Given the outrageous amounts of money involved and the amount of time we devote to sports, it's very easy to either deify or vilify professional athletes. We look at them as performers on a stage, but rarely get a chance to see them in other arenas.
I was recently made aware of the actions of a couple Chicago Cubs players who took time to get out into the community to spend time with kids. After my recent post about missing the Cubs of my my childhood, I can only imagine what an impact visits like these made on those youngsters and their families.
Now I'm sure some of you might be thinking that this is just a part of their job, that it's nothing to congratulate them about. I'll get to the Cubs specifically in a bit, but I'd like to offer some different perspectives on that idea, those of both a child and a parent who have experienced some firsthand interaction with big-time athletes.
Despite my status as a huge fan of both the Cubs and Bears, I grew up an Indiana Pacers fan. Given that all of our TV and radio came from either South Bend or Chicago, I didn't know Indiana had a professional basketball team for many years. Then, during a Harlem Globetrotters game at Market Square Arena in Indy, I saw some ABA Championship banners hanging and became a fan.
Long story short, I eventually had the opportunity to attend Reggie Miller's basketball camp one summer. I expected him to maybe show up to greet campers at the start of the week and then to sign some autographs at the end, but he was there for every single minute of the 5-day camp.
Of course, this was during a period of labor unrest in the NBA, so it's not as if he could have been doing much else with the team. But still. He was part of the stations and even reffed some of the games, during which time I got on him for making calls to keep the score artificially close.
But of all that, there was one moment that stands out to me with brilliant clarity. During a 3-on-3 drill, I drove left, stepping on a defender's foot in the process. I heard the crunch of my ankle as it gave way, my bones conducting acting as conductors for mangling of my joint.
The tears welling up came as much from disappointment and embarrassment as from pain as I lied on the ground, eyes closed. "Hey, are you alright," I heard above me, opening my eyes to see my favorite basketball player standing over me. Reggie was the first one there to help me.
After gingerly testing the bad wheel and finding it completely flat, I had to be helped out of the gym. So Reggie Miller stooped down and bore my weight until we got to the trainer's table, at which point he lifted me onto it. He then got a bag of ice and helped to tape it, checking in on me the whole while.
So while bowing to the crowd in Chicago or jawing with Spike Lee while dropping 25 points in the 4th quarter at Madison Square Garden might be what most fans remember about the Hall of Famer, I remember how he took care of me when I was hurt.
But even more than my own childhood experience, I remember my daughter's first time at Tom Crean's Little Hoosiers Academy in 2012. After seeing a ad on Facebook, I immediately signed Addison up for the 4-day camp, which was for kids in grades K-4.
We had been told that it was to be held in Cook Hall, IU's brand-new, state-of-the-art practice facility adjacent to Assembly Hall. But when we arrived, we learned that the camp would in fact take place in the Hoosier's venerable arena, which was a dream come true...for me at least.
Some of the first to arrive, we ventured down onto the floor and had the place to ourselves. Addison dribbled around and we took pictures waiting for more campers to show up. Much like my Reggie Miller camp, I assumed that the coaching staff would put in the requisite few minutes and that the managers and local coaches would run the show.
Pretty soon we saw Cody Zeller emerge from the lockerroom, followed by Jordan Hulls, Victor Oladipo, Christian Watford, and the rest of the team and staff. All of them were there, signing autographs, posing for pictures, running the stations. Zeller even initiated games of Duck, Duck, Goose with kids during breaks.
Now, I should mention that my daughter, a rising kindergartner, had played semi-organized basketball only once before in a church-sponsored league. She made not one single basket during the course of her practices and games, even refusing to let her coach lift her up to help her score.
So it was that she rotated to a shooting station on her first day of camp, one operated by Jordan Hulls. I was on the opposite side of the gym, immediately across from her when she dribbled, loaded, shot...and scored. The light of her beautiful little face as it turned to me made the sun look like a low-wattage lightbulb.
Once again, I sat on a basketball court with tears in my eyes, though these came from joy and not pain. The rest of the camp was amazing as well, as the players and coaches were amazingly open and accessible. Addison has been back twice more, recently developing a connection with heralded Hoosier newcomer Robert Johnson.
But enough about me, let's talk about what the Cubs players are doing...
Arismendy Alcantara and Chris Coghlan recently gave some folks the opportunity to have some of the same experiences that I've been blessed enough to have. I know that the kids at the Henry D. Lloyd Elementary school were probably over the moon at getting to warm up and play wiffle ball with Alcantara and Clark.
At the end of the visit, kids hopped aboard the Move Fitness Trolley for an upbeat fitness discussion and healthy snacks. These visits are part of the Cubs Charities’ 100 Gifts of Service, which represents a yearlong program featuring Cubs players and associates engaging in community service in celebration of Wrigley Field’s 100th birthday season.
Another Cubs player was also giving back, as outfielder Chris Coghlan visited Advocate Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn. Coghlan handed out Cubs hats and other giveaways, posed for pictures with patients and their families and signed autographs.
Take a look at the smiles on the faces of those kids; that's as genuine as it gets right there. And for the parents, knowing that a Cubs player took even a little time to stop in and interact with their children in the hospital is surely an uplifting feeling. While Coghlan's hot bat is making people happy, his time in the community is truly raising spirits.
We're always going to pay the most attention to what these guys are doing on the field, but I do think it's important to shed light on what they're doing off it as well. And all too often, it's the negative news that gets the most run where athletes are concerned.
I don't care if it's simply a part of their job, or their scholarship in the case of the IU players; these athletes are forging lasting memories for children and their families that will mean far more than anything they'll do on the field of play. So having an opportunity to praise or promote Cubs players for stuff like this is one I'll gladly take.
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