You can be the greatest hitter in the history of baseball, a phenomenal golfer, the undisputed greatest wrestler who has ever lived, the top hooper ever, or one of the NBA’s best coaches – and still have all kinds of personal problems, regrets, family difficulties, and be on an endless search for something you’ll never achieve. You’re merely a struggling, sad, and frustrated human being.
These are the chilling takeaways from a well-researched book by sportswriter Wright Thompson titled The Cost of These Dreams: Sports Stories and Other Serious Business. Thompson is a special talent as a writer in both his prose and intense deep into the lives and psychological burdens of athletes, uncovering aspects of these people you’ve never read anywhere else. He gets to the core truths of superstars with all their vulnerabilities and unattractive personality traits.
You come away from reading this book saddened to learn how awful the personal lives and daily existences have been for some of the greatest sports heroes of all time, none less than Ted Williams, Tiger Woods, Dan Gable, Pat Riley, and Michael Jordan.
We all know Ted Williams, the most talented hitter of a baseball ever, had a prickly personality and didn’t like many people. This is rooted in the home he grew up in which was devoid of parental affection.
“Ted Williams’s mother gave him nothing but a name, and as soon as he grew old enough, he gave it back, changing Teddy on his birth certificate to the more respectable Theodore,” writes Thompson. “He longed to rewrite the facts of his life. His father drifted on the edge of it. His mother, May, was obsessed with her work at the Salvation Army, abandoning her own kids. May Williams never saw her son play a major league game, even though she lived through his entire career…He came from damaged people, and he left damaged people behind. To the public, he was a success, but to himself, he was a failure, consumed with shame and regret.”
How many of us can say our mothers abandoned us and didn’t care about us? And do any of us really know what that feels like to be a young boy whose mother ignores him? No wonder he was messed up. And how could a mother have a son be so great as a hitter and never even go to one of his games? Unfathomable – unless there was something seriously screwed up with her and that family.
A mother’s love, in the end, seems more important than being the best at your craft because Williams didn’t feel he was a success because his mother didn’t give him that credit nor care what he did. He was angry all those years for a reason none of us could understand – until now. He wanted his mother’s love and never got it.
The longer Tiger Woods is alive, the more we realize what an unusual – and mostly unimpressive and grasping person he is. The sex addiction we all know about is weird and reveals shallowness and poor judgment, but there’s more to this creepy person.
The big revelation for me in this book is Tiger’s secretive yet all-in fascination with military operations and immersing himself in doing the things that Navy SEALs do on a daily basis. Just think, we thought he was obsessed with practicing and playing golf all the time, but he was also spending a lot of time surreptitiously flying off to be with these military professionals.
“The military trips continued through 2006 into 2007, kept almost completely a secret,” the author writes. “At home, Tiger read books on SEALs. He played Call of Duty for hours straight. When he could, he spent time with real-life operators. Tiger shot guns and learned combat tactics and did free-fall skydiving with active-duty SEALs.”
The psychoanalytical explanation offered is he was trying to somehow experience some of the military life his father had earlier in life. Tiger’s NAVY Seal activities started soon after his father died. It’s well understood he and his father had a rare father-son relationship in which Dad pushed his son with incredible focus to be the greatest golfer ever.
Being brought up with this kind of pressure, a brainwashed kind of abnormal childhood with no way out only to win helps us further understand all the odd relationships he had with women even after he got married.
“This wasn’t a series of one-night stands but something more complex and strange. He called women constantly, war-dialing until they picked up, sometimes just to narrate simple everyday activities. When they didn’t answer, he called their friends. He juggled a harem of women at once, looking for something he couldn’t find while he made more and more time for his obsession with the military, and he either ignored or did not notice the repeating patterns from Earl’s life.”
How many of us do this? Some maybe, but not many. This guy Tiger seems emotionally empty.
A near-death car accident happened more recently for this unusual athletic prodigy. There have been drug additions and his golf career is all but done. It’s almost hard to believe that some 15 years ago we were all so sure he would win 19 Majors and become the greatest golfer ever, yet now we see a man adrift, aloof, and lost.
With America’s obsession with major sports such as basketball, baseball, football, and golf, there’s less understanding and appreciation for the greatness that Dan Gable achieved in wrestling.
“His life has been one of victory. He went 64-0 as a high school wrestler, 118-1 in college, won an Olympic gold medal in Munich without surrendering a point, and won 15 national titles in 21 seasons as the Iowa coach. At rest, Gable looks like a retired math teacher, but under the influence of anger and adrenaline he transforms.”
You could easily make the case that Gable dominated his sport more than any other athlete in any sport ever has. Seriously. Spectacularly dominant he was.
Despite spellbinding successes, the author conveys the story of a man torn and frustrated in his sixties going to Iowa wrestling matches finding it hard to watch, getting emotionally uncontrollable, searching for some sort of contentment, fueled by some childhood demons he doesn’t even understand.
Few NBA people have had more success as a coach and player than Pat Riley. We learned about his obsession with reading inspirational books that helped him elevate his own and his team’s performances. He was a guy who believed in the power of thought to help a person succeed at the highest levels.
But why was he so into this? The book offers clues about what happened during his unhappy childhood.
“I can’t remember my father ever telling me he loved me. Not much from my mother either. He remembers home as a dark place, loud with unspoken words. The Rileys didn’t talk about anything. His dad drank away a decade. Although Pat went to a therapist only once – five minutes into the session, he burst into tears, stood up, and never returned.”
Like many high achievers, Riley cannot stand losing, which is why he’s always been so driven. Championships have come his way, but fulfillment seems forever beyond his grasp.
Every one of us knows Michael Jordan was and continues to be hyper-competitive. But why this is who he has never been brought to the surface until this book gave an important clue:
“Jordan genuinely believes his father liked his older brother, Larry, more than he liked him, and he used that insecurity as motivation. His whole life has been about proving things, to the people around him, to strangers, and to himself. This has been successful and spectacularly unhealthy.”
If I thought my father liked one of my brothers more than me, I would have been motivated to show my father I was worthy of at least as much as love as my brother. But I don’t think I would have taken this desire to the insane levels Jordan did. He’s just not a really nice person and competitive to the point of not caring about other people at all.
“He can be a breathtaking asshole: self-centered, bullying, and cruel. That’s the ugly side of greatness. Jordan might have stopped playing basketball but the rage is still there.”
There you have it. A few of the greatest athletes and coaches ever, anywhere, anytime.
Troubled, frustrated, hurt, regretful, unsatisfied, and flawed.
What’s the lesson? I’m not sure but I think we should all be careful about wishing to be the greatest at what we do because, based on the lives of these people, they still have plenty of problems like the rest of us – maybe more.
Is finding a balance in life the answer? I’ve heard this is true and I believe it so some extent. But I also am convinced we’re inevitably drawn to be great at what we do, to make a difference, to be the best, even though that’s unrealistic and not the path to fulfillment.
Sammy Sportface, a sports blogger, galvanizes, inspires, and amuses The Baby Boomer Brotherhood. And you can learn about his vision and join this group's Facebook page here:
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