With the starters on the sidelines during the final minutes of their 126-94 pounding of the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden earlier this month, the Cleveland Cavaliers bench had good reason to be bored. And they didn’t bother trying to hide it. Like high school seniors counting the days until graduation, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving focused their athletic prowess on one task: the water bottle challenge.
James and Irving took turns measuring and tossing. Irving nailed a flip on the baseline, and afterward said, “If you land it, you’re like a legend.” James, though, failed on each try. One of his tosses even dropped on the floor while the Cavs were downcourt with the ball. We might argue whether James should have been so lax while his team was still playing, but that’s beside the point.
James was having fun. Like he told ESPN: “I start showing up and I am not having fun no more, then I won’t be sitting talking to you guys postgame.” It’s easy to imagine bored Little Leaguers cracking jokes in the dugout and staring off into the distance, but the best pro athletes are just as prone to boredom.
Boredom is not the same as laziness. That night, the Cavs had knocked down 22 3-pointers. Irving scored 28 points; James scored 25. It felt personal; Knicks president Phil Jackson had recently called James’s business partners a “posse.” (One of James’s first reactions was to quote a line from one of his favorite movies, The Godfather: Part II: “I’m smart and I want respect!”)
James got his revenge on the court. After an emotional few days, where he was called out by a coach that he respected, who could blame him for wanting to let loose? People acted shocked that players could let their guard down and have a good time. James was just doing what other bored ballers have done for years: find creative ways to ride the pine.
Take the Golden State Warriors, whose domination during last year’s season led to some creative ways to pass the time. During a midseason blowout of the Dallas Mavericks, Draymond Green passed an invisible joint to a clearly appreciative Steph Curry. Later in the season, up 100-69 during Game 2 of the NBA Finals against none other than James’ own Cavs, Andre Iguodala was at the end of the bench, talking up a fan.
Boredom makes athletes hungry – like Detroit Pistons guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who snuck some bites from a protein bar while on the bench against the Indiana Pacers. Cavs guard J.R. Smith once bought cotton candy from a vendor during a preseason game against the Memphis Grizzlies, following in the tradition of Chicago Bulls guard Quintin Dailey, who paid a ball boy to buy him pizza, and then ate it on the bench. Quarterback Mark Sanchez has a history of eating on the sidelines. Back in 2009, during a 27-0 trouncing of the Oakland Raiders, Sanchez emptied a mustard packet on a hot dog before downing it in a few secreted gulps. (Back in 1980, Packers defensive end Ezra Johnson ate a hot dog on the sidelines during a preseason loss to the Denver Broncos – and was promptly fined a thousand dollars by coach Bart Starr). A few years later, while playing for the Philadelphia Eagles against the New York Giants, Sanchez ate chicken tenders during a 38-0 win. Recently, over in the NHL, Montreal Canadiens forward Alexander Radulov ate a banana during a break from the ice; former St. Louis Blues goalie Jamie McLennan used to eat hot dogs and gummy bears, hiding the snacks in his glove.
Food is not the only kind of foolishness that goes down on the sidelines. During a 59-3 romp of Syracuse back in 2013, some Florida State players had an impromptu game of hangman on a whiteboard. Adam Wainwright and other teammates on the St. Louis Cardinals spent part of a 2013 7-0 shutout of the Los Angeles Dodgers trying to goad event staff into a dance-off. And sometimes players can multi-task on the sidelines, like Cam Newton, who flossed earlier this season during the third quarter against the Denver Broncos. The Panthers lost, but at least Cam’s teeth were clean.
Flipping water bottles, flirting with fans, laughing, having a snack and dancing – like LeBron James did with his former teammate Danny Green: Player antics on the sidelines are natural, inevitable and one way to remind us that despite their superhuman talent, the pros are mortal – and sometimes bored out of their minds.