I grew up loving basketball, and Alan Seiden was the best high school basketball player I've ever seen. He was also my neighbor and a classmate at Jamaica High School in New York City. One of the most indelible memories from my youth is watching Alan hit one beautiful jump shot after another at Madison Square Garden as he helped lead our team to the city championship. The New York Times compared him favorably to the basketball legend Bob Cousy. He went on to St. John's, became one of the greatest stars in the history of that university's basketball team, and was a two time All-American. He also played briefly in the pros.
A few years later, I was shocked to bump into him as he stood on Broadway selling theater tickets. Many years after that, I heard from a friend that he was grossly overweight and living with his mom back in Queens. I read his obituary in the Times a few years ago, and a wave of sadness passed over me.
I often think about Alan, remember him shooting baskets through his garage hoop and in all his glory that night at the Garden. And I keep thinking about whether anything could have been done when he was in high school to somehow better prepare him for the inevitable fall from stardom that was to come.
The Dark Side of Hero Worship
If this were just about Alan Seiden, I wouldn't be writing this post.
But what happened to Alan has had me thinking about how we can better help prepare high school star athletes for life without stardom. High school, and in some cases college, will likely be their highest point of being center-stage stars. The fact is that few high school stars ever continue to be stars much past their early 20s. As teachers and parents, I think we can somehow do a better job preparing them for this reality and a meaningful life beyond stardom.
I think these stars often slip through our attention screen and that we sometimes unwittingly become part of the problem.
In Alan's case, there were warnings, unseen by most except close friends and teammates. Although he had a big heart, he was arrogant and used to always getting his own way. He had problems with authority. He responded poorly to criticism. He lacked some basic social skills. There is even evidence that he may have had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Not surprisingly, he was obsessed with basketball and interested in little else. What if his coach or teachers or parents had really picked up on some of those problems? They apparently didn't.
So what can we do as teachers and parents?
One starting place is to at least not be part of the problem by participating in the veneration of star athletes. I think teachers, especially those who love competitive sports, can be prone to a degree of hero worship of star athletes. I was often as mesmerized by my talented athlete kids as their peers were, and unless a star athlete acted out in class, I usually just assumed that life was good for him or her.
The last thing these students need is further bloating of their own sense of greatness. Contributing to an unrealistic sense of self-importance is likely to create real problems in adjusting to life in the real world outside stardom.
The two most obvious opportunities to provide proper mentoring come from parents and especially from coaches. I think the best coaches, those who see themselves as educators and counselors, often do this very effectively. Unfortunately, a majority of coaches see their roles only as skill teachers and motivators.
Vigilance and Tough Love
One of the best models I know for both teachers and coaches is a fictional one, although loosely based on a real coach. Eric Taylor, the football coach in the television series Friday Night Lights, played beautifully by Kyle Chandler, continually helped keep his stars balanced. Personifying "tough love," he helped counsel them, confronted arrogant, self-centered behavior, urged them to develop fully as people, not just as athletes, and carefully avoided venerating them in any way. I highly recommend watching the whole series, although "Don't Go," episode 10 from season 5, is one good prototypical one. Check out the program's web page for a full description and episode guide.
A short New York Times piece by sport psychologist Joel Fish provides some good advice for the parents of highly skilled athletes.
But one of the most perfect pieces I've come across with advice for the parents, teachers and the star athletes themselves was an article by Mike Muldoon in the Newburyport News, from Newburyport, Massachusetts, entitled "Oath for Athletes, Parents, and Coaches."
I think we also need to be aware that in today’s climate in which star athletes make millions of dollars and students see athletic stars continually demonstrating arrogance on the court and field, our challenge is even greater.
I don't know if any of us could have "saved" Alan Seiden, even knowing all of this. But, knowing what I do now, I'd have wanted to kick his butt and also help him develop some other truly meaningful avocation that could have led to his eventually "starring" in another professional field. I do know that, like Holden Caulfield, we can't help every kid from falling off a cliff. I just think we can do a better job with kids like Alan.