Alexa

Why can't more athletes be like Agassi?

Why can't more athletes be like Agassi?

Image is everything, a hirsute Andre Agassi, peeking above his sunglasses, said in the memorable tagline to a 1990 television commercial.
Agassi, little more than a teenager back then, didn't know any better. He was told to read the cue card. So he did.
He never looked beyond the connections between camera, picture and image. Agassi didn't grasp the larger meaning of what he was about to utter. He never dreamed those three words could make him the object of ridicule and scorn.
"I never made the correlation until it came out and I sort of went 'that was a misfire wasn't it,'" the eight-time Grand Slam champion said during a chat last week. "You put your trust in somebody's hands and you end up making a call that you regret for a long time. I still regret it."
The truth of the matter is that Agassi couldn't care less about image. He's substance, not style.
Agassi may be done with tennis, but he's hardly retired.
He and wife Steffi Graf, the former tennis megastar, are involved in, by my count, at least five projects, including a real estate development firm, a charitable foundation, a furniture design company and a string of restaurants with the chef Michael Mina.
Agassi is also working on a memoir, which, if it's anything like our 40 minutes together, should be required reading for every professional, college and high-school athlete.
There's plenty to digest from Agassi, whose successes and failures are a roadmap for winning. You don't even have to keep score.
That's right. Contrary to what every Lombardi wannabe has yelled in your direction, winning isn't everything, Agassi says. Not even close. Agassi will not let championships, or rings - the metric by which most athletes measure worth - define people.
With Agassi, the end is a good place to begin.
The New York crowd stood and cheered for Agassi, whose final match was a third-round U.S. Open defeat last year. With tears welling Agassi waved and blew kisses. He bowed in all directions. He thanked the crowd and they thanked him. They showered him with adoration. They refused to sit. They didn't want him to walk away. Agassi had won them over with decades of effort.
And failure. And success. And redemption.
"It reflected my career; it wasn't about winning," says Agassi, who turned 37 yesterday. "It was always about the process and the journey. It was going through the highs and the lows. It was about those connections with people."
Agassi speaks incessantly about ownership.
And he isn't talking about business deals.
He's talking about that big mistake, that commercial, the one that made people think Agassi didn't give a damn about anything or anyone but himself.
Unlike so many of today's athletes, he didn't (are you listening Michael Strahan?) lash out. He looked inward.
"I used it as an opportunity to take a hard, objective look at myself, and say, 'let's not act like people can read your mind,'" Agassi said. "That's when I made it a point to start to have my actions reflect what it is I care about."
After his wife and two kids, Agassi cares most about his 13-year-old foundation, which is designed to provide opportunities to at-risk kids in his home state of Nevada.
That explains why Agassi has, on more than one occasion, walked away from a multimillion-dollar deal when his would-be partner wouldn't agree to a portion of the proceeds going to the kids.
Ask Agassi which athlete he admires.
"Lance Armstrong," he says. "I love how he's cared about his cause."
In other words, have a purpose.
"I want to do something because it's part of who I am," he says. "The only way that's going to happen is if you get to know yourself pretty well."
We hear sad tales of athletes who retire and struggle with depression. Nothing, they say, can match the euphoria of game day. And you wonder why so many athletes, especially in the individual sports, retire only to return and try again.
Not Agassi. He's gone for good. Tennis doesn't appeal to him anymore. It isn't who he is. It never was.
"I did everything I said I was going to do," Agassi says. "The next 20 years I hope to eclipse the last 20."
Maybe that could be the title of his memoir: "The Next 20 Years."
Scratch that. I've got a better idea: "Image Is Nothing."