MANY of you will know, especially if you’ve just watched, Netflix opus to Michael Jordan’s last year with the Chicago Bulls, that the great one had several superstitious hang-ups that influenced his game.
He wore his original Air Jordans when he played his last game in Madison Square Gardens even though they almost crippled him. Jordan used his college number 45 for a time when he came back to the Bulls after his stint as a baseball player. Unfortunately, this coincided with a slump in form, so he demanded the team reactivate his number 23 shirt, which had been retired after his first departure. And it actually worked, the side immediately returned to winning ways once he had 23 on his back.
But his strangest peccadillo was his need to wear his alma mater North Carolina shorts under his Chicago Bulls’ shorts for his entire professional career. It required the shorts of his Bulls’ uniform to be expanded and lengthened to accommodate the two sets of shorts. Changing basketball fashions from the budgie-smuggler short-shorts to baggy bottoms forever. And we can all be grateful for that change in dress code.
But Jordan was far from the only player to depend on the irrationalities of superstitions to get him through a game.
Even a player as great as Cristiano Ronaldo requires circumstances to be replicated in order for him to believe that he can maintain his success.
When travelling to a game by plane, Ronaldo insists on being the first to disembark on arrival. However, if he’s travelling by bus, he sits at the back and gets off last. The plane thing might be more to do about impatience rather than superstition and is great fun no doubt for his teammates to see Ronnie barge up the aisle soon as the plane lands.
However, his other hang-ups are harder to explain. You see Ronaldo will also only put his right foot onto the grass first before a game. Putting your right foot forward so to speak. But his best superstition is that he always does his hair at halftime so that he doesn’t play both halves with the same hairstyle.
Ronaldo’s teammate at Man United, David Beckham, despite being known as a bit of a clothes horse himself, does not change his hair every half. No, David’s quirky superstition comes before the game and that is that he had to have all the produce in his fridge at home facing the same direction before he could leave for the game... right. Pity poor Posh if she puts the milk back in the wrong way.
Most GAA superstitions or pisogues relate to curses on teams. So we had the Biddy Early curse on Clare hurlers until 1995, the hex on Donegal footballers until 1992 and we still have the Curse of 51 hanging over Mayo's footballers.
GAA players have the same rituals of sports-people all over the world. Putting on the same shoe always before the other, walking on to the pitch last or in a certain way. But you hear little about the rituals of the manager. With the exception of former Waterford hurling manager Dereck McGrath. The personable Déise coach often used to go to church to pray and light some candles in the hope of success on the field with some assistance from the Divine Lord. Nothing strange in that. Fans and players pray for the win all the time. The only difference is that McGrath used to light the candles by the altar in the same formation as the team he selected for the coming game. McGrath must have felt that if God had an insight into the way the team lined out there would be a better chance of seeing glory.
Rafa Nadal is known as the King of Clay but he may also be the King of Superstition as he has many, many, quirks to his preparations. Before a match, like Ronaldo, he always crosses the line with his right foot first; he arrives in the court always with one tennis racket in his hand rather than them all in the bag like most other professionals; he always jumps during the coin toss; he always takes an ice-cold shower before the match; and he always lines up his water bottles in a specific way, making sure all the labels point in the same direction.
Some might think his habit of plucking at his underwear constantly during a match is a superstition. But that is just his undies tend to bunch up during play. Something we all would like to see rectified immediately if at all possible.
Serena Williams has 23 Grand Slam titles to her name so you’d imagine she would not require a crutch at this stage in her career. But her superstition is maybe one of the grossest hang-ups in sport. You see, Williams continues to wear the same pair of socks, unwashed, for every single game, for fear of breaking her winning-streak.
As she is probably the most likely player in the world to make a final of a tournament one can only imagine the state of her footwear at the end of the competition. No wonder she’s in a hurry all the time to win her matches.
Kevin Rhomberg played a mere 41 games for Cleveland Indians in 1982 and is better known for his superstition than his career. But to be fair, nowadays, it would be seen as an OCD condition rather than a superstition. You see, Rhomberg had an unfortunate compulsion to touch someone if they touched him. Word of this tic quickly spread throughout the opposing sides in the majors, making life a living hell for Rhomberg. Players would touch Rhomberg on purpose when they ran by him, sending him into a panic as he scrambled after them to return the tag. In fact, an umpire once had to halt a game between New York and Cleveland, because the Yankee players refused to stop touching him.
Rhomberg didn't last long in the game and probably wishes he could play now in a world where social distancing is a rule rather than etiquette.
But the worst superstition of all time award goes to UFC former Light Heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida whose daily superstition, every morning, is to... well, drinks his own urine. Apparently, the Brazilian picked up the practice from his father, himself a karate master, and he now believes urine is a natural medicine that cleanses his body. If only he heard about changing hairstyles before this...
The thing is, that despite these sports stars thinking that their superstitions bring them success it is, in fact, the other way around. The success and the fear of letting the dream slip from their grasp is what makes them put such store in what seems ludicrous. Who knows why one player is destined for glory and the other to obscurity. Better to rationalise the magic comes from a rabbit foot or the order of the food in the fridge than believe the miracle came from within and therefore is your responsibility too.