All Points West: The last days of playing
     2016-04-29      By Frank Marquez    editor@geringcitizen.com
What was it like for Kobe Bryant to play his last NBA game in a Los Angeles Lakers uniform, pulling off several feats in his hoops career, including playing for the same team the entire time? To think, he started playing pro ball at the ripe of age of 17, joining the Purple and Gold as a highly suspect prospect. For Mr. Basketball Jerry West and franchise owner the late Jerry Buss, he was destined for greatness.

Where do you find that kind of insight?

For the good times and the bad times, I’ve been there with the Lakers. I started watching the team in 1981-82 season, the year Paul Westhead was fired, and Head Coach Pat Riley took over.
Magic Johnson already had been drafted in 1979. The pieces started to fall into place for the run-and-gun fast break offense masterminded by Riley. The Lakers were on the precipice of making a magical run in pro basketball. It was the start of a golden era.

Likewise, for former Denver quarterback Peyton Manning, what’s it like to play football for most of your life, capped by 18 seasons in the National Football League at 39? Two Super Bowls and dozens of records, then, suddenly, it’s over. What’s he doing now, aside from giving testimonials for pizza, insurance and automobiles?
Mowing lawns? He turned 40 in March. He also found relative success in college, playing for the Tennessee Volunteers. Add those years, and prep schools, he played competitively for 26 years, at least. Call it able bodied time.

Youth, where does it go? Bryant and Manning had formidable pro careers. Did they think it would end?

Regardless, at all levels, athletes are hanging up their cleats and jerseys.

This year, several local high school athletes have signed to play either at community colleges or four-year universities scattered through mostly the Midwest, leaving their peers behind. In truth, there are only a handful who will play at the next level.

My last turn on the field was my freshman year in college, a small liberal arts institution called the University of La Verne (Leopards), 30 minutes east outside of L.A. I was a walk-on.

Then studying and getting a real job took over. I played backup at left corner on defense through most of the season, probably getting in a few minutes in two games of an 11-game season behind a senior named Mark Sankey. On some days in practice matched up against a wide receiver by the name of Maurice Harper, who was drafted by the San Diego Chargers in the late rounds in 1984. I didn’t feel embarrassed getting beat most days. He was Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (a league which once included UCLA and San Diego State) player of the year in 1983. Those who I considered my upperclassman mentors fomented cheating. “Grab his shoulder pads and pull him down,” they said. He was just too quick, too tall, and too strong. The game moves faster at the college level, even in Division III.

I didn’t think too much about rejoining the team in those last three years of college.

I was reminded of the pain of being sore and not able to walk for a few days, the consistent headaches wrought from going up against bigger guys during drills for blocking and tackling, and competing against guys who actually wanted to play for money.

I’m sure there was a similar crossroads moment for both Bryant and Manning. Though, if they had chosen to do something else, would it be easy for them to walk away from the game?

I look back mostly on the times sports stopped being fun. I had no problem with hard workouts because I wanted to be the best possible me. But when playing time was limited by another guy six inches taller, or another guy who happened to be a half-second faster off the snap of the ball, where’s the fun in standing around?

Watching kids come up through sports, because that has been my business now as a newspaper reporter, and once as a teacher and wrestling coach, I have wondered about the serendipitous place in time when that kid decides he’s going to be a super star, because I believe it’s a conscious decision to set goals and work toward them. Some pop. Some don’t. If you ask Bryant or Manning, does losing bother you that much? What would they say?

Aside from the practicality of workouts, shooting an extra foul shot in practice, or working to perfect his reads on pass coverage, what dreams did they hold onto?

For many of us former athletes, we didn’t have the same kinds of dreams. Our bodies couldn’t afford it. Though the memories of my great tiny athletic achievements live on.

They are memories of teammates swarming me after a special teams tackle that left the ball carrier writhing on the ground, or stretching up to the sky at the right moment to swat a perfect pass to the ground. Those kinds of memories are at the core of dreams, of maybe something we’d like to try again.

For me, those dreams have faded. They will never come true.

But for young athletes reading this, contemplating your passion, hold onto yours.

Who knows? You might be the next great super star.

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