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Why Character in Sport Matters

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I live quite literally in the shadows of Fenway Park. On game days I have to make sure fans don't block my driveway. I can still tell you where I was when, at age twelve, Bucky Dent hit the bloop fly ball that crushed my teenage heart. So the resurgence of Boston sport, from the Patriots to the Red Sox to the Celtics, has been something of a heaven on earth experience for me and my friends. This week's revelation about David Ortiz, on the heels of Manny's reported abuse, has me thinking about what really does matter in sport, both on the field and off.

It should be noted on the field that Boston's success all started with a tough SOB named Bill Belichick. He and I both went to Wesleyan so I have met his several times. I recently heard him tell a crowd of alums, "Ever man on our squad knows he has a job to do on game day. You don't want me wrapping ankles or throwing passes. And you sure as hell don't want Brady calling plays. Leadership is about two things: Being able to do your own job and having a selfless attitude when your doing it. It pretty much comes down to working your ass off and keeping your mouth shut." Belichick showed that character does matter, not off the field but actually in terms of on-the-field success. He built teams out of undervalued players rejected by other general managers. When one of the Patriot's stars demanded too much they were quickly shown the exit.

Theo Epstein adopted a very similar approach, along with a Money Ball statistical analysis, in building the teams that broke the curse of the Bambino. You can see in the odd looking squad headlined by Dustin Pedroa and Kevin Youkilis and the portfolio approach to young arms that he has been drinking the Belichick Kool-Aid. The NBA is perhaps the hardest nut to crack in terms of character-does-matter on the court philosophy given the circus atmosphere. But in the Celtic's recent championship it was the character of Kevin Garnett that made the difference, even more than his amazing physical talent. He changed every other player on that team and willed them to win.

This week's story, however, shows that in some cases our beloved teams have had to make sacrifices in character in an all out attempt to bring home the rings. Manny, as much as in some sick way we all loved him, was the case in point. The guy was great because he was literally so dumb he couldn't remember the last pitch (or remember to come out from underneath the green monster to play left field). Turns out that is a great characteristic when facing a pitcher under enormous pressure -- swing like you didn't just miss the last two pitches by a foot. But it makes for a pretty bad teammate and a horrible example for our young men, which gets to whether character off the field should matter.

I know Charles Barkley famously told us all, "Don't make me a role model!" but the reality is sports figures are a very powerful influence on our young men, particularly the men most vulnerable to falling off from the straight and arrow by circumstance of birth. It does matter what superstar athletes do and say. It hasn't just been the fact that the Patriots, Sox and Celtics have won world championships that has brought smiles our faces and warmed our collective hearts but it has been the character of those teams that have made them popular not just in Boston but around the world.

Despite living near Fenway, the team I have gotten to know the best in recent years is the Celtics. I have had the good fortune of sitting on the floor for some games and even traveling to Los Angeles in 2008 with one of the owners to watch the amazing game 4 comeback win in the finals. I also have written freelance pieces about them from time to time. I was doing a little piece for Boston Magazine about the Russian Masseuse, Vlad Shulman, who has been the team's secret weapon since the days of Larry Bird. Management for some reason decided that they didn't want a member of the press, even a lowly freelancer such as me, speaking with Shulman, so they gave me a press credential and let me loose in the locker room instead. Talk about a sports fanatic's wet dream. There I was in the Celts' locker room, free to talk to whomever I wanted.

The first thing I noticed is that the locker room is a lot smaller than I would imaged. And the players, up close, are a lot bigger. I'm 6'3" and 215 pounds, when walking up to KG or Perk, I felt like the little kid on the schoolyard who no one wants to pick for kick ball. Pretty quickly I learned that most players treat even the beat reporters from the local papers like a necessary evil. Answers are short and generally given with an annoyed expression. I wouldn't take kindly to guys popping off while I changed my underwear either, but the writers are just trying to do their jobs.

The protocol is to stand well behind the locker of the player you want to speak with. When he becomes free, you can ask him (very politely) if he has a minute for a question. Mostly the answer is no. When I asked Ray Allen, he turned and looked me in the eye and asked who I was and what I was writing about. He was in a state of undress, so he asked me to wait a minute so he could get his shorts on. Then he shook my hand and told me to sit down. We talked for 20 minutes about the Celtics of old and how Vlad fit into that picture and how he, Ray, felt putting on the same green Celtics jersey as Bill Russell and Larry Bird. He told me how he prepares relentlessly for every game and tries to lead by example. Frankly after the first five minutes, though I had my tape recorder on, our conversation had nothing to do with my article.

Ever since I have been a Ray disciple. To me it's players like Allen (and Pedroa and Patriot's star Tedy Bruschi who came back from a stroke to lead the defense he loves) that prove that character does matter on and off the field. It leads to world championships, loyal fans, and also gives our young men some chance to see by example what's really important in life. Manny and Ortiz's drug use are sad. But they are the exception not the rule in what has made Boston a great sports town over the last decade.

And, yes, that's yours truly in the photo below. I'm the nut wearing the number 20 jersey, green pants, and love beads, whispering in the ear of my guy after he drained a three from the corner late in a playoff game last spring.

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