The Golden State Warriors and superstar Kevin Durant were faced with one of the toughest decisions in sports: helplessly watch and heal or risk injury and millions chasing an NBA title?
We saw a similar scenario play out in Boston two seasons ago with Isaiah Thomas' hip injury.
Thomas initially suffered the injury in March, sat out two games and then played through the pain until he re-injured the hip in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Thomas eventually required surgery, leaving us to wonder whether he'll ever be the same player again.
The player health vs. championship aspirations dilemma happens across pro sports.
In 2012, the Washington Nationals shut down pitcher Stephen Strasburg a month before the playoffs, choosing to protect their young ace, who was two years removed from elbow surgery. Washington deemed his long-term health was more important than their chances at a World Series title.
Durant was questionable to return in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals after being out for over a month with a calf injury. The two-time Finals MVP would be returning to a crucial showdown with his team down 3-1. The prospect of Durant playing in this series may have had Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry and Toronto Raptors fans losing sleep at night. A healthy Durant returning was the biggest threat aimed at Toronto and Canada enjoying its first-ever NBA title.
The Warriors' dynasty was built for Durant. If Durant is healthy and at the top of his game, the Warriors could enter the conversation of greatest sports team ever by winning a third straight title. That's what made this decision so extremely difficult for Durant, the Warriors and NBA fans. It is a moral dilemma that begs to question: Is an athlete simply a means to an end?
In Game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, I played on a severely sprained right ankle for the Detroit Pistons, running the risk of a career-ending injury. I was willing to be a means to a championship end for my team and for the city of Detroit.
Some of the most iconic moments in sports have been accomplished while players were injured. We will never forget Willis Reed of the New York Knicks putting it all on the line. Reed inspired the Knicks and their fans as he limped out of the tunnel In Madison Square Garden in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. And the Knicks would be champs afterward.
Is it ever acceptable for an athlete to protect himself and not risk it all? Should an athlete reserve their years of earning capacity and health? People should always be treated with respect and dignity. They can be treated as an ends and as a means. But no one should ever be treated only as a means.
We might look to philosophy when determining right from wrong and what is in the individual's and the team's best interests. In his "Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals," German philosopher Immanuel Kant describes people as rational beings who have value and dignity which should not be used by others for the benefit of others.
Let's apply that philosophy to players, coaches and management. They all find themselves in a dilemma, at every level of play. We have seen players undervaluing their value to themselves by taking "magic" potions to become winners, knowing well the damage that they're doing to their internal organs and taking the risk of potentially shortening their careers and perhaps their lives. These athletes treat their bodies as a means to an end.
Fans want to see Durant perform, to see him risk it all, to become the full means to an end. But even then, there is no guarantee of winning the championship. Are we OK with using the athletes for their ends or helping them to develop into "ends?" Are we OK with using "mind games" to convince or coerce a player to make the sacrifice of himself for the greater good - a championship?
Kant and most philosophers would see this as immoral. But in sports, this dilemma is played out daily and was on full display in Game 5 of the 2019 Finals. What would you do? What could you lose? Is the risk worth the reward?
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Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, a 6-foot-1 guard from Indiana University, was the second pick in the 1981 NBA Draft. He is a 12-time All-Star who played his entire 13-year NBA career with the Detroit Pistons, leading them to back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990. He won two All-Star Game MVPs and was the NBA Finals MVP in 1990. Thomas also has been a part owner, executive and coach in the NBA. He also holds a master's degree in education from the University of California-Berkeley.
He's now an analyst for NBA TV and has contributed to NBA.com.