If you have not yet read Jonathan Abrams’ profile of Jonny Flynn over at Grantland, I recommend you go do that instead of reading this. It’s typically superlative. Abrams does a fantastic job showing the rollercoaster that Flynn’s professional career has been, but there was one part in particular that resonated strongly with me.
“That second year was my toughest year because I never went through something like that, where basketball is your main problem in life,” Flynn said. “Usually it’s your safe haven. Usually, you play basketball and you get away from everything else. But basketball being the biggest problem of my life, being a young kid, I couldn’t handle that. That was a really, really low time in my life, which it shouldn’t have been. You hear people say, ‘You’re in the NBA. You’re getting a check. You’re doing this. You can get your parents a house. Your sister’s good. Your family’s good.’ But when you love basketball, you just want to be able to play. The money is great. Once you get everything out of the way, once you take care of your family, once everything happens, it’s about basketball. During that time, it was tough.”
Most of us are never going to make a living doing what we love, and of those that do, a vanishingly small number will be paid very, very well (as the sixth pick in the 2009 draft, Flynn made just under $3 million his rookie year and just over $9 million for the life of his contract) to do something we not only love but are among the very best in the world at. I certainly don’t belong in the latter category, but judging from Flynn’s story, it seems like it can only be more fraught with distress than what I attempted, which was to be a professional musician.
For the five or so years after I finished college, I tried to make music my life and livelihood. For a generation of children raised by successful, middle- to upper-class baby boomers, making a creative endeavor into your career has supplanted the traditional reliable job, two-car garage and nuclear family of the American Dream. Since industrial jobs have moved overseas, we’ve heard about the rise of the “creative class” in America, and that’s what I wanted to be a part of.
When it was good, it was great. I played a lot of shows in a lot of places, opened for some terrific bands, got to know some warm, generous fellow musicians, recorded and released some albums I was very proud of and sometimes even made some money.
But unless you know me personally, I can all but guarantee you never heard of my band. And man, the part where Flynn talks about the thing he loves dearly being the main problem in his life: that was 2003 in a nutshell. As it was with many of the part-time jobs I held while pursuing music, the problem wasn’t the work, it was the bullshit—all the garbage that floats around anything. The late nights, long drives, interpersonal problems with other band members, splitting up money, firing band members, not being able to find good replacements, scheduling conflicts that meant the last set of original material we wrote never got recorded in a studio. I’ve seen the same stuff drag down writers, filmmakers, designers.
And somewhere buried in the middle of all that is the thing you still love. The hard part is when you go try to go to that as some kind of solace, some kind of reminder of why you got into this in the first place, and find that it isn’t unscathed by all that other stuff. That the thing that was once your rock the thing you do, in Flynn’s words, to “get away from everything else,” is somehow different, sullied, unreliable.
That’s what’s unbearable. Because the bullshit stays the bullshit. I knew when I committed to making my band my job that there was going to be stuff I didn’t want to do, stuff I wasn’t as good at, stuff that would wear me out. But I never never ever thought it was going to be the music itself.
Flynn’s story as told by Abrams is a good reminder that when a player slips out of the NBA, when he fails to live up to his draft position or never becomes what we envisioned, it shouldn’t be put down to anything as simple as a lack of sheer talent. Abrams makes it clear that many things had a hand in making Flynn’s initial stint in the NBA a rocky one: himself, the attention his epic game against Connecticut brought him, the disconnection within the Timberwolves organization, Kurt Rambis’ woeful but not necessarily willful mishandling of him. Had all the strife of his rookie and sophomore seasons not breached the walls that protected his love of the game, would he have succeeded?
Maybe it’s futile to try and figure it out; I know I’ve now more or less made peace with those five years of my life. I don’t think so much about what I could have done differently to be more successful, to be less vulnerable. I wanted what I loved to be my career, but it turned out to just be a job.