Wednesday, June 16, 2010

When someone seems linked to a place...

...just the thought of leaving seems awkward to outsiders. But unless the person in question opens up and tells us what really matters to them (or if the causes are obvious), we never really know the circumstances that drove someone to leave someplace that seemed like the perfect fit.

Earlier this week, current Michigan State men's basketball coach Tom Izzo announced that he was remaining in East Lansing and turning down a phenomenal amount of money to take over the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers.

In announcing his decision, Izzo said something that must have rang true with so many college basketball fans:

"I am going to be a lifer. This is what I'm going to be, and I'm damn proud of it."

Much like Duke's Mike Krzyzewski or Penn State's Joe Paterno, it is impossible to think of that school and that man as being separate from each other. And, yes, that applies to women's sports as well -- can you say Pat Summitt and Tennessee?

It's a bit harder to see that link on the professional level, but it does happen. Cal Ripken Junior will always belong in the same sentence as the Baltimore Orioles. John Elway goes hand-in-hand with the Denver Broncos. And Derek Jeter is carving out a career that allows him a spot in the conversation about all-time best New York Yankees.

But for others, that perfect link with an organization doesn't happen. The greatest players of their sports in this generation played for multiple teams, and one of them even tried playing two sports.

Of course, Wayne Gretzky will always be an Edmonton Oiler, but he also was a Los Angeles King, St. Louis Blue and New York Ranger. We know why he left Edmonton (an owner who believed he could no longer afford him) and Los Angeles (an owner who engaged in a variety of illegal business deals). But imagine "Number 99" forever in Edmonton blue and orange. What might have been.

Michael Jordan will forever be a Chicago Bull. But don't forget he also was a Washington Wizard. And he also was a Birmingham Baron, when he took his hiatus from basketball and took up baseball. Here again, a short-sighted owner who thought he could no longer afford Jordan and a couple of his teammates led to Jordan wearing another basketball uniform.

However it is the volunteer departures that can really sting. Imagine, for example, how Cleveland will feel if LeBron James bolts later this summer and signs as a free agent with another team. James is a northern Ohio kid and went to high school in nearby Akron. If this were a mob movie, you'd be hearing one person saying something like "A, yo. You ain't leavin'. Capeche?"

Of course, this switching of places doesn't happen only in the professional sports world, but the media attention athletes and coaches engender assure that their moves will be scrutinized and analyzed.

When it happens to people you know, it can really be a surprise. In the academic world, it happens more than you might believe. I inevitably find myself on at least one occasion at every national convention I attend reacting with surprise upon learning that someone has moved to another institution.

Sometimes the reason is obvious: a denial of tenure, a move into administration. At other times the reason is not clear. I find it uncomfortable when someone struggles to tell me why the old school wasn't good enough but why the new school can be. Maybe. Sort of. Hopefully.

Yes, linkage to a place is important. It provides us with stability. It provides us with roots. But sometimes that's not enough.

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