Old Athletes and Us

Once-great athletes are unpleasant to watch because they remind us of our mortality in a way nothing else does. (USA TODAY Sports)

Once-great athletes are unpleasant to watch because they remind us of our mortality in a way nothing else does. (USA TODAY Sports)

It’s an indication of how underwhelming Steve Nash’s Lakers tenure has been that the most significant news he has produced this season is an announcement that he hasn’t seriously considered retiring at the end of the year. When a player gets old and broken down enough, and they play for a team that’s going nowhere, we just sort of assume they’re going to hang it up. Being a Laker — even a spry one — seems miserable. Fathom fighting your failing body for the privilege of playing alongside Xavier Henry and a bereft Pau Gasol.

Of course, murmurs about 40-year-old Nash’s possible retirement have been particularly loud in southern California because he would be doing Los Angeles a favor if he forewent the last season of his three-year deal, which is set to pay him $9.7 million in 2014-15. Nash’s exit from the league would leave the Lakers with Kobe Bryant and almost no one else on the payroll. What they would do with an additional $10 million in cap space is anyone’s guess — the post-Jerry Buss Lakers are like a haunted luxury hotel — but subtracting Nash can only be a good thing. At the very least, it sweeps a botched signing beneath the proverbial rug.

So there are cynical reasons Steve Nash should retire, but they’re not compelling if you’re not a Lakers fan. Wanting Nash to step away from the game is, for most of us, rooted in a strong memory of what he used to be, not that long ago. Watching Nash now is watching someone perform an arthritic pantomime of their greatest hits, and it feels like a punishment.

I worked maintenance in a nursing home one summer, and I lived the cliché. Being around feeble octogenarians three days a week made me realize in a way I hadn’t before that I might one day be on the brink of death, severely wrinkled and pissing myself. Old age felt, looked and smelled like a disease. What’s comforting, at least when you’re 18 years old, is telling yourself that this reality is a long way off, and barring some catastrophe, it will set in gradually, if at all. Greying hair doesn’t mean dementia is around the corner, etc.

Great athletes are not like you and me in a few fundamental ways. It’s hard to grasp that LeBron James and the types of people walking down your average city block are of the same species. Athletes explore the limits of what the best human bodies can do. All we do is watch and imagine what that must feel like. When your average sports bar schlub criticizes a player for making a mistake, he is telling a sort of joke, intentionally or otherwise. Professional sporting events might look like the pickup games we played in college, but they are actually spectacularly alien.

What’s disquieting about the decline of of a great athlete is not what’s disquieting about visiting a nursing home. It is the suddenness that unsettles us. One summer passes, and lithe, liquid Steve Nash is gone. He can’t stay healthy; his game creaks. It’s not that we fear becoming Old Steve Nash, because Old Steve Nash is not actually old, and anyway, he’s still better at basketball than you or I could ever hope to be. What we fear, and what’s supremely unpleasant about Old Steve Nash, is how rapidly he has deteriorated. If the superhuman can fall off a cliff, then that could happen to me. A lot of athletes don’t age; they suffer metaphorical strokes.

Obviously, it’s up to Nash whether he wants to keep playing. The things we see him do on TV compose a small sliver of his day-to-day life. Almost every athlete, when they’re barely holding on or are on their way out of professional sports, talks about how much they like their daily routine and the type of workplace they have inhabited for the past 10 or 15 years. Fans can’t understand that. There is a considerable gap between why we like sports and why athletes like playing them. Through our end of the looking glass, Nash’s career should end soon, to put an end to our misery. The only way he’s going to retire is if he feels the same way, for completely different reasons.

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