Athletes finding money, fame aren't enough for a full, happy life

January 19, 1992|By Sam Smith | Sam Smith,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- They have all anyone can ask for, or so it seems. Professional sports stars, especially those in the NBA -- where the average salary is more than $1 million per year -- enjoy great wealth, fame and recognition.

They are celebrated in the media and revered in the community. They are role models for the youth, objects of desire and the virtual fulfillment of the American dream.

And yet a growing number of top professional athletes are turning toward religion these days. Why?

In what seems like an ironic paradox, it's because more and more believe their lives are empty and meaningless.

"A lot of guys are finding out," says Chicago Bulls forward Horace Grant, "that money and all that stuff is not the answer."

Grant realized that about two years ago when he adopted Christianity. And last summer, he was among a group of NBA players at a Christian retreat who helped San Antonio Spurs superstar center David Robinson begin to provide some solid footing for his life.

*

"If you build your house on sand,

As soon as the wind blows

Your house is going to fall down;

You have to build it

' On a solid foundation."

*

That is one of the favorite biblical proverbs of Robinson.

But it was his destiny that Robinson was having concerns about recently.

He was the epitome of the American success story: the Naval Academy, the Olympics, a big NBA contract and then superstardom in the league.

But while outside Robinson was an idol to millions, inside he felt like he was worshiping only the false idols of narcissism, conceit and ego.

"I liked myself five years ago better than I did last year," he said recently. "The lifestyle was making me arrogant. It made me think the world revolved around me."

And so the first step was attendance at that Christian retreat.

"He came down and realized despite all he had and who he was, he wasn't happy with what he was doing and what he had," says Grant. "He was an All-Star and he had all the Nike commercials and the money and everything, and it didn't fulfill his life.

"It was the same with me. You get tired of supposedly having everything and really knowing you have nothing."

So with the help of Grant, and especially Los Angeles Lakers forward A.C. Green, who led the retreat, Robinson made a commitment to Jesus Christ.

"Now, I really have a purpose," Robinson says.

And a wife.

He married his longtime girlfriend and started writing scripture verses along with his name when he signed autographs. And he started smiling.

"You can tell he's a lot more at ease than before," says teammate Willie Anderson.

But Robinson is hardly an exception. An increasing number of NBA athletes, and especially big stars in all sports -- Darryl Strawberry in baseball and Barry Sanders in football, among others -- have been making commitments to religion even as their fame and salaries continue to rocket out of sight. They've gotten fame and money, and as Magic Johnson showed, temptation followed, but many have failed to find a purpose for their lives.

"Fulfillment doesn't come from success and money," says Bulls guard Craig Hodges, a devout Muslim, "but from understanding who the creator is."

Not only did Robinson embrace Christianity this summer, but Houston Rockets superstar center Hakeem Olajuwon committed himself to Islam with a trip to Mecca this summer.

"It's made a big difference in my life," says Olajuwon, who now focuses his life around his faith, waking every morning at 5:30 for five prayers.

"You should never let the sun catch you in bed," he says. "It's the most beautiful time of day, so why not be awake to enjoy nature and the sunrise? I pray before sunrise, and then I read the Koran."

As does the Bulls' Hodges. He's one of as many as eight among the 12 Bulls players who some time last season attended pre-game chapel services.

"It's been an increasing phenomenon," says The Rev. Henry Soles, executive director of the Life Enhancement Program and involved in Chicago sports ministry for the last 17 years. "Many athletes have weighed their lives and found them wanting. They've found the life of fame not all that it's cracked up to be. They have money and fame, but they don't know who to trust. Everyone tells them they're wonderful.

"They see an emptiness of existence and then turn inward. These are young men who haven't had a chance to grow up, and everything is thrown at them and they're asked to make XTC decisions that most people don't have to make until later in life. The public might like them, but the public really doesn't know them."

And the public has been, at times, somewhat suspicious of religious conversions in sports, where end zone and locker room revival meetings seem to have become more and more common.

Sometimes, sports executives have been suspicious of athletes who "find" religion, suggesting it makes them less competitive and more accepting of defeat as "God's will."

But the athletes disagree.

"My style is physical, to bump and elbow, and people wonder how I can be a Christian," says the Lakers' Green. "But that's the way I see biblical warriors. I see them concentrating on the motto of 'To fight and destroy.' "

Adds Robinson: "God doesn't want wimps. He wants warriors, because it's a war out there."

And the war is not only within an individual but against a society that establishes athletes as gods.

"Sports, in a way, has become America's new religion," says Soles. "People worship at the shrine of the game, and athletes are placed on a pedestal and they are celebrated, but then when they fail there is a crying out against them. An athlete is told by everyone how good he is, and he begins to believe it and expects this and that. Then if he fails to live up to those expectations, he can get thrown to the wolves."

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