It happened to Michael Jordan. LeBron James. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and it seems to be happening to Luka Dončić right now.
Our heroes fall from grace because we, the fans and the media, get tired of them, get annoyed with their flaws and the newness of the experience wears off. The rising stars eventually fall, or stop rising - outside the court at least, because we can’t bear to see the same faces dominate too long. Their faults get worse the more we have to witness them, despite most of them being minuscule to begin with.
And so we move along, our short attention spans looking for the next big thing, for someone who - at least in the beginning - is more superhuman.
When the stars fall from grace in the public eye, it tells a story about how we look at professional athletes. How we fall in love with a player only to turn our backs on him when we get bored or the going gets tough. The honeymoon phase is always awesome, then for a while it’s all a cakewalk, because it’s new and exciting. But then we start realizing that these players are human beings. That they have issues, just like you and I, that they hurt and react, and are easy to anger, just like us.
And we don’t like that. We don’t like that the superstar making 200 million can’t show up every single game. That he can’t perform through injuries, that he’s struggling with his shot or with his attitude - or even his weight.
We don’t like that at all. Because that makes him just like you and me.
And what’s the point of it all then? What’s the point of putting someone on a pedestal, adoring him and telling everyone he’s the best in the world, just to be reminded that he’s just like us?
What’s the point of paying them this unfathomable amount of money, just to see them be like you and I?
And then it all falls apart, the fans turn on a player, they find new crushes, exciting players who are “new” on the scene, and whose flaws haven’t been exposed. Yet.
It happens both for fans and it happens with the media. Favorites are traded for new, flashy ones who jump higher, potential and newness weighted higher than consistency and longevity.
Because after all, how do you really live up to 200 million dollars?
And whether the player keeps performing at the highest level or not, we’re on to the next one, tired of the same MVP favorite, the same domination.
We find reasons why this one must go. Is he really close enough to the scoring record? Is he changing the game around him enough? Does he dominate enough - does he dominate too much?
We make new stories, narratives, that fit what we want to say and reflect the boredom we’re feeling, staring at the same players dominating year after year.
How do you live up to 200 million dollars?
The thing is, these players don’t owe us anything. They don’t owe us to act a certain way or play a certain way, because of their paycheck, and they don’t owe us to be superhuman. Because they’re not.
For some reason, this is a controversial thing to say, but making a lot of money doesn’t make a person better or able to deal with adversity any differently than the rest of us.
They’re people, someone’s brother, son, husband. They’re gifted athletes with a lot of pressure on their shoulders every day. Most people would succumb to that, I know I would, but they still show up every day to try to do their best for their team, their fans and their legacy.
These players are extraordinary, but this is not a computer game. They’re not villains or superheroes, they’re not any less of amazing competitors because we lose interest.
It’s fun to tell stories about people, and it’s human to imagine that it’s black and white, good or evil. It’s a natural thing to do - but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing.
All the nuance and gray and people behind the images, stories and narratives get lost if we keep wanting to hold players to the standards no living person can live up to.
Whether it’s based in our movie watching, social media consuming, computer playing society that we forgot what’s real and what’s not, is not up to me to say.
But these real people, who put themselves out there every day only to get judged by people who don’t know them, are superheroes for just doing that. Imagine what that takes.
I couldn’t do it, and I doubt that you could. If nothing else, they deserve our respect for showing up to work every day and doing their best. Just like you and I do.
So do me a favor and try to see through the narratives, take a step back and don’t let the loudest voice determine your understanding of things. And let’s appreciate what we have right now, because we may not have it for long.