The question is asked almost as a throwaway. Raymond Felton is standing on the floor of the Smith Center, bouncing a basketball, wearing a New York Knicks t-shirt. In ten minutes, he will go through a one-hour shooting workout. Then he will play pickup with the current Tar Heels. For him, all of this counts as being on the clock.
Above him hangs the championship banner he helped win in 2005. He is the starting point guard for one of the NBA's marquee teams. In the 2013-14 season, the Knicks will pay him $4,180,000 to play basketball.
In hindsight, the question seems ludicrous. It turns out that it's enlightening.
The question is this: what's it like to play basketball for a living?
From this vantage point, the answer seems obvious: it is awesome. At every home game, sold-out crowds cheer him while he plays a game for a couple of hours, and then he gets on a charter plane with his fellow athletically blessed teammates, and they fly to the next major American city and do it all over again. You can buy his jersey in the Madison Square Garden gift shop. He is a regular on national television.
And you want to know what this is like? Isn't that akin to asking a lottery winner if they're happy with their number selections?
But here's Felton's answer:
"It's..." and here he pauses for just a second, looking for the right word, "...different."
Of course it's great, Raymond. Lifelong dream and all that. We're not surprised that you're gushing about it. I can practically see you light up when you say...
Oh, wait. Did you say, "different"? How so?
"In a way, it's such a blessing," he says. "It's beautiful. But on the flip side, it's a job. Basketball is always something I enjoy doing. But when it's a job, it comes with headaches and all that extra stuff. Playing in the NBA is very different from high school or college, where it's fun, and you're trying to get to a common goal with your teammates and win a championship, and get better while you're doing it.
"In the NBA, you're getting paid for it. It's a job and no matter what kind of job you have, that changes things."
Don't misunderstand--Felton isn't lamenting his misfortune. He's well aware that bouncing a ball has enabled him to come a long way from Latta, S.C., and it's changed the world for his family. He loves the game. But what he knows--because he lives it--that the rest of us probably don't know is that loving the game is different from loving the job.
He plays basketball virtually all the time, and with that comes the somewhat strange truth that occasionally, it gets a little old playing basketball virtually all the time. Remember that this is coming from a Tar Heel whose passion for basketball is as great as anyone in the Roy Williams era. Factoring in summers and late-night practice sessions, he may have taken more jump shots in the Smith Center than anyone over the last ten years.
He's a lifelong jock; if he wasn't a pro basketball player, there's a decent chance he might be a pro baseball player. He loves sports, loves the competition. He loves Carolina, and that's why he comes back in the summer, along with so many of his fellow alumni. "This is the last place we played the game for fun, to get better, for a common goal," he says. "That's why you always love coming back here."
It turns out there is at least one way that NBA players aren't that much different from the rest of us. They go to work...and sometimes they don't want to go to work. Co-workers sometimes annoy them. Management can be a pain. It's difficult to get away from the office, and work almost always follows them wherever they go.
"Not many people can say they're working at something they enjoy doing, and I'm blessed to be able to say that," he says. "But it's definitely different."
You shouldn't feel sorry for Raymond Felton. This is where some people are making the obligatory, "I'll suffer through all that for $4 million a year," comments.
Felton isn't suffering. But other than being plastered all over one of the world's most famous arenas, he's not much different than the rest of us--there are those rare days he wonders what it would be like to do something else.
But he doesn't have time to do much wondering. There are jump shots to hoist and a weight room in his house that needs to be used. It's time to go to work.
Adam Lucas is a GoHeels columnist and the editor of CAROLINA.