If there is one thing in all of sport that can be universalized and recognized as a quality to be respected and admired, that quality is the ability to play through pain. The more the better. Pain is universal; its knowledge requires no special athletic skill. When the crowd sees an athlete grimace, wrinkling his face up, channeling the beads of sweat on his brow towards the center of his forehead, we recognize the pain and can identify with it. The NBA offers the most compelling examples of playing through pain, so grin and bear it as I run through the amazing feats of NBA players competing despite their mangled bodies.
Pain allows any athletic feat in any sport to transcend legend status. The peculiar ability of athletes to reach within themselves and conjure up the last remnants of their strength makes their athletic ability more awe-inspiring. These feats, of course, also must take place at the expense of other athletes, whose athletic prowess is unaffected by injury. Championships make great players. Playing through pain to win said championships elevates those players to legend status.
Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal took a long stridea 7'1", 300 pound stridetowards legend status on Sunday, helping the Lakers win the first game of their second-round series with the San Antonio Spurs. O'Neal took over the game in the fourth quarter after sustaining cuts on his hand that required stitches on two separate occasions. Granted, one of these instances was at home while he was playing with his kids (the other one occurred during the course of the game), but the fact that he played through his injury trumps the circumstances of the first injury. O'Neal's craft requires virtually constant use of his fingers, so his ability can be compared, hypothetically, to Socrates discussing his "republic" with someone constantly pulling at his finger, asking him to please stop.
Perhaps the most lasting image of Michael Jordan from the finals series with the Utah Jazz is that image of him standing, with arm outstretched, over Bryon Russell, watching his series-winning shot fall in. However, I assert that this is not actually his most impressive feat. Rather, for me and any other true fan of sport, his most amazing accomplishment was carrying the Bulls to victory during an earlier game despite being ravaged by a flu that caused him to dry-heave at virtually every timeout and throughout halftime. More than anything else, this accomplishment is what makes Jordan the legend that he is.
Allen Iverson, for the early part of his career, was rejected by most NBA fans as a punk, and got no respect from them. Any off-the-court exploits were blown up for Iverson, and a chorus of whining was heard every time Iverson bent the traveling rules slightly in executing his crossover dribble. Then last season Iverson played though about 50 different injuries, and won the respect of basketball fans everywhere. This season he did it again, returning early from a broken hand and almost getting the Sixers past the Celtics in the first round. Playing through the pain earns athletes respect that they would not get on their athletic merits alone.
That brings me to the case of Paul Pierce, whose breakthrough in the league came shortly after he was stabbed during the off-season. Pierce returned early from the stab wounds, playing the best basketball of his career. People will always be drawn to an athlete who can fight through the type of adversity that an injury brings. The more the better.
Finally, who can forget Willis Reed, and his return from injury to lead the Knicks to victory back in the good old days of basketball? Without that game, Reed wouldn't really be talked about much today. Because of that game, whenever a player tries to grit it out through injury, Willis Reed's name comes up.
Playing through pain earns you respect when you can get it nowhere else. Nobody can recognize the intricacies of each play in professional sports leagues because the fans have not actually played in the atmosphere or at the level of these leagues. However, everyone has experienced pain and will continue to experience pain. As long as we do, athletes can exploit that shared experience and gain glory at the expense of their physical well-being.