I have always been an admirer of modesty in athletes. I root for players whose artistry is marked by quiet efficiency rather than braggadacio, those who wear their celebrity lightly. As a fan, I preferred Arthur Ashe to Ilie Nastase, Bjorn Borg to Jimmy Connors, Tim Duncan to Shaquille O’Neal, Derek Jeter to A-Rod, Hank Aaron to Barry Bonds. I appreciated Dennis Rodman’s rebounding ability even as I deplored his antics on and off the court.
Though I never got to see him play, Joe DiMaggio was a hero to me as much for his quiet dignity as for the effortless grace he displayed in patrolling centerfield for the Yankees. I did see him once, long after his playing days were over. Back in the early eighties,I was walking in mid-town Manhattan when a man rushed across the street brandishing an autograph book. He approached a tall white-haired figure , immaculately dressed in a blue pin striped suit, emerging from a limo. It was Joe DiMaggio! Smilingly, he obliged the autograph seeker, no doubt making the man’s day.
Twentyfive years later, I still remember the force of Joe’s personality, his class.
There weren’t too many like him, which is perhaps just as well because the American public seems to prefer it’s sporting icons to be loud and flamboyant and ‘colorful’. To some extent, I can understand the fascination with flash and razzle-dazzle ; it is certainly exciting to watch . But why dismiss a player like Pete Sampras as ‘ dull’ or ‘boring’ instead of admiring his strokes,his court coverage and the fighting spirit that propelled him to 14 Grand Slam titles.
But perhaps I am being unfair in expecting athletes to be modest. After all, when they go up against others in a game situation, they have to tell themselves that they are better than the opposition, that they are the best. Without a huge ego , they would not be able to dominate opponents. Much of the trash talking and posturing is to pump themselves up for the upcoming confrontation or to intimidate their rivals. Sometimes, it’s also to get themselves in the news and build up their persona, all the better to attract lucrative endorsements.It’s unfortunate that youngsters see their heroes behave thusly and then use them as role models.
And then, just when I had told myself that it was unreasonable to expect modesty in an athlete, I read this piece in Bob Larson’s Tennis News …
“Last week, Roger Federer was in Horgen, Switzerland and dropped in at exclusive restaurant, L’O, located at the shore of Lake Zurich. He came with 5 people, and they had no reservation. As the tables were either full or empty but reserved, restaurant management sent him away. They didn’t try to fit his party in, and Federer made no scene such as, “Don’t you know who I am?”
A couple of people asked for autographs, and Federer complied with a smile and left. ”
Can you imagine another superstar, any other superstar doing something like that ?
Thank you, Mr. Federer, for showing that it is possible to be a superstar and a gentleman.