The Peter Pan Syndrome

Here’s Dad from Grandma’s scrapbook, even then he was trying to escape boredom

With all entertainment taken away from us (except good, old fashioned board games, books, puzzles and walks around the neighborhood), we still have technology, American Idol, video games for some and my blog posts. This shutdown gives us a great excuse to delve into a topic that is so very difficult to address when life is going on as usual.

Here’s Dad trying to give up the ball, albeit for a foul shot when he was playing for UNC-Chapel Hill. Another great photo from Grandma’s scrapbook.

I had heard my Dad talk about it a lot, the hardest thing about basketball was giving it up. I also always heard how he didn’t have a choice but to leave, he had an injury, which ruined his career. (The same injury my dog has, incidentally).

I was in first grade and I remember Sr. Mary in the front of the class, saying, “Mr. Cunningham is in the hospital. He had an injury. Today we’re going to write him a letter, but we need to learn how.” I remember realizing whatever had happened to him must have been really serious because why else were we taking our class time to write him a letter?

I didn’t process the pain he had to endure both physically and mentally, not until later. A sports photographer had captured Dad lying on the court, writhing in pain. Any time the injury would come up, Mom would go on a tirade about how she hated that picture. Somehow, as much as she despised it, she did save one in the newspaper stash in the basement, but I know better than to post it here.

On the black board was a sample letter which read: “Dear Mr. Cunningham, I hope you get better soon. Sincerely, Your name.”

And so I got out my pencil and paper (we weren’t allowed to write in pen those days) and I addressed it exactly as the teacher had taught us: “Dear Mr. Cunningham”. My parents must have gotten a big kick out of that. I wish in all our saved papers, I could have found that letter. But you’ll just have to take my word for it.

His career ended abruptly, just like all these players (and all of Broadway and all of these community theaters and non-essential businesses who are all closed right now, at least in our neck of the woods, and most likely in yours, too).

But as we’ve seen from this forced shut down, it’s not easy to give up something that you love so much. It brings me back to the paper that I wrote in college, The Peter Pan Syndrome, that I alluded to when I wrote Dare To Be Great. https://stephanieortiz.com/2020/02/28/dare-to-be-great/ I wrote that paper hoping to pinpoint this very real phenomenon that hits professional athletes, and now that we have felt it so acutely in our own lives, we can all somehow better relate.

After graduation, I did rewrite the paper and tried publishing it. I changed the name to No Time Left. I like Peter Pan Syndrome better and should have just stuck with that, but it didn’t get published anyway, so it didn’t matter. But more on that later. So here’s the article. I’ll spare you all the typos, thank goodness for modern amenities like spell check, and I stop periodically to add my current day comments. There has to be something new to say after 30 years…

No Time Left, 00:00

Basketball stars aren’t able to stay in Never Never Land and never grow up like Peter Pan did, so they need to learn to look beyond their dream and plan for their future.

“Today you will see the Michael Jordan’s doing really well and being successful off the basketball court, but you have to look beyond the success stories to others,” said Ron Sayers of Professional Athletes’ Career Enterprises (PACE), a San Diego human research development company for professional and elite-amateur athletes.

PACE doesn’t exist anymore, but trying to find it 30 years later, brings me back to the very kind rejection letter I received from Pat McLoone, The Sports Editor of The Philadelphia Daily News, on January 13, 1992. I had asked for any feedback and here’s point number two: what kind of organization is PACE Sports? Sadly, I found one mention of them in an article from 1992 in Black Enterprises.


But even if PACE doesn’t exist anymore, it doesn’t diminish what Ron Sayer said back in 1990.

“There are other players who have a sense of denial which I call the Peter Pan Syndrome. I don’t want to grow up, I want to play forever.”

In high school athletes can get addicted to all the attention they receive. “The halo that you come to class with when you have done really well is put there by everybody. Teachers forget that you are a student and administrators can let you float.”

The transition from athlete to ex-athlete isn’t smooth or glamorous–no more pampering, competition and cheering fans in packed buildings. No more media hounding at your feet, no people pulling on your coattails and no autograph seekers. And for processionals, no more money.”

But Dad reiterated yesterday that “it’s not about the money, it’s about the realization: what am I going to do with the rest of my life?…For me it was easy, I had no other options to hang around and continue my career because of the fear of what to do.”

When the dream-come-true comes to an end, the veteran athlete must face a sobering reality with a deflated ego.

Former 76ers coach and player Bill Cunningham said, “By the age of 35 if you stick with a job, that’s when the job starts getting good whereas with the professional athlete it’s the complete reversal. At the age of 35, the athlete’s got to go through that learning process that others have already done.”

Sports Psychologist Christina Versari of PACE sports studied Brazil’s 1987 Olympic Judo team and found that the older the athlete, the harder the transition and the more depression felt. She said that older athletes haven’t faced enough transitions. She plans to do a similar study on basketball players and she believes she will find similar results.

I tried contacting Christina Versari as a quick google search led me to find her and she is still a Sport Psychology Consultant working with NBA players helping them prepare for their second careers. But since she is also Director of the Sports Psychology Program at San Diego University, with all that’s going on in the world, I didn’t expect she’d have any time on her hands to reminisce.

However, I was so happy to hear from Dad that this topic lives on with today’s players when he shared with me that Milwaukee Buck player Pat Connaughton tweeted that current affairs is a realization of what it would be like when the game’s over. He all ready has established a second career to ease the transition when his playing days are over as highlighted in the New York Times article published on February 13, 2020.

It’s wonderful to see how he’s preparing himself for the end of the road as an athlete.

He has a landing page and a website and is vocal about it on Twitter.

@pconnaughton Random thought – this is like a simulation of retirement for pro athletes. What are we gonna focus on when our careers end? What’s our day to day schedule look like? Interesting time to think about it and experiment with different ideas… Strive to be more than an athlete!
8:49 PM · Mar 17, 2020

With 78 comments, 225 retweets and 4.6K hearts, he got his point across. Although CJ McCollum who plays for the Portland Trail Blazers joked back, @CJMcCollum “Only difference is that we will be traveling and actually able to take the kids to school lol.”

We’re all looking forward to the day we’ll be back to traveling and taking the kids to school again, but meanwhile, whether the game forces an athlete to say goodbye or the athlete chooses to say goodbye first, it’s not an easy road.

Former 76ers player Julius Erving faced his retirement eight years in advance, he said in a telephone interview. He said he was inspired and obsessed to find a life outside of basketball because of the stories he heard about athletes who couldn’t find happiness for five to 10 years after retiring. “I wanted to be happy the day after I stopped playing. I didn’t want to wait that long.”

Erving’s key to success after 16 years on the court was simple. “I knew it would take more than one thing to fill the void.” Golf took care of his competitive nature and multiple businesses let him use his mind and creativity. He also used the time to catch up with his family.

He said he thinks the transition was toughest on his wife and four children who couldn’t plan for the end.

They knew one particular lifestyle and one particular life circumstance. They were the ones who had to deal with a more dramatic change, and I was the dictator of that change.”

Back to Pat McLoone’s kind rejection letter. To be fair, he said, “I enjoyed the piece you wrote. It was an interesting subject and your thorough research is evident. The pace of your writing was fine as well. But since you asked, here are three mild criticisms.” Here’s point number three: “As a reader I would like to know more specifics about Julius’ business interests.”

I wonder what I felt when I read this letter. I don’t remember it, honestly. It makes me laugh now because to me that seemed so irrelevant to the story. Nowadays I could have just done a quick search and could fill in the gaps so easily, but back then it would have meant calling Mr. Erving up and asking him to elaborate on his multiple businesses.

We definitely didn’t have the resources available to us that we do today. Yes, that’s a dot matrix printer and a floppy diskette.

Senator Bill Bradley, a Rhodes Scholar who played professional basketball in the 60s, wrote in his book “Life On The Run” that the athlete approaches the end of his playing days the way an old person approaches death.

“He puts his finances in order. He reminisces easily. He offers advice to the young. But an athlete differs from an old person in that he must continue living.”

Cunningham said in a telephone interview that his knee injury, which put an end to his eleven-year career, was a blessing in disguise.

Doesn’t this sound familiar? Yes, some stories never change, and just like Bill Bradley wrote in his book, “he offers advice to the young”–if that isn’t Dad in a nutshell, although Dad went into much more depth about this in 1990.

“Initially when I hurt my knee, I tried to prove the doctor’s wrong. But when I look back on it, I never had to look in the mirror and think about whether I was getting too old, or if my skills were eroding. I never had to say: it’s the coach, it’s the system, if I could just play more time, I’d be as productive as I ever was. And I never had to be in the position where a coach had to say, you’re through.”

“That was the toughest thing as a coach–to tell a young man that his dream had come to an end,” Cunningham said from his memories of coaching the 76ers. “They would sit there and just cry; they would beg for just one more try.”

Sayers said that coaches, administrators and others can stress academics and the odds of success only so much. In the end, a good transition, and a healthy transition, starts with the family and the high school system that integrates the athlete.

UNC-Chapel Hill Coach Dean E. Smith said in an interview, “The athletes of some sports are put on a pedestal…if they get too much attention early from family and friends, it slows their maturity.”

Seeing that quote brought dear Dean Smith back to life for a moment. What an adored coach he was for UNC-Chapel Hill and such a supportive and loving friend to the family; we miss him so. A beautiful pause in his memory. Oh, and Sayers is up next.

Sayers said that many athletes need to learn that their skills apply to the business world so they can communicate that they are real people with goals while they are playing.

“When society sees athletes making decisions with leather balls in their hands, they don’t see that this can be applied directly to a work setting.” According to a PACE study, the athlete has nine out of 10 qualities of successful California business people.

“Magic Johnson has not just lived off his recognition, but he has found relationships. The people around him are really helping him,” Sayers said.

As a part owner of the Miami Heat, Cunningham said he gets at least one resume every two weeks from retired players, who are willing to do anything that is basketball-related.

Sayers said, “While the guys are active they are influential and highly visible, they are able to use their opportunities. But once the doors close, they lock. The hands that patted them on the back, really are waving good-bye.”

Let’s face it, it’s a multi-million dollar business out there and everyone wants a piece of the pie. We need to cut the umbilical cord very quickly-not when they leave college.”

I sobered up when I read Dad saying the guys would cry begging him for one more chance. It was amazing to re-read this and to think that Bill Bradley is now a former US Senator and that Dean Smith is no longer with us. It’s also fascinating to read the feedback about what I needed to work on.

My number one criticism, drum roll please, “I would not have quoted your father. He is a very valid subject for the piece; he is, after all, a perfect example of an athlete who has succeeded after his playing days were over. For any other writer, his words would be valid. For you, though, it really isn’t proper. He’s too close to you, so your objectivity would have to be affected.”

I love it, the number one reason why I should have just waited 30 years to write a blog instead!

But seriously, McLoone’s still going strong as a sports editor. Here’s an article he just wrote.

. https://www.inquirer.com/sports/coronavirus-covid-19-sports-readers-20200317.html?__vfz=medium%3Dsharebar

So there you have it, some things never change, and some things would have blown our minds away had we been able to look into the future and see thirty years forward.

In 6th Grade Mom had a ball boy uniform made for me for Halloween. We’d gather in a semicircle and one-by-one we’d go up and get judged. I won first prize that year.

And as I mentioned, I did get an A+ on my paper for my journalism class. People always did like when I let them in on a secret or two about my Dad. Here are the teacher’s remarks, “Stephanie, I wish you had done this level of work consistently and early in the semester. But I’m grateful that you will build a successful career on the strength of this story. The semester grade will go up to an A-. Come to see me next semester if you need me.”

Well, my college teacher’s prediction did come true, I did build something off of that paper. It only took a 30 year quarantine before it saw the light of day and became a blog post. Funny I was so worried about writing Dad in my letter in first grade and then to learn at 21 years old that I shouldn’t be quoting him. No wonder why it took me another 30 years to finally come out with it already. But I think both my teachers would be proud, if I could maintain my objectivity in first grade (I knew enough to write Mr. Cunningham and not Dad), I can do it again now. And writing these posts are fun and a lot easier with all our new technology. I’m finally doing something with that A!

Here’s the pants I wore for Halloween in 6th Grade. Since my daughter who looks like me is in 6th Grade now I thought it would be fun to take a picture of her wearing them, only they look like floods on her, plus we can’t find the jacket. And did I mention how itchy they are?

A Muse 4 You: Has the Peter Pan Syndrome ever happened to you? What have you had to give up that you loved and how might you be able to use your story to motivate others who are going through something similar?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s