The year is 1985, and it’s a typically hot and humid summer day in the middle of French Lick, Indiana. Birds are singing cheerily in nearby ash trees while schoolchildren ride their fixed-gear bikes through the heart of this small Midwestern town, gliding past old ladies fanning themselves on their open-air porches and dogs barking greedily from the small plots of grass that dot neighborhood front yards.
They continue floating through this small piece of Americana nirvana and pass a tall, blond, mustached man working on a driveway leading up to a modest home. The man is shoveling gravel in spite of the punishing heat and unforgiving muggy climate. There’s a look of dogged determination in his steely blue eyes that shows his intention to finish what he started, weather be damned.
It’s rather ordinary work being performed by an extraordinary individual.
Larry Bird, two-time NBA champion and reigning league MVP, the savior of the Boston Celtics and, along with Magic Johnson, the NBA itself, is repairing the driveway of his mother’s home.
Larry Bird is literally shoveling gravel and, in the process, burying the rest of his career. “Larry Legend” would go on to permanently damage his back as a result of his hard labor that summer and cut short a career that should have endured much longer than the 12 years he ultimately played in the league.
Needless to say, it’s almost impossible to imagine a superstar athlete putting himself in that position today. From medical advances to the progression of sports science and the caution with which athletes treat their bodies, the days of the likes of Larry Bird repairing their mothers’ driveways are long gone.
We are in an age of peak performance and, consequently, of longer top-flight careers. The best players are maintaining their dominance far longer and, in the process, redefining how franchises, fans and the media value age and long-term consistency.
Cristiano Ronaldo is 33 years old and still one of the greatest players in world football. LeBron James is also 33 years old and indisputably the best player in the NBA. Tom Brady is 41 years old and the reigning MVP of the NFL. Not to mention the plethora of older players in baseball and hockey who still dominate their respective sports. It’s clear that “old” doesn’t mean “washed up” any longer.
In the past, it was common for even the best athletes to slack off during the offseason or fail to maintain a healthy diet or sleep pattern. Babe Ruth infamously ate three hot dogs before every game, and Michael Jordan typically averaged only a few hours of sleep during his career. Now, players like LeBron are reportedly investing $1.5 million in their body with hyperbaric chambers, cryotherapy and personal chefs. Brady has famously touted his TB12 method, which includes drinking up to 25 glasses of water a day and upholding an 8:30 p.m. bedtime.
This kind of investment has paid off for the likes of LeBron and Brady, but it has larger implications beyond prolonging personal careers. Franchises must now recalibrate how they project a top-level player to perform one, five or even 10 years down the line, which has massive implications for the structuring of contracts, draft picks and organizational identity.
Having a top player continue to perform for longer is a great thing for teams, as it may sustain a team’s championship chances or fan interest — but it also produces plenty of drawbacks. It may incentivize teams to place too much emphasis on “win now” moves that are based on short-term thinking to satisfy current stars of the team without adequate planning for the future vitality of the club.
Take, for example, the Jimmy Garoppolo situation in New England, where the Patriots chose to trade their promising 26-year-old backup in favor of keeping the aging Brady. New England is betting that Brady can clinch the team a few more Super Bowls before he retires, but it may have also sacrificed a chance to sustain its dominance into the future in choosing not to keep the talented Garoppolo.
The stars of the game may stick around for a few extra years, but with that comes a more complicated relationship between the athletes themselves and everybody else. As their time under the spotlight increases, so do the possibilities for more glory and folly alike.
The clock keeps ticking, and we’ll keep watching.
Rory O’Toole writes the Thursday column on the transformation of athletes and sports media into the cultural conversation. Contact him at [email protected].