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Life Outside the Game

We idolize them. We buy their jerseys, watch their games, and track their lives as if we know them personally. We “invest” in them with both our time and money and attribute them a sense of pride we would to close family and friends. They are capable of things that seem supernatural: there is a reason why the overwhelming majority of people cannot throw a perfect spiral with precision, fly through the air to dunk a basketball, or hit a moving target 500 feet – it is incredibly difficult. As is the case with their athletic abilities and skills, their wealth and fame also separate “them” from “us.”

Whether it is a professional athlete, an actress or actor, or musical artist, we deify them because of their larger-than-life talents. In so doing, however, we forget that they too are actually human just like the rest of us. Although their skills on the court or stage may make them seem immune to the events of the world around them, as human beings, they too experience those events and exhibit the same basic human emotions as everybody else: sadness, anger, sympathy, love, fright, anger, and joy.

Over the last few weeks, the world has seen several tragic events. In America alone, there has been an enormous natural disaster as Hurricane Sandy inundated the Tri-State area, and most recently, the heinous act of violence at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. These events, among many others around the world, unfortunately, can make one lose hope in humanity and question the meaning of our existence.

The most recent tragedy has particularly struck a painful chord that has reverberated across the nation and around the world because of the innocence lost at the hands of evil. The children in Newtown that lost their lives did not get the chance to pursue their hopes and dreams, to experience all this world has to offer. It is that experience – the journey – that defines life, and theirs sadly and unfairly came to an end far too soon in their young lives. For one child, 6-year old Jack Pinto, that dream may have been to don a New York Giants jersey one day like his favorite player, Victor Cruz. Instead, he is being buried in the jersey of his idol, a dream left unrealized for no fathomable reason.

On Sunday, the priest at the Greek Orthodox church I attend said, “Despite these dark days, the light still shines. Sometimes we just have to search a little harder to find it.”

That light does shine through, even in the aftermath of such devastation, in support, solidarity, sympathy, and love. Victor Cruz met with Pinto’s family and offered his condolences in person. On Sunday, in his most recent game, Cruz wrote several phrases in tribute to his idol, one of which read, “Jack Pinto, My Hero.” Such a heartfelt gesture renews our hope in humanity, providing a source of light at a time when darkness could prevail. Weeks earlier, Dwyane Wade donated his entire paycheck to the city of New York in order to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy.

On this past Friday night, Wade stood on the court before the Miami Heat’s game with his arms around his two sons and his nephew during the moment of silence. LeBron James also had his kids in his arms, and when fellow teammate Udonis Haslem was asked about the tragedy, he said in an emotional interview, “Your kids are everything. My three kids are my heart. I just imagine someone taking my heart away from me. Might as well kill me.”

We have seen our “superstars” display those basic human feelings. As players took the court with inscriptions on their shoes, basketball was clearly not on their minds. Just like the rest of the nation, they thought about their loved ones. They could not believe what had just happened in Connecticut. The world of social media erupted in sheer disbelief. They were overwhelmed by sadness and grief as were the rest of Americans. Players hugged their children; teams huddled and remembered what is truly important in life – our families and friends.

On that same Friday night, the Boston Celtics played the Houston Rockets, and for one player in particular, there was an additional emotional burden on his shoulders. In 1995, Kevin Garnett was drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves by Kevin McHale, the legendary Celtics power forward. On November 24, McHale’s daughter, Alexander “Sasha” McHale died from complications from lupus at the age of 23, a young woman robbed of the rest of her journey. After the game, the two legends embraced at midcourt in one of the most moving moments one will ever observe in sports, as mentor and protégé were no longer simply basketball icons but close friends who truly cared for one another. The raw emotion on their faces was more than moving: it reminded us that although sports may often consume us, the trials and tribulations of life are much more profound than a game.

Kevin Garnett and Kevin McHale share an emotional moment after the game

Professional athletes may not always be the best references for enlightening expressions off the court. However, Kevin Garnett, a man who exudes passion on the court with his tenacious play but a sincere, caring person off it, may have best summarized the whirlwind of emotions experienced Friday:

“I just want to say that my condolences go out to the families that are in Connecticut. Anybody that has kids, a niece, any kind of siblings or any kind of someone that they love, it’s just been a tough day. I just wanted to get it off my chest and say my condolences go out to all the parents out there… it’s just been an emotional roller-coaster today.”

It’s moments like these that show us that are heroes are just like us, even though we may not be able to perform their athletic feats. We respect and admire their talents on the court, but we are genuinely moved by moments like these. These are the moments in sports that transcend the game. They remind us, that when the ball is not bouncing, these “stars” are loving parents, loyal friends, and sympathetic citizens.

Prayers, thoughts, and condolences to all the victims and their families in Newtown, Connecticut.