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‘Matter of life and death’: How professional athletes deal with grief

Then LeBron James spoke. According to the LA Times, he told his teammates he had “broad shoulders for a reason” – so he could carry them all.

It lined up with his emotional Instagram post this week in his only public remarks since Bryant’s death on Monday (AEDT).

“I promise you I’ll continue your legacy man!” James said, in part. “You mean so much to us all here … and it’s my responsibility to put this shit on my back and keep it going!! Please give me the strength from the heavens above and watch over me! I got US here!”

James has been carrying teams on those shoulders since his rookie season in 2003. He took the Miami Heat to championships in 2012 and 2013, then the Cleveland Cavaliers to the 2016 title – the first in their history.

At 35, he was already carving out something special this season, defying age and injury to have the Lakers humming with a 36-10 win-loss record and leading the Western Conference.

Everything changes after Bryant’s death. How James and the Lakers wrestle with the grief, the pain and the pressure of winning basketball games adds a fascinating dimension to the season.

The Lakers play their first match since Bryant’s death when they meet Portland Trailblazers at the Staples Centre on Saturday afternoon (AEDT). Their match against the Clippers last Wednesday was postponed.

How does a team, or individual athlete, or even an entire sport, deal with tragedy?

“Grief comes in different sizes, I know that,” says NSW State of Origin coach Brad Fittler, whose best friend and Penrith teammate Ben Alexander was killed in a car crash in 1992. “You don’t know how you will react, and you can’t judge how others will. There’s no textbook.”

PHILLIP HUGHES, CRICKETER, 26, NOVEMBER 27, 2014

The late Phillip Hughes celebrates scoring a century for NSW in 2009.

The late Phillip Hughes celebrates scoring a century for NSW in 2009.Credit:Darren Pateman

Brad Haddin took one look at David Warner as the national anthem was being played before the Test against India at Adelaide Oval and figured there was no way he could play.

It had been six days since the funeral of former teammate Phillip Hughes, who died after being struck on the back of the neck by a bouncer while playing for South Australia against NSW at the SCG.

“Davey was in tears,” Haddin recalls. “I thought, ‘How was he going to bat?’ It would’ve been completely understandable if he walked back into the change room and said he couldn’t play.”

Warner went out, spanked a cover drive to the fence off the first delivery he faced, then another 18 boundaries as he rattled up 145 off 163 deliveries.

“That’s when everyone thought, ‘We can get through this’,” Haddin says.

Steve Smith (162) and Michael Clarke (128) also scored centuries in the first innings. Warner scored another in the second before Nathan Lyon captured seven wickets as he spun Australia to an emotional win.

It was like that for the rest of the summer with Hughes’ Test number of “408” writ large on the outfield at every Test.

The hardest part for the Australian team, and perhaps every cricketer, was Hughes had been killed by the sport they adored.

Warner had struggled in a net session the day before the Test. Clarke has spoken about how strange it felt picking up a bat for the first time, or even putting on a helmet.

Like Haddin, opener Shane Watson was on the field at the SCG when Hughes was struck.

“The realisation was you could be killed while playing,” Watson says. “People are still having trouble with that. I was still struggling in that first Test. Nine months later, it was still having an impact on my performance.”

Haddin says: “You couldn’t get out of your head that the game had lost its innocence. We’d all grown up in the contest of bat versus ball. But now you just felt off and you didn’t know how long that would be there. It carried on in some ways through the rest of your career.”

Coach Darren Lehmann was crucial in nursing the team through those raw, early days.

“It was his finest hour as coach,” Haddin says. “He took the emotion out of it: come to training if you want to but don’t come if you don’t feel comfortable. We had guys walking out of the nets. Some could bat, some couldn’t. There was no rule. Nothing was right or wrong.”

The opening Test of the series in Brisbane was rescheduled, but there were concerns the Adelaide Test came too soon. Clarke has said he never had time to grieve and felt pressure from Lehmann to play.

“No, it wasn’t our decision,” Watson says. “Brisbane was in the players’ hands, but the second Test wasn’t. We were playing India so there was a lot more riding on things commercially. But, to be honest, when would’ve been the right time to play again?”

NATHAN BERRY, JOCKEY, 23, APRIL 3, 2014

Tommy Berry woke well before dawn, hours after his twin brother and fellow jockey Nathan had died. He put on his boots and went to trackwork.

Nathan Berry riding Unencumbered at the 2014 Jeep Magic Millions at the Gold Coast turf club.

Nathan Berry riding Unencumbered at the 2014 Jeep Magic Millions at the Gold Coast turf club.Credit:Harrison Saragossi

Nathan died from Norse syndrome, an acute condition related to epilepsy.

“Work was the only thing that got me through it,” Tommy says.

The racing industry grapples with death more than most, simply because of the dangerous nature of small men and women piloting enormous beasts at speed around tight racetracks.

It rallied around Damien Oliver when his brother Jason was killed in a race fall in 2002, and then watched as he steered Media Puzzle to victory in the Melbourne Cup days later. Unsurprisingly, they made a movie about it.

“A lot of people said he shouldn’t ride,” Hall of Fame jockey Jim Cassidy recalls. “It was the most courageous thing I’ve ever seen a jockey do. But that’s what makes him an elite athlete: self-belief. And, in this game, you need a lot of that.”

Nathan’s death also coincided with a major event: the 2014 Golden Slipper meeting at Rosehill Gardens.

Before the main race, a tribute was held in his honour and Tommy, who had spent most of the time between races walking the track to avoid the huge crowd, broke down.

“I regret riding that day because, looking back, it wasn’t fair on the connections I rode for,” he says. “I turned up for a job I wasn’t capable of doing.

“For the next few months, it felt like I wasn’t even there. I couldn’t remember some of the big days, how they panned out, even how things went in the run. I was just turning up and doing my job.”

Incredibly, he rode better than ever, winning nine group 1 races over the next 18 months.

That included a group 1 at his first meeting as a contracted rider in Hong Kong, where he moved for two months following Nathan’s death.

“Going to Hong Kong was really tough on my family, which I regret now but it was an easy way out,” he says. “My parents had already lost one son and, with me going, they lost another for a while. I was the only thing that connected them to Nathan – but I had to get away.

“The toughest thing for me was how people dealt with me after his death. They would walk towards me then turn away, because they didn’t know what to say or how to approach me – because they saw Nathan. They still do. People would start talking to you about a horse and start tearing up.”

Tommy kept riding. Eventually, grief caught up with him.

“It took three-and-half years for me to break down,” he says. “I suffered quite a lot of depression for 12 months. My wife helped me get through it and, for the last six months, I’ve been in a good place. Sometimes you just don’t know if you will come out it.”

Former Adelaide coach Phil Walsh.

Former Adelaide coach Phil Walsh.Credit:AAP

PHIL WALSH, ADELAIDE CROWS COACH, 55, JULY 3, 2015

Andrew Fagan was standing in the Adelaide Crows board room at 3.30am the day after the death of coach Phil Walsh.

He was thumbing through the club’s crisis management strategies, but nothing could prepare him for this: Walsh had been stabbed to death by his 26-year-old son, Cy, who had been in a drug-induced psychosis.

“I realised there was nothing in it that provided a roadmap for the situation we were in,” Fagan says. “There were three things I wrote on a white board that morning: care and welfare; communications; logistics.”

The Crows’ match against Geelong was cancelled with both teams splitting the points, but their return to the field a week later, against West Coast at Subiaco, showed the best of footy.

The Eagles won by 56 points but joined the Crows players in a huddle in the middle of the field at full-time.

Adelaide went on to reach the finals and then beat the Western Bulldogs in their elimination final before losing to eventual premiers Hawthorn. Riley Knight, pounding his chest and pointing skywards, showed Walsh was still, in some ways, in charge of his team.

This is an extraordinarily tough competition when everything is going well, let alone when something unprecedented like this happens,” Fagan says. “There was enormous care for each other.”

He adds this, though: “We’re fortunate. In football clubs, we have an extraordinary support group. We all have each other.”

SHAWN MACKAY, BRUMBIES BACKROWER, 26, MAY 31, 2009

Fagan had already grappled with grief as Brumbies chief executive when Shawn Mackay died midway through the Super Rugby season.

Having played rugby union and rugby league, including junior football with the Roosters, Mackay was immensely popular.

He was struck by a car on a night out in Durban after a Brumbies match, in front of a handful of teammates. He died of a cardiac arrest a week later caused by a blood infection following surgery.

The Brumbies didn’t stop playing, taking on the Stormers four days before his funeral in Sydney, but that was a blessing according to captain Stephen Hoiles.

“It’s better than a desk job,” says Hoiles, who along with teammate Morgan Turinui was a pallbearer.

“We were the lucky ones: we got to play and train and chase a footy around. Our focus each week was to honour Shawn. We had something that was measurable and tangible to keep our minds off it.

“We had the daily endorphin release and being with your mates, surrounded by people going through the same thing. It meant you weren’t suffering in silence.

“It’s when the season finished and a lot of us moved back to Sydney for the off-season when it hit us. We realised we were going home – but we were going home without a mate.”

SONNY FAI, WARRIORS BACKROWER, 20, JANUARY 4, 2009

Sonny Fai played 15 matches for the Warriors.

Sonny Fai played 15 matches for the Warriors.

Warriors coach Ivan Cleary was in bed when he received a call from football manager Don Mann. He ignored it, rolled over, but couldn’t sleep.

“Sonny is missing,” Mann said when Cleary called back.

Fai had played a handful of games but was one of the club’s most popular players, always smiling and joking. He was also outrageously talented. The next Sonny Bill. He disappeared after being caught in a strong rip off Bethells Beach while saving his brother and four cousins swimming the night before.

“The next day back at training was the first day after the Christmas break,” he said. “The boys came in one by one, looking happy, then I had tell them what had happened. We took the bus to Bethells Beach and spent that morning searching the coastline. The whole team was under the impression we might find his body – but he was never found.”

It had a dramatic influence on their season: they finished 12th.

“I only really found out later how much it affected some of the players,” Cleary says. “A lot of the boys couldn’t believe they were playing footy and Sonny was gone. They felt guilty to be playing.”

BEN ALEXANDER, PENRITH UTILITY, 20, JUNE 21, 1992

Mark Geyer’s voice still aches when he talks about the death of Ben Alexander in a car accident midway through the 1992 season.

Ben Alexander was killed in a car crash in 1992.

Ben Alexander was killed in a car crash in 1992.Credit:SMH

“Grief is paralysing,” he says. “Even just now, you mentioning it, 28 years later. It stays with you forever. We were a brotherhood at that club.”

That’s what Penrith was back then: a brotherhood. Alexander’s death came a year after the club won its first premiership and it rocked not just the football team but the community.

Alexander’s brilliant older brother, Greg, missed most of the season and was never the same player again. His best mate, Brad Fittler, missed a Test for Australia but kept playing, including an emotional return win over Wests at Orana Park.

“When it all happened,” Fittler recalls, “everything fell to pieces. But the easiest thing for me was to play.”

Not for Geyer, who never played for the Panthers again.

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“I parted ways three weeks after the accident because Penrith wanted me to play,” he says. “I said I wanted more time because I needed more time.”

Did he ever feel like playing?

“No,” he says. “Not for a second. Me and Brandy [Greg Alexander] eventually did but we weren’t our normal selves.”

Geyer played for Balmain, then Perth, before playing two final years with the Panthers. Coach Phil Gould also left the club in 1994, joining the Roosters.

“It’s hard to talk about those days because we went from the highs to the lows very quickly,” Gould told the Herald in 2016. “We won the club’s first ever premiership then lost a special person in tragic circumstances the very next year. We were never the same people again.”

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