullaballo for cheers from supporters, egging him on. Although if he was deaf, how did he hear this question is something I’ve often wondered.
Maybe he wasn’t deaf. Maybe he heard every single word of condemnation hurled at him, ingested it, and turned it into the rocket fuel which propelled him. Maybe he found it easier to let the two faced media down gently, when they asked him with adoration, how he had managed the feat, to allow them the delusion that their jeers never really bothered him. Instead of bellowing “I told you so! I’m not gonna make it huh?”, instead of wallowing in his righteous indignation, he chose to take the high road and pretended to be deaf.
If that was indeed the full story, that the frog merely pretended to be deaf, I wish it had been told in its full form to us, to let us know that it is possible to develop the gift of ignoring the loud criticisms with such effectiveness that we may as well be perceived deaf for real. We don’t have to be born deaf to insulate ourselves from crumbling down from the slings and arrows of the masses.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” If only that were true. Words will never hurt you, only when you are absolutely convinced that those words aren’t true. To have such conviction, your truth needs to be fortified with Adamantium. Faith in anything is only as strong as the truth it is based upon. It seems impossible for any sportsperson to harbor such faith; to be immune to the jeers, condemnation, and criticism which goes hand in hand with professional sport. I’ll tell you why is it so. Because there is no room for absolute certainty when it comes to performance in sports.
For an athlete to have absolute confidence, they would have to be ignorant of their shortcomings. Being ignorant of your weakness won’t make you a great athlete. The only time a sportsperson can ignore the heckling, turn a deaf ear to the criticism, is when he/she is an underdog, when they have something to prove.
In that case, they know for a fact that the criticism coming their way is unwarranted. Their self-belief is rooted in the truth of long hours which they spent in preparation, which enabled them to stand tall and declare that they have a voice, something to say, something to prove. They are indignant, brash, and hungry for respect.
Then the inevitable happens. They prove their worth beyond a shadow of doubt. Even the harshest critics are forced to acknowledge their greatness. The shadow of doubt can never be dispelled if you are a sportsperson; be it cricket or basketball, there is always room for doubt. There was room for doubt when you were coming up the ranks too, but back then, you had something to prove.
In basketball, if you make 5 out of 10 shots, you are considered to be a great shooter. Babe Ruth had a career batting average of .342, good enough for an all-time top 10. Muse on that for a minute, one of the best baseball hitters only hits about 34% of pitches and making half your shots qualifies you to be a great shooter in basketball. Even the best possible numbers are nowhere near 100% in sports. Even the best batsmen get out. Even the best shooters run cold at times. Sachin Tendulkar had a batting average of 44.83 in ODIs and that fact was somehow construed by the media to mean that he ought to retire. Iverson’s career field goal % of 42 is seen as paltry, never mind those ten fifty-point games he had. Numbers which once validated the sportsperson, are used against them with equal ease.
The book of Proverbs says, “There is death and life in the power of the tongue.” That power is magnified manifold when wielded with a microphone in front of that tongue. There is a similar pattern here followed by the media, to pressurize the two legends into retiring. It’s a two-step process; first, they throw outrageous allegations, then they insinuate that it’s for the good of the next generation for the legend to retire.
“The least the writer could have done was to take my version before putting it in print. What has hurt me is that it has placed a wrong picture before everyone.” – Sachin Tendulkar.
In a match between India and Australia, the ground was wet and Sachin was concerned about it affecting the game. Later, a report appeared in Sydney Morning Herald under the title “Rain, rain go away” by Phil Wilkins. It insinuated that Sachin was just trying to delay the game since at that point in the proceedings, any delay would have been good for India.
“What I did tell the umpire is that the area was slippery and it would be better if we could dry it out. The rain was quite stiff and the conditions were never going to be ideal. I was more worried about the players and injuries to them since we are already carrying two injured players (Ajit Agarkar and Jacob Martin) in the party.”- Sachin.
After Srinath slipped and then one of the Australian batsmen, Adam Gilchrist, showed the soil of his boot and the studs where a lot of wet mud had lodged, the umpires called the ground staff and ordered a clean up. All was done according to procedure here. But the media painted it otherwise. They attacked Sachin’s character and implied that he had an ulterior motive in asking for the ground staff to take a look. “I am shocked by the insinuations.” Sachin had said.
If a man’s character can be called into question on such slippery evidence, it’s not really a stretch for his game to be criticized.
“If numerous NBA sources are telling the truth — and there’s no reason to believe they’d do otherwise in a situation of this magnitude — Iverson will either drink himself into oblivion or gamble his life away.”- Stephen A. Smith.
Now that’s credible reporting, as ‘numerous sources’ are being cited. At that time, it was openly alleged that Iverson was thrown out and banned from two casinos, Greektown and MGM Grand. Later, Greektown casino spokesman Riley Meredith denied any such incident. MGM Grand, Detroit spokesman Jamaine Dickens also denied those rumours. Yet, Stephen A. Smith went on ESPN and made his heinous allegation that Iverson will ‘gamble his life away’. Yet, newspapers in Detroit printed that Iverson has been thrown out of casinos one after another.
“I’ve never been reprimanded for any alcohol issues, I’ve never had a DUI or anything like that. I drink casually just like everybody else. But one person says that in the media and then everybody lose their minds. The whole situation with them talking about me having gambling problems? I haven’t gambled in years.” – AI.
And that’s a mild allegation. It was once alleged that Iverson threw his wife out naked and went hunting for her with a gun. “I don’t want anyone to see my wife naked, period. Like ‘Oh look! There goes AI’s wife. She’s naked!’. What makes you think I’m going to throw her out of the house for everyone to see?”- AI. His wife denied those allegations too, but just like mud thrown at a wall, even when it slides down, it leaves a besmirched trail.
Those are the allegations thrown at Iverson’s character. If it’s so easy to assassinate someone’s character, can you imagine the ease with which the media made senseless claims about his game?
“I learned that you guys — when you guys are on a panel talking about say, basketball, it’s got to be one guy anti-somebody and one guy for-somebody. That’s what interests people. People going back and forth against each other. I used to sit there and watch shows and be like, “Oh, he’s an a–hole.” Then I’d be like, “Hold up, this man is just doing his job. He’s tryin’ to feed his family. Yeah, it does bother me, but I’m not going to let [them] know. People feed their families being what they are, that’s how I have to look at it.” – AI.
Those media people were feeding themselves too. Allen Iverson: “There were media people camping out in front of my house with lawn chairs and video cameras. They were having cookouts. There were helicopters flying over my house all day. They put a picture of my dog in the newspaper, because they couldn’t get a picture of us.”
All this on the allegation that Iverson threw his wife out and went after her with a gun.
“In order for Jennings to truly grow into that role, Iverson has to go. It’s the natural order of things. Perhaps, I’ve been watching too much “Lost” or other time-travelling science fiction shows, but I believe you can’t have the past and future versions of the same person actually meet. It disrupts the space-time continuum. Okay, perhaps that’s speculation based on imaginary issues. On a more practical level, we do know that two objects can’t occupy the same space at the same time.”
One of ESPN’s biggest writers, J.A. Adande said the above lines, that Iverson needs to retire to make way for the youth. The worst part about that is that the youth for whom Iverson is being asked to make way for, is not even on his team! They play in two different teams! And yet, he is making an argument that in order for one to thrive, the other must go.
“If Jennings is to have his own legend, sooner or later, Iverson had to make way for him. It might as well be now.”- Adande.
Senior BCCI functionary and Indian Premier League (IPL) Chairman, Rajiv Shukla said “I have seen many media reports saying that pressure has been mounted by BCCI or from the selectors, I totally deny those reports.” Maybe there was no official pressure, but all those media reports did hit home hard.
“I think he really cares for Indian cricket. Maybe whatever he saw, read and heard might have prompted him to make a call. But I feel, he knows his body well,” Gavaskar said. He hinted that the retirement means Sachin cares about Indian cricket and his stepping aside is the right thing to do.
“Sachin desperately needs to get runs. He has achieved a lot. He is getting a long rope because of what he has achieved. By now, he should know how to turn it around. As somebody watching it from outside, Tendulkar is not performing and I think if I were Tendulkar, I would go (retire). But it’s up to him at the present moment. We want to see the great man going with a bat held high and not in terrible form.”- Saurav Ganguly.
“It is time for Tendulkar, great player that he is, to walk away now for the sake of the Indian team.”- Michael Vaughan.
Sticks and stones people can heal from, but words cut deep.
When Sachin was young, Sunil Gavaskar gave him a pair of his own ultra light pads. Sachin later said “It was the greatest source of encouragement for me.” A small act of kindness from a legend made the Master Blaster’s day. Conan Doyle has said in Sherlock Holmes “Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius.” For someone as humble as Sachin, criticism from people whom he looked up to, whom he rubbed shoulders with, must have been jarring. And it had to have influenced his decision.
Here’s my salute to the vultures out there in the media and to all those ‘critics’, who by definition have just one job, to criticize. You have done the impossible. You have taken two gods in two different sports and you have shaken their self-belief to the point where they felt that the best thing they could do for the game they loved, was walk away from it.
They say you never know a good thing until it’s gone. Now we know.
P.S. – Unbelievably, all that I’ve written on Iverson here is only the tip of the iceberg of the outrageous allegations thrown at him. Here’s a 9000-word thesis where I’ve tried to present both sides of his story: The Baggage of Allen Iverson - Both sides of his story.