They’re depicted as heroes, public figures who possess superhuman skills and talents. They can put on a cape and fly like Superman, shatter backboards with extraordinary strength and raise 20,000 fans to their feet with the just a lift of a hand.
They don’t really need the upcoming All-Star Break, do they? Only 82 games a season? They could do that 365 days a year, right? Not at all. Once the buzzer sounds, NBA players take off their jerseys and go home from a long day at work. And just as anyone strives to separate their personal life and their job, NBA players strive to find the balance as well.
"It’s crucial in a player’s life and it’s crucial in most human being’s life," said sports psychologist Dr. David Weiss. "Everybody is trying to balance, whether it’s Paul Pierce or Bill Walker or Wyc Grousbeck or Big Baby or anybody, you, me. Balance is one of the universal themes in life. It’s not like you just reach a certain stage and you just coast on it for the rest. You’re always juggling, you’re always balancing."
Weiss understands the struggles that professional basketball players endure off the court. In addition to practicing psychology, he is also the Director of Research at BBIQ, which studies the critical core dynamics of personality that make athletes successful. Weiss knows the NBA season can be grueling to manage, especially for a team like the Celtics. The defending world champions had the most demanding first half schedule in the league. They played 55 games before the All-Star Break, including 26 back-to-back matchups.
"Balance is really the key, especially to avoid burnout," Weiss said. "If you don’t have balance, you can go for a while but burnout is going to hit you sooner and an erratic performance is going to hit you sooner."
In spite of their rigorous calendar, the Celtics still have one of the best records in the NBA. Much of that success can be attributed to their head coach. Doc Rivers has been living by an NBA schedule since the Atlanta Hawks drafted him in 1983. Twenty-six years and a family later, he makes sure his players don’t lose focus of their own lives.
“[I tell them] keep the balance. Literally, keep the balance,” Rivers said. “As important as basketball is, your private life is more important. If you take care of your private life, your basketball life becomes easier. If you don’t take care of your private life, then you’re going to have a distraction at some point in it and it’s going to hurt your basketball life. And that’s taking food off the table.”
To Rivers, the Celtics are people before they are athletes. That’s why Thanksgiving Day was practice-free, and a recent trip to sunny Orlando was extended an extra day. It’s the few spare moments in between game nights that can keep a player focused.
“It’s not like Doc says, ‘You don’t have to practice, you don’t have to try hard in the games,’” Weiss said. “He drives his guys for excellence all the time. But I think that knowing a guy’s got a human side to him, for certain players, is going to mean a lot, perhaps even work more for them. Being in the NBA is not a balanced life to begin with. So you do your best to keep your balance in an unbalanced world.”
Rivers’ understanding resonates with his players. Nearly every member of the Celtics came to Boston from a team with a losing record. Winning has made it easier to leave basketball behind rather than taking defeat home.
“It’s pretty easy, especially when you get a win. But when you lose, it’s hard to because you keep thinking about what you could’ve done right,” said Kendrick Perkins. “Now you go home and it’s all positive, when you were used to going home and it was all negative. When you lose 18 games like that you really start questioning yourself, like should you even be in the NBA? It really gets that serious.”
For 10 years Paul Pierce questioned if he could win it all with the Celtics. But an NBA championship and a daughter has eased the pressures he felt as the face of a losing team.
“When you have a daughter you go home and you’re there with your little daughter and you just forget about everything and it’s all about her right now,” he said. “I let my basketball be my basketball and my personal life be my personal life. I come to work, I have a job to do, and when I go home it’s about my family and whatever I’m doing off the court. I just try not to let whether I’m having good or bad days off the court affect what I’m doing on the court.”
Aside from winning, family can change an athlete’s perspective on the sport.
“It’s sort of a challenge in two ways, talking about balance,” Weiss said. “It obviously becomes a huge, huge change of balance, some good, some problematic. The good stuff is people usually love their kids and would do a lot for them. At the same token, it’s a huge commitment and takes an incredible amount of time and energy and effort. And then being on the road, which they are a great deal of time, it’s tough for folks. Speaking in generalities, it’s not all about you anymore. So that it grounds you in a lot of ways, it gives you purpose in a lot of ways, and makes you grow up in a certain way so that you’re not just thinking about yourself.”
But it’s family that help keeps Ray Allen focused. The daily responsibilities of having two young sons (one diagnosed with Juvenile Diabetes) allow him to put basketball out of his mind. The role of a father takes precedence over that of an All-Star in his house.
“I shut it off. Shut it completely off,” Allen said. “I just sit at home with the kids. First of all, I have to take my son to school every morning. So that’s how it starts off, I don’t really ever sleep in. I drop him off and then I come back home and I’ve got the other one to chase around. And then we’ve got to pick Ray up at noon, so you don’t really get to sit around and just do nothing. And even if you’re trying to watch TV or a movie, forget about it.”
During the All-Star break, the Celtics have nearly a week off between games. Perkins does not see it as a vacation; he has a job he must stay on top of. Nonetheless, players will still be afforded the opportunity to spend less time in the gym than they would during a practice or game day.
“Sometimes you need that time to yourself to clear your head,” said Leon Powe. “It’s a long season. There are a lot of things that happen during the season, ups and downs. Sometimes you may need that little time to take some time off and not focus on basketball, just focus on what you’re doing for that day ... My [favorite] time is when I go hang out with my family. I’m free and I feel good. And when I come to work the next day I’m moving, doing real good because I cleared my head and I’m ready to go back to hoop.”
Powe admits it is hard for him to avoid watching a game even when he’s trying to take a break. He gets caught up in his love for basketball, but has learned that sometimes he has to turn off the television. It is the first step in living a balanced life in the NBA.
“First, you have to realize that that’s what you’re looking for and not just saying, 'I’m just a basketball player,’” said Weiss. “If that’s all you are, you’re going to be out of balance and sooner or later that’s going to catch up to you.”
Jessica Camerato is a regular contributor for WEEI.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.