SEEING TODAY’S SPORTS THROUGH DIFFERENT I’S

FROM THE moment Latrell Sprewell came bounding onto the court last Saturday night — chin jutting, muscles taut, eyes locked in an I-dare-you glare — he was pumped. He was intense. He was all the things they tell you to be in sports, but for all the wrong reasons. It wasn’t about his team.

It was about himself.

When he cursed and taunted fans before the game, it was about himself. When he refused to shake the hand of the opposing coach, Golden State’s P. J. Carlesimo — whom Sprewell tried to strangle in 1997 — it was about himself.

During the game, when his team scored, Sprewell glared at the Warriors’ bench; it was about himself. When he pounded his chest and flexed his muscles after a basket, it was about himself.

He missed 11 of 17 shots. He turned over the ball three times. Because he is paid $9 million a year to play basketball, you could say he did not earn his money Saturday night.

“Do you think you behaved professionally?” he was asked after the game.

“I know I had fun,” he said.

Well, as long as he had fun.

Welcome to the last days of the millennium, where the truth about sports now lies in this sentence: “It’s all about me.” It’s nice to win, but it’s more important to make a personal statement.

I’m not talking about salaries or contract negotiations. I’m talking about the actual games. They have become soapboxes for players’ boasts, brags and muscle flexes. If Sprewell cared at all about his Knicks winning Saturday night, it was only because he wanted to show up his old team. To make his statement.

Sprewell sees himself as do so many of today’s athletes: some unique warrior on a mountain, shouting for all the creatures below to give him his proper respect, because, don’t you know? It’s all about him.

Players’ ‘statements’ are a sad commentary

Football is just as bad as basketball. It’s rare to see a game anymore in which guys don’t pop up after every play and point a finger, pound a fist, or, more commonly, pound their own chest over and over, in a gesture that suggests
“I did it! That’s right! Gimme my due!”

Remember that old expression, “There’s no ‘I’ in team”?

To paraphrase Tina Turner, “What’s team got to do with it?”

Robert Bailey, a defensive back for the Lions, is one of those guys who makes his “statement” after a play. In a September game against Green Bay, he broke up a pass and did a “slit your throat” gesture at the Packers, as if he alone had just murdered their chances.

I’m sorry. I must have missed something. Isn’t Bailey paid to knock down passes? Does a painter pound his chest every time he finishes a house?

Never mind. Bailey sees the game as a chance to stamp his identity all over your consciousness. And he’s not alone. Last week, when the Packers played the Lions again, Brett Favre had the better day. So, after a long pass, he ran 20 yards to Bailey’s vicinity and made the throat-slitting gesture at him.

It’s not about you. It’s about me!

“I’m not that kind of player,” Favre said afterward, “but I was today, I guess.”

Is that an apology?

This week, in response to Favre, Bailey and others, the NFL outlawed the throat-cutting gesture. Big deal. It only means players will have to come up with something else.

Between the dances, the flexes and the leaps into the stands, you wonder how anyone has time to actually play the game anymore.

It’s their world — just check the videotape

Why are athletes like this today? In part, blame TV. The “SportsCenters” of the world have become video bulletin boards for the players’ egos. They make their statement, post it and want the world to view it. TV has turned players into Narcissus at the water’s edge, so enthralled with their own image they set their VCRs so that they can go home and watch themselves strut.

TV captures all this ridiculous posturing and posing, and replays it over and over. And while most of America is disgusted, somewhere back home, the player’s friends and family are slapping hands and saying, “Look at him go! That’s our guy!”

And that’s all the player cares about.

Did you know kids’ sports video games now come complete with trash talk? It’s expected. You know that expression “It’s your world”? It means one guy is taking over. It is now a permanent part of the sports lexicon. Games are less about a group of men banding together for a common goal than they are a cockfight of egos.

So Sprewell curses at the fans and makes cartoon wrestling motions. And Bailey, Favre and the Jets’ Keyshawn Johnson (whose book, you recall, was
“Just Give Me the Damn Ball!”) make the throat-slitting gesture.

And defensive linemen make a simple tackle, then pound their chests like Tarzan. And hockey players do a celebration slide after a goal. And an NBA forward shakes his head after a dunk to say, “You can’t stop me, it’s my world.”

And somewhere buried in all this is the notion of team sports. That a whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That the humility that comes from being part of a group is what enables that group to do incredible things.

“You know, you could get fined for that throat-slitting gesture,” someone told Favre.

Favre grinned. “I’d be happy to pay it.”

Welcome to sports in the new millennium. There’s no “I” in team.

But there’s one smack in the middle of “s-e-l-f-i-s-h.”

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch
“Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays and “Monday Sports Albom” 6:30-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR-AM (760). Mitch will sign copies of his books at noon-1 p.m. today at Borders in Novi.

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