6: My Life in Pro Ball

6: My Life in Pro Ball

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tales of Golf and Sport

My Life in Pro Ball

The phone rings. I roll over in bed and grab the receiver. The motel operator says, “Wake-up call. It’s 9 A.M. Your bus leaves at ten.” We are in Cleveland, where last night we—the New York Knicks—lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Outside, a cold drizzle soaks the city. I draw a hot bath and sit in it for five minutes to loosen my body’s stiffness. My socks, shoes and Knicks uniform hang drying over the chairs, the room heater and the floor lamp. My mouth is dry and burning. My legs ache. I’ve slept poorly.

Next day, Tuesday, we play at home. Before the game, at Madison Square Garden, an avid fan tells me the Knicks give him something to look forward to after a day at work in the post office. I am his favorite player. He is similar to other fans who have identified with the team and me. They suffer with us when we lose and they are ecstatic when we win. They are the bedrock of our experience as professional players.

That night we win by twenty points. After the game I take a long shower. Then I stuff my wet socks, shoes and jock into the traveling bag with my road uniform for the bus ride to the airport.

We land in Atlanta at 1 A.M. It is twenty-one degrees outside and the frost makes the runway sparkle as if it were sprinkled with bits of glass. We wait forty minutes for our bags, which delays our arrival at the hotel until 3 A.M.

There is an overpowering loneliness on the road. A local acquaintance may show up during the day. There is chitchat with him of times past and of his job and my activities outside of basketball. After that exchange, there is nothing more to say, little common interest. Sometimes I take in an art exhibit or visit an unusual section of town. Or I sit in a hotel room reading books, listening to the radio.

Someday, I say to myself, I won’t be spending one hundred days a year on the road. Someday I’ll wake up in the same place every morning. I miss that sense of sharing that comes from people living together in one place, over time. I miss permanence.

From Atlanta we fly to Chicago. I go to a luncheon put on by Chicago Bulls’ boosters, where I am the principal speaker. About 200 men attend. Part of being a professional basketball player is speaking at shopping-center openings, charity fundraisers, sports banquets, bar mitzvahs and annual company dinners. The audience laughs at my jokes. Even unfunny stories told by athletes make audiences roll in the aisles.

We lose to the Bulls by sixteen points. Our plane touches down in New York at 3:45 A.M. The doorman of my apartment building tells me he is sorry about the loss in Chicago, but he made $100 betting against us. I get into bed around 5:30 A.M. Just one more game this week, then we have two days off. We will have played five games in seven days in four different cities.

Saturday does not begin for me until 1 P.M. Whenever we return from a road trip late, the next day is always a jumble. At 3 P.M., I have my usual pregame steak-and-salad meal (I will not eat again until midnight supper after the game). I sleep for an hour. The alarm goes off at six. I arrive at the Garden just one hour before the game.

The locker room has become a kind of home for me. I often enter tense and uneasy, disturbed by some event of the day. Slowly my worries fade as I see their importance to my male peers. I relax, my concerns lost among the constants of an athlete’s life. Athletes may be crude and immature, but they are genuine when it comes to loyalty, responsibility and honesty. The members of my team have seen me, and I them, in more moods and predicaments than I care to remember. Our lives intertwine far beyond the court. It is a good life with congenial people. If victory and unity fuse on one team, life becomes a joy. It is a life that truly makes sense only while you’re living it.

I tape my ankles and put on my uniform. Then I turn to the mail that has just been delivered. I usually get forty letters a week, almost none of them from people I know. There are a few autograph requests.

The last letter I open is from Kentucky. It is from the father of a boy whom I had met when he was a sophomore at the University of Kentucky. He came all the way from Kentucky to ask me to show him how to shoot a basketball. He just appeared at my apartment one day. We went up to Riverside Park, talked and shot baskets for about an hour. He thanked me for the help and boarded a bus back home. I saw him later that year in Cincinnati. He had been cut from the Kentucky team. He was down, and convinced that his sprained ankle had something to do with it.

I wrote him a letter two years later, after his sister had written that he had cancer. The boy’s father thanks me for the letter but says that his son has died. I put the letter down. Coach Red Holzman begins his pregame conversation. I can’t concentrate. I should have written sooner. I feel numbed with anger and sorrow.

From the middle of September until May, there is usually no longer than one day at a time without basketball. There are no long weekends or national holidays for players. It is impossible to take a trip to the mountains or fly to Florida even for two days. We are a part of show business, providing public entertainment. We work on Christmas night and New Year’s Eve.

We arrive in Los Angeles for the first stop of a five-game western trip. My normal routine the day before a game in another town is to find a facility where I can get a steaming bath, whirlpool and massage. Games and practices bring injuries, and travel brings fatigue. Hot whirlpool baths, diathermy, ultrasound, ice packs, elastic wraps, aspirin, cold pills, vitamins and sleeping pills are all part of the life.

A professional basketball player must be able to run six miles in a game, one hundred times a year, jumping and pivoting under continuous physical contact. The body is constantly battered and ground away. During this year alone I have had a jammed finger, inflamed fascia of the arch, a smashed nose cartilage, five split lips, an elbow in the throat that eliminated my voice for a week, a bruised right hip, a sprained ankle, a left hip joint out of socket and a contusion of the left wrist.

Every workout brings the fear of re-injury and every night brings the hope for tomorrow’s improvement. I wake up in the middle of the night and flex my knee to see if there is pain, or knead my thigh to see if the charley horse has begun to heal.

I often ask myself why I continue to play. In 1967, when I first signed, I was convinced that I would play no more than four years, the length of my initial contract. I’m still playing in 1976. One reason is the money. The average salary in the National Basketball Association (NBA) at this time is close to $100,000. Many players make more than $150,000. There is no question that it gives me a sense of security, and a greater feeling of freedom, mobility and accomplishment. But money is not the sole reason I play. The answer lies much deeper in the workings of the game and in me.

I recall, for about the fiftieth time this season, how it was in 1970, the first time we won the NBA championship. I stood at mid-court in Madison Square Garden, two fists raised, chills coursing up and down my spine. Since I was nine years old, I had played basketball to become the best. Individual honors were nice but insufficient. An Olympic gold medal gave satisfaction, but it was not top-flight basketball. The NBA was clearly the highest caliber in the world, and there I was: a part of the best team.

All those statements of team solidarity expressed since high school; all the hours of loneliness, dribbling and shooting a basketball in a gym somewhere in the world; all the near misses in the smaller championships—high school and college—of America’s sports hierarchy; all the missed opportunities in other fields; all the denied personal enjoyment; all the conflicts suppressed and angers swallowed—everything seemed worth it for the feeling at center court on May 8, 1970.

I remember those few moments after victory, in the locker room with the team, when there was a total oneness with the world. Owners and politicians celebrate in the locker room of a champion. But only the players, the coach and perhaps the trainer can feel the special satisfaction of the achievement. They start nine months earlier in training camp. They play the games and endure the travel. They receive the public criticism and overcome their own personal ambitions. The high of the championship is unequaled. The possibility that it could happen again is a sufficient lure to continue. The money is important, but the chance to relive that moment outweighs dollars.

But how fast it is gone! On a flight to Phoenix, I open a magazine to a story about Mickey Mantle at his home in Dallas, Texas, after several years out of baseball.

“I loved it,” the author quotes Mantle as saying, his voice throbbing with intensity. “Nobody could have loved playing ball as much as me, when I wasn’t hurt. I must have fifty scrapbooks. Sometimes after breakfast, I sit by myself and take a scrapbook and just turn the pages. The hair comes up on the back of my neck. I get goose bumps. And I remember how it was and how I used to think that it would always be that way.”

The words seem to jump off the page at me. There is terror behind the dream of being a professional ballplayer. It comes as a slow realization of finality and of the frightening unknowns which the end brings.

When the playing is over, one can sense that one’s youth has been spent playing a game, and now both the game and youth are gone.

By age thirty-five, any potential for developing skills outside of basketball is slim. The “good guy” syndrome ceases. What is left is the other side of the Faustian bargain: to live all one’s days never able to recapture the feeling of those few years of intensified youth. The athlete approaches the end of his playing days the way old people approach death. He puts his finances in order. He reminisces easily. He offers advice to the young. But the athlete differs from an old person in that he must continue living. Behind all the years of practice and all the hours of glory waits that inexorable terror of living without the game.

~Bill Bradley
Chicken Soup for the Sports Fan’s Soul

More stories from our partners