On Labor Day, appreciating Kemba Walker and others who put in the work
Like the ‘obsidian generation’ of my youth, we value athletes who give a day’s work for a day’s pay
As we celebrate the 125th anniversary of Labor Day, I reflect upon the men who defined my block in Philadelphia during the late 1960s. They were from what I think of as the obsidian generation: They were black and rock-solid. They had work to do, bills to pay. They were, to paraphrase poet Sterling Brown, strong men who kept coming.
They had come to Philly from all over, but somehow they all had the same first name, at least to me and the other neighborhood kids: Mister. They gave a day’s work for a day’s pay. They were all bricklayers, laying the foundation for a better future for their families.
Most of those men are gone now and with them the jobs, particularly the manufacturing jobs, that sustained them, their families and their communities, from the end of World War II into the mid-1970s.
But I see remnants of their sensibility in pro sports, and I celebrate it whenever I do. That’s why I’ve always liked Kemba Walker, the Boston Celtics’ new point guard. And as a die-hard Philadelphia 76ers fan, that’s hard for me to say.
After winning the national championship in 2011 as a junior at the University of Connecticut, Walker toiled in the NBA for teams in North Carolina. While in North Carolina, the star guard never played for a team that seriously challenged for the NBA championship, but he put in an honest season’s work, year in and year out. Last season, the three-time All-Star played in all 82 regular-season games. He averaged 25.6 points a game.
For most of his pro career, his hard work was not rewarded with victories. That could change this season. Having come to the Celtics as a $141 million free agent, he joins a franchise whose 17 championship seasons give its fans great expectations of its players.
Throughout his NBA career, he has enjoyed the triumph of a man whose consistency of effort was its own reward. In the upcoming season, he’ll be expected to win in the regular season and in the playoffs too.
On Tuesday, the Chicago Bears will unveil statues of Hall of Famers George Halas and Walter Payton in Chicago. Both men were monuments to the consistency of effort that helped make America great. More than anything, they had great expectations of themselves.
Halas, who died in 1983 at age 88, was the son of immigrants. He grew up with the NFL; he excelled as a player and won championships as a coach and owner. When I think of Halas, I see the opening words of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March: “I am an American, Chicago born …”
Payton, a native of Mississippi and a graduate of Jackson State University, left the South and found fame in Chicago. He ran for more than 16,000 yards, second all-time to Emmitt Smith in the NFL. During his career, Payton missed just one game. He died in 1999. He was 45.
Like the men in my youth in Philly, Mr. Halas and Mr. Payton gave a day’s work for a day’s pay. Payton, who played much of his pro career without great wide receivers or quarterbacks to lighten his workload, made some of his most virtuosic and determined runs just to gain a few yards, all game long, all season long, all career long. As Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks wrote in another context, he was the real thing.
Some observers dismiss the notion that today’s highly paid athletes can embody the hardworking sensibilities of decades past, but many do.
They play as if they seek to honor the hard work of the past by being exemplars of hard work today. No matter how gifted and talented today’s star athletes are, they arrive in the pro ranks after years of hard work and practice. Pro money, praise and adoration are fleeting. And in an effort to prolong their places in the sun, they work hard.
They come from all over. They play many different sports. Some of the star athletes are male. And, increasingly, some are female. But the hard worker’s first name is always Mister or Miss, at least to me. They are strong men and women. They keep coming.
They pave and light the way for future generations, inside and outside of sports.
Happy Labor Day.