Tiger Woods and Gilbert Arenas: What Buying a Barkley Jersey Taught Me

Greg EspositoContributor IIJanuary 7, 2010


(Originally written for Phoenix.Fanster.com)

I never thought I’d learn anything when I purchased a throwback purple Charles Barkley Phoenix Suns jersey on Ebay. I was wrong.

By paying twenty dollars to some random Chinese company, I learned a valuable lesson.

I learned that it takes a box forever to get from China to Phoenix, and said box is covered in a million stickers once it arrives. More importantly, I learned why we chastise athletes like Gilbert Arenas and Tiger Woods  for their misdeeds.

You’re probably wondering how in the world a throwback jersey from the 1990’s could lead me to such a revelation. It’s actually quite simple.

When I opened the box and saw that number thirty-four purple and orange masterpiece, I was taken back to the days when I truly was indoctrinated into sports fandom.

It was the early 1990’s and the Phoenix Suns, lead by Barkley, Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle and Tom Chambers, were taking the NBA by storm. I was ten years old and quickly became mesmerized by the athleticism, attitude and drive ofCharles Barkley .

From the first moment I watched the “round mound of rebound” I was hooked. I quickly became his biggest fan (I’ve never officially verified that claim). As a slightly overweight and shorter kid myself, it seemed like a natural fit.

I loved to watch him, and patterned my game after him (minus the skills and jumping ability). It didn’t matter what he did off the court, I was oblivious.

The fights he got in or the controversial comments he made were inconsequential in my young world. What mattered was how many points he’d score against the opponent that night and the next adrenaline-inducing moment he would create.

I didn’t look up to him for who he was off the court, I looked up to him for what he did on it.

Growing up, the sports world wasn’t about who was dating whom, or what trouble an athlete was getting into. It was about the magic of competition and the amazing ability the athletes possessed.

As I got older I found myself caring more about the “peripheral” things in sports.

I no longer watched solely waiting to be impressed. I watched to see if someone was living up to their contract and I cared if their off the court activities affected the way he played.

As the years passed, I became more cynical about the world around me and looked at it with more a discerning eye. The way I processed sports changed too.

I found myself, and do to this day, longing for the “way things used to be”.

Now, I’m not naive. Logically I know that some of Barkley’s transgressions were as egregious as the ones Tiger Woods  and Gilbert Arenas committed. The problem is, emotionally I remember my youth and the sports moments that are ingrained in my brain, without any of the extra baggage.

I would imagine it’s the same way for a Chicago Bulls fan who grew up watching Jordan or young Mets fans who watched Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden in 1986. They remember the great plays and moments, not the gambling, drugs or infidelity that came away from the sport.

It’s like how our parents tell us how their childhood was a “simpler time”. Their parents told them the same thing, and we inevitably will tell it to the next generation.

We look at our memories, especially in sports, through a revisionist lens.

When athletes like Tiger Woods  and Gilbert Arenas have personal and legal trouble we skewer them for not acting the way athletes should and for not being “role models” to the kids. We do it because we remember the athletes from our youth as something more.

We hold today’s athletes to the standard set from the memories of our childhood and not the reality of the whole situation.

In most cases, the athletes we spend our free time watching are just normal guys who were blessed with an amazing talent.

We forget they have the same flaws we all do –minus the physical weakness– but they have millions of eyes watching them, millions of dollars in the bank, and millions of people who want a piece of them that magnify those issues.

When we say “what example are they setting for the kids?”, we really are wanting to ask is “why doesn’t sports feel the way it did when I was a kid?” and “where are the athletes like the ones from my youth?”.

It doesn’t feel the same because we, and the way we look at sports, changed as we grew up, not the game. Today’s athletes are just like the ones from our youth, just with better training regimens and a larger magnifying glass scrutinizing their every move.