If They Played the Game only gave a mirror to those who make a living with play this would be an adequate collection, but there are moments of pure wonder and delight that have nothing to do with the field.
When LeBron James, the wunderkind of the Cleveland Cavaliers, was still in high school, his metaphorical dick was sucked by the entire sports world. His games were televised nationally and talking heads tagged him as heir in waiting to His Airness Michael Jordan. A colleague walked in one morning and when the office talk turned toward sports, he was having none of the James juice.
"I heard him last night on TV and he has such a large ego," the co-worker said.
A few of us pointed out it would be hard for a high school student not to be amazed with himself after everyone tells him how even his shit twinkles with diamonds and pearls.
"Well he should be more humble," the colleague responded.
"Why," I asked. "Should he lie when asked a question? Give you the answer you want?"
There was a pause.
"Yes. He should."
There is no job more taxing than to be an American athlete in a major sport. Sure, there are the financial and booty rewards if you are one of the stars, but there is the constant noise before and after each game. From 24-hour sports networks to sports talk radio, athletes are under scrutiny and demanded to answer for everything and anything under the sun. We want them to be role models, make the winning shot, and donate their time to the poor. All of this must be done with a winning personality and endless witticisms for sports reporters.
Don't get me wrong. There is much to mock about the modern day sports star and I rarely give them tears. The sense of entitlement, a disconnect from the world where games have no real consequence (hard to talk about a match as a war when there are actual soldiers getting killed on battlefields that do not have commercial timeouts); however, all of these complaints exist because we want sport stars to be our modern day gods, and like we learned when we studied Greek myths humans are not meant to be gods.
The anthology They Played The Game is a compilation of interviews that appeared in Playboy. There is the sports minutia that will quench the thirst of the most rabid fan, but underneath the game talk there is the solitude. Home run king Hank Aaron talks about the loneliness when he was chasing Babe Ruth's record of 714 (the Aaron interview was first published in 1974 and it seems at the time the Playboy editors decided to drop the occasional "g" to give Aaron that "authentic black speech" sound).
"But lately it's been gettin' so I can't even rest in the hotel, because once the kids find out where I am, they just come to my room and knock on the door, and all day long I have to sign autographs."
Autograph seekers may be a mild nuisance but super-star sports status is by its very nature a lonely perch. Sure we all go gaga when the winning goal is made, but that opportunity only comes from hours of alone time. For our gods to achieve immortality on the field they have to perfect their game. So all athletes have a streak of selfishness. They have to practice. This manic focus can come off as loopy sometimes as it does in Pete Rose's 2000 interview. The man with the most hits in baseball continues to insist he did not bet on baseball and blames his troubles on the press to deceased baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti who banned Rose from the sport. For the record: when Rose finally confessed he did bet on baseball (shocking!) the press and Giamatti continued to be at fault. One more for the record: Rose is not the only sports star with an issue with the press. A majority of the athletes in "They Played the Game" wonder aloud about the sports media, which is all fair. When was the last time you saw your local sports page put in a correction or use the word "allegedly"?
If They Played the Game only gave a mirror to those who make a living with play this would be an adequate collection, but there are moments of pure wonder and delight that have nothing to do with the field. There is baseball player Barry Bonds in 1993 (pre-steroid accusations) extolling the King of Pop Michael Jackson.
"Why does he get criticized?" Bonds asked when asked about Jackson's facial surgeries. "All he does is donate $50 million to charity. What is he supposed to give hundreds of millions? To me he's a black hero, and we don't have many. It's always the same. It's 'Oh, how great Elvis was.' But Elvis Presley was on drugs. The Rolling Stones, too. Michael Jackson has never done anything wrong, so give him a break."
Leaving aside Bonds' lack of historical perspective, this defense of the feyest man in American culture (and that's being kind) from the Paul Bunyan of the diamond seems a bit odd, but makes sense because Bonds sees sport as an other wheel in the entertainment industry complex. So he and Jackson serve the same masters.
Shaquille O'Neal, who once named himself "The Big Aristotle," admits he does not let the world in on everything he knows. "I like people to think I can't do something," he told Playboy. "That's when I'll sit back and chill. And observe. You shouldn't give away all your secrets, not all at once, but I think I could be almost anything."
Another big man, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, speaks with the care of a scholar when he dissects the myth poor black kids are sold by the very game Abdul-Jabbar excelled in: "Unfortunately, you have kids hoping for careers that hinge on their physical abilities, and that's not going to make it. You know how many jobs there are in pro basketball? About 275. And the average pro's career lasts about four years."
Tennis great Billie Jean King in a 1975 interview is asked if she is lesbian. She says no, and goes on to give a stirring speech about freedom.
Playboy's collection offers many such surprising moments. Even if you were beaten up by the football team in high school, there's fun to be had reliving some past great moments courtesy of some past greats. And a few fumbles, as well.