Something in the Water: Where Do Great Athletes Come From? (Transcript)

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Good Sport
Something in the Water: Where Do Great Athletes Come From?
February 8, 2023

[00:00:00] Jody Avirgan:
Bomani Jones noticed something. That's one of the best things about Bomani. He's one of the most popular sports journalists around. He watches games. He has takes. He has an HBO show. He has a podcast. We all have a podcast. But more than anything, Bomani is a noticer. I kind of picture him watching a football game on a Monday night, standing a little off to the side, arms crossed, head cocked, thinking about the plays, the players, the sport as a whole, and then he notices something about some of the players on the field, especially the wide receivers—especially the white wide receivers.

[00:00:43] Bomani Jones:
It's very interesting if you note the, like, really good white wide receivers, they seem overall to have one thing in common, which is they all seem to grow up in places that are almost exclusively white, or at the very least, don't have Black people.

[00:01:01] Jody Avirgan:
Now this, this is an intriguing observation. If you've watched any football over the last, oh, 40 years, you've probably noticed that most of the top wide receivers are Black, but there are the occasional white pass-catchers who break through.

[00:01:16] Bomani Jones:
So take Cooper Kupp, for example.

[00:01:17] Jody Avirgan:
Cooper Kupp, incredible receiver. Also? Fun name to say. Cooper Kupp. Cooper Kupp.

[00:01:24] Bomani Jones:
Cooper Kupp is from somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the state of Washington, went to Eastern Washington University.

[00:01:29] Jody Avirgan:
Yakima, Washington, Bomani.

[00:01:31] Bomani Jones:
Yes. Yakima, Washington.

[00:01:32] Jody Avirgan:
Don’t even need to look up the stats. I think we—

[00:01:34] Bomani Jones:
Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. You said it all, right? Um, Jordy Nelson, remember he played for the Packers from Manhattan, Kansas.

[00:01:42] Jody Avirgan:
In football, the stereotype is to see Black players as faster and more athletic, and to see white players as the brains of the operation. This racist stereotype meant that for decades there were very few Black quarterbacks. Black players would run or catch the ball. White players would be behind center. Bomani's theory kind of turns that inside out, right? Because if you've got a football team in say, Manhattan, Kansas, and all of your players are white, who's gonna play wide receiver?

Cooper Kupp, Yakima, Washington. Wes Walker and Riley Cooper from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Um, Garrett Crockford from Chesterfield, Minnesota. Um, Eric Decker is from Cold Spring, Minnesota. 0.2% Black.

Bomani, one of those names I just listed was made up.

[00:02:33] Bomani Jones:
It was the second to last one.

[00:02:34] Jody Avirgan:
Garrett Crockford does not exist.

[00:02:36] Bomani Jones:
Yeah. I was like, “Huh. He must be new.”

[00:02:38] Jody Avirgan:
Chesterfield, Minnesota does not exist. But I was gonna, if you called me out, I was gonna tell you that he, he got 800 receiving yards in 2012 for the Titans.

For all these players, the real ones, not the ones I made up, Bomani’s theory checks out. Wes Walker’s high school in Oklahoma City has about 900 students. Only 50 or so are Black. Not a lot. I mean, you can go online and check this out for yourself, or you can trust us and find better ways to spend your time.

[00:03:06] Bomani Jones:
It's basically if we ain't got no other choice, then I guess we'll play this white dude and then when he gets good, we will tell everybody he is the greatest ever.

[00:03:17] Jody Avirgan:
Really, Bomani is making an observation about opportunity and the circumstances in which someone is willing to give you that opportunity to crack open the door to success.

[00:03:28] Bomani Jones:
Well, so if you talk about opportunity, the example that jumps out to me is Hunter Renfrow. Hunter Renfrow plays wide receiver for the, uh, Las Vegas Raiders.

[00:03:38] Jody Avirgan:
Hunter Renfrow is another famous white wide receiver. He played college ball at Clemson and guess what? The coach there is Dabo Swinney, who himself was a white wide receiver. Can you hear the door of opportunity squeaking open?

[00:03:54] Bomani Jones:
Dabo’s still out here with white dudes playing linebacker, and a dude like Hunter Renfro playing wide receiver because Dabo is looking at that dude through a different lens and is like, “Yo, people don't give this guy an opportunity.”

But it is, I think, again, about opportunity. It's about people looking at these guys and saying, not even “he can do this”, “Well, let's just see if he can.” And then when they do, he's your best wide receiver. You ride that thing out.

[00:04:18] Jody Avirgan:
Yeah. Yeah, it's about time, you know, white guys start looking out for each other.

[00:04:23] Bomani Jones:
Yes, yes. But yo, but this is actually an interesting case where I do firmly believe that white dudes are underrated, because the assumption walking in the door is that they can't do it. And then when you see them do it, it's like people think it must be a trick.

[00:04:39] Jody Avirgan:
I mean, it sort of is a trick in the sense of, here's one simple trick: try to evaluate someone based on their actual potential rather than what you assume their potential to be.

And that's what I find so compelling about Bomani's observation because it suggests that there is something really wrong with the way that we evaluate talent, which in turn has some pretty big implications for the way we dole out opportunities. If we recognize that all these other forces play a role in success, maybe we then have to rethink how we nurture talent and where we look for it in the first place. Looking at a talented player, someone who made it, you have to ask: what was it about that particular situation that allowed them to flourish?

[00:05:22] Bomani Jones:
They did a documentary about it called Something in the Water.

[00:05:24] Jody Avirgan:

[00:05:24] Bomani Jones:
And I still don't think it really came down to it, you know, to an actual answer because the title of it is Something in the Water.

[00:05:29] Jody Avirgan:

[00:05:30] Bomani Jones:
Which is you throw out there when you have no idea why it is that this happens.

[00:05:33] Jody Avirgan:
Uh, we are, okay, we’re gonna strike, uh, “Something In the Water” off the name of, uh, possible names for this episode.


[00:05:47] Jody Avirgan:
This is Good Sport from the TED Audio Collective. My name is Jody Avirgan. Today's episode: Talent, Nurture, and Nature. Eh, that's not very good. Let's go with “Open Door, Closed Door”. Oh, that name kind of sucks too. You know what? Screw it. We're calling it “Something in the Water”. You don't control us, Bomani Jones.


[00:06:26] Jody Avirgan:
This is the part of the first episode of a new podcast series where I tell you who I am and what we're up to. My name's Jody. I've reported on politics, culture, and sports for a long time. Even better, when all of those combine. I hosted a podcast called 30 For 30. I've done stories about the NBA and Olympics and World Cup Soccer.

I'd like to think I'm wired a little bit like Bomani Jones: arms crossed, head cocked. Curious about a small question in sports that might get at a bigger point about the world. Because for me, every big life lesson I've learned has come through sports: how to channel my competitive fire, how to be a supportive teammate or boss or partner. How to focus on what I can control and try to let go of what I can't.

I've learned all of that by playing sports. I'm not saying it's the only place you can learn those lessons. Just happens to be where I have. And now, this is the part of the first episode of the new podcast series where I tell you that the sport that most taught me all of this is ultimate Frisbee.

For some of you, you'll be like, “Okay, I get it. Ultimate. Real sport. Let's keep it moving.” Some of you may be reaching for your podcast app to find a different show to listen to. What can I say? That was my sport. I played in college and club and even pro for a couple years. I was on SportsCenter. It was serious for me, the only thing that mattered for, like, two decades.

That's where I learned my lessons, including, I should say, lessons about talent and opportunity. So yeah, from time to time, in future episodes, there will be some ultimate Frisbee content. I'll win you over. You'll keep listening.

Welcome to our first episode: Something in the Water. Yeah, that works. Bomani Jones is here and we're asking the question, what does it take for someone talented to get a real shot?

[00:08:18] Bomani Jones:
Baseline talent has to be there, and then we go from there. And yes, after that point, we are talking about nurturing; we are talking about belief.

[00:08:29] Jody Avirgan:

[00:08:30] Bomani Jones:
We are talking about affirming within people, “this is something that you can do and I am going to train you to do this excellently because you can, in fact, be excellent at this.”

[00:08:40] Jody Avirgan:
And, and the sort of corollary to giving someone opportunity is also giving someone multiple chances. And so often I feel like it comes down to the, how short is the leash for screwing up.

[00:08:53] Bomani Jones:

[00:08:53] Jody Avirgan:
You know, and that's often what it takes. It takes faith, you know, in the, in the real deepest way.

The point is, you do need more than pure talent to get to the top. You need all those doors being held open for you on your path. All those chances to prove yourself worthy. All the times someone leaned in close, looked you in the eye, and said, “It could be you.” You need—let’s coin a phrase here—you need an opportunity pipeline.

[00:09:22] Bomani Jones:
Now, if I were to connect that to my own life… I am a graduate of a historically black college, Clark Carolina University, and one thing that you learn and figure out very quickly going to an HBCU is if you look at the stats of, like, who goes to medical school and who goes to graduate school, like studying for PhDs, among Black people, the sample is disproportionately HBCU grads.

And so what I knew from my own experience at the HBCU was what I was more likely to receive at the HBCU was the attention that comes from somebody who believes that you're special. If the sample is then all Black people, then a lot of the head trash that comes in about what Black people are and what Black people are not, you kind of have to throw it out, right?

Like, the control is set for race. Everybody there is the same. You're gonna have a harder time bringing that stuff in, saying this person isn't this, this person isn't that. ‘Cause you're gonna see them all together, and those who are, are gonna rise without, you know, all these things that come in and mess up your mind in the process.

[00:10:26] Jody Avirgan:
At Bomani's College, there was an ecosystem in place that set people up to succeed over and over. There's an equivalent to that in sports. Hotbeds: pockets of the country that have found a way to produce a particular kind of great athlete over and over, to the point where you almost do have to wonder, man, could there just be something in the water?

These are places like the area around Belle Glade, Florida, also known as Muck City. Home to brilliant, wide receiver after brilliant wide receiver, including Santonio Holmes and Anquan Boldin. That's one hotbed. Or think about swimmers from the Bay Area or sprinters from Jamaica. Baseball players from the Dominican Republic. Hotbeds are opportunity pipelines.

[00:11:10] Bomani Jones:
I mean, the big one to me is basketball in Kinston, North Carolina.

[00:11:14] Jody Avirgan:

[00:11:14] Bomani Jones:
Um, which is the hometown of Jerry Stackhouse, uh, Cedric Maxwell, Andrew Wiggins’ father Mitchell, uh, Reggie Bullock, and Kinston, I wanna say, is a population of 20,000 people. I forget what the exorbitant odds are from most schools in terms of producing players who go to the NBA, but it's one in however many thousands. At Kinston High School, it is an absurdly high rate. That one hugely fascinates me.

[00:11:44] Jody Avirgan:
He's right. The odds of making the league, if you're not from Kinston, North Carolina, are like 3 in 10,000. In Kinston, it's about 1 out of 50. Incredible.

There are legends about what makes a lot of these hotbeds work. In the part of Florida they call Muck City, which produces all those NFL receivers, people talk about how during the late summer harvest season, kids chase rabbits in the local sugar cane fields. That's how they get so fast and agile and eventually turn into great football players.

Those are all “something in the water” explanations, but there actually are a number of ingredients that seem to make an opportunity pipeline work. Maybe there's a formula of sorts. So, grab a pencil. Let's make a list. You, me, Bomani. One ingredient: intense competition. Take a place like New York City basketball in the eighties and nineties, a hotbed of generationally talented point guards.

[00:12:44] Bomani Jones:
I contend that the advantage that New York basketball players had over everybody else is how easy it was to get a game against great players, right? Like you were a subway ride away from a—if you are a Kenny Anderson, New York legend coming up, you can go play against anybody, even if you're in Queens, right? It might take you a while on the train to get to where you going, but you could go play against anybody and sharpen your skills in a way that is far more difficult if you're from a small town.

[00:13:11] Jody Avirgan:

[00:13:11] Bomani Jones:
Or far more difficult, even if you're from a mid-sized city.

[00:13:14] Jody Avirgan:
Okay, competition is on the list. Another factor, coaching. You hear stories about certain coaches who move from one part of the country to another, and then all of a sudden all the great players, the quarterbacks, the hockey goalies, whatever, they're all coming from that area now. So good coaching, a competitive cohort, and I mean, let's be honest, money has to be on the list. People pour massive resources into things like youth football in Texas.

[00:13:37] Bomani Jones:
Texas produces overdeveloped football prospects, like all the money has been put into infrastructure and everything else.

[00:13:44] Jody Avirgan:
Going back to the Muck City example, local role models seem really important. You know, you're a rising eighth grader, and all of a sudden you look up and there's Anquan Boldin, and Santonio Holmes playing in the Super Bowl, and they're from your little town of 20,000 people. And you're like, “That could be me,” you know?

[00:14:00] Bomani Jones:
Yeah. And there're people coming back and they're saying, “Yeah, it can be you.” And the person coming back might be Anquan Boldin.

[00:14:05] Jody Avirgan:
Right. Yeah.

So our hotbed formula, coaching, competition, cash, inspiration, and what the hell? Let's throw chasing rabbits into the mix as well.


[00:14:28] Jody Avirgan:
Bomani and I have some ideas about what makes a hotbed, but we're just two dudes with a microphone and itchy brains. To really answer this question of what makes a talent hotbed tick, we went where one always goes for answers to life's most vexing questions: a strip mall in Milpitas, California. Walk with me into a squat, boxy building that could very well have been a car dealership not that many years ago, and you'll find yourself staring at a row of photos. Seven table tennis Olympians.

[00:14:58] Rajul Sheth:
Okay, so this is like our kind of a normal lobby area where we have all of our displays of our Olympians. You, you see Olympians. So anyone comes in the building, a new person, when they see this professional table tennis Olympians and uh, National team member training. And they are impressed.

[00:15:15] Jody Avirgan:
Rajul Sheth runs the table tennis program here at the India Community Center in Milpitas, and this is his wall of fame, pictures of table tennis greats. All of them trained just down this echoey hallway. Let's follow Rajul there into a massive gymnasium about the size of three basketball courts. Row after row of kids playing table tennis.


[00:15:39] Coach:
Five, six. Very nice.

[00:15:43] Jody Avirgan:
At 11:00 AM on a Tuesday, over a hundred kids are playing around dozens of ping pong tables and Rajul, I promise that's the only time I call it ping pong. The kids are stabbing at the ball, serving, rallying while their coaches look on, calling out encouragement and advice.

[00:15:57] Coach:
One more. Slow, slow, slow. More rallies.

[00:16:01] Jody Avirgan:
Two advanced players face off in one corner of the room, dancing around their table, the ball blurring between them. This is what we came here to see: the inner workings of a bonafide hotbed. A place that has sent at least three players to every Olympics since London a decade ago. And what's most impressive about it is that 15 years ago, when it came to table tennis, Milpitas wasn't even on the map. Rajul Sheth put it there as a coach and an administrator, but it's worth noting, he’s also a really good player.
[00:16:37] Rajul Sheth:
So my style playing table tennis is considered to be, uh, kind of a defense player. I used to block the ball, so I never used to attack too much. I used to make lot of rallies and, uh, with the opportunity for my opponent to make a mistake, you know, that's how I used to play.

[00:16:55] Jody Avirgan:
Is that reflective of your personality in any sort of way?

[00:17:00] Rajul Sheth:
Uh, yes, that's what it is. You know, to play that kind of a game, you need to have a lot of patience.

[00:17:06] Jody Avirgan:
And to be a coach, you need to have a lot of patience.

[00:17:09] Rajul Sheth:
A lot of patience. Yeah. So that helps. Yeah. You're absolutely right.

[00:17:10] Jody Avirgan:
Rajul was born in Badora, a city on India's west coast. In India, table tennis is huge. You know that thing earlier where I had to justify my obsession with ultimate Frisbee to you? No one needs to do that with table tennis in India; its top players are regular contenders for Olympic medals against some of the true giants of the sport, China and Japan. Rajul was on the Indian National Circuit for 14 years.

[00:17:38] Rajul Sheth:
In India, uh, you have a lot of advantage and benefits by playing sports of table tennis. Like in America, if you are good at basketball or you know, some, uh, mainstream sports… At, uh, age of 18, I got a government job because of table tennis, and those kind of a jobs in India, uh, helps you to play more. So basically you don't go for work, you just play table tennis two times and you got, you're paid for it.

[00:18:03] Jody Avirgan:
But in 2002, despite a life in which part of his job was to play table tennis twice a day, Rajul decided to leave the sport, leave India, and make a new start in California. He wanted to work on a mechanical engineering degree.

[00:18:17] Rajul Sheth:
So me and my wife, we both came to USA and uh, after coming here, we realized that at that time, economy was very bad and we realized that practically, it’s not possible for both of us to go to school. So my wife started doing her master's and I started working.

[00:18:39] Jody Avirgan:
Rajul put in 80-hour work weeks working retail in the day and pumping gas at night. It was a grueling schedule, and he found himself reminiscing about all those years on the table tennis circuit. Perhaps thinking to himself, you know, “There was a time not that long ago when part of my job was to play table tennis twice a day.” And then one night, randomly, he saw a guy at the gas station who had some table tennis gear. They struck up a conversation, and eventually the guy agreed to take Rajul to a local tournament.

[00:19:12] Rajul Sheth:
And when I went there, I saw some, uh, players training there and, uh, one or two players training there were on a US Junior National team. And, uh, I just went there with my old paddle, and I just played a little bit with those Junior National team members. And, uh, you know, I found out that I'm, I'm too good for US table tennis, you know, label and, uh, all of a sudden, I had lot of kids and parents approaching me that, you know, are you coaching table tennis anywhere?

[00:19:48] Jody Avirgan:
So Rajul starts teaching, gets himself a part-time coaching job at the India Community Center in Milpitas. At first, the ICC has just a couple tables, a few kids here and there, but within six months, the program doubled in size: 30 players training regularly with Rajul.

Not long after that, they start going to tournaments and winning. All those Olympians on the wall, they came from Rajul's program at the ICC. It's also produced dozens of National team members. Last year they took home 56 medals at Nationals. This is a hotbed, so how does it work?

[00:20:28] Rajul Sheth:
Lot of people, even cricket or uh, uh, lot of Indian sports people, they come and try to follow the same formula, which I follow. And, uh, even in East Coast and everywhere, people come to reach out to me, and how did you do it? And I just give my formula to all of them.

[00:20:42] Jody Avirgan:
So, what's the formula? Grab a pencil. Let's make a list. You, me, Rajul.

One ingredient, same as on the list that Bomani and I made: coaching. Rajul employs a top coaching staff, people who played professionally overseas.

[00:21:03] Rajul Sheth:
We started hiring, you know, coaches from India and China, uh, and in 2012, I think we got some coach from Europe as well. Uh, some senior coaches here, and I think they helped us a lot.

[00:21:16] Jody Avirgan:
He recruits them to the US, helps get them places to live and steady work, and eventually, hopefully, green cards. Along with the coaches, Rajul also imports players who function like sparring partners for his students—competition. He runs leagues where top players from around the Bay Area can face off every weekend. They hone their skills, learn how to compete, push each other, kind of like the New York City basketball vibe that Bomani mentioned.

[00:21:42] Rajul Sheth:
So that is very important probably where we identify, you know, who is strong mentally, who is progressing, uh, consistently, who is doing what.

[00:21:52] Jody Avirgan:
And probably the most important part of the formula for Rajul: volume, bringing in as many kids as possible and giving them all the chance to excel.

[00:22:01] Rajul Sheth:
You know, this is what you do. Get the volume, give the quality.

[00:22:05] Jody Avirgan:
To get the volume, he uses another key ingredient to the formula: marketing. Rajul markets the program like hell, handing out literally thousands of brochures to local school kids every year. The ICC offers other programs like Tae Kwon Do and dance, but then he adds free table tennis lessons to the package. He started a summer camp to bring hundreds of new kids into the building every year. Of course, table tennis is part of the summer camp. Rajul will make anything into an opportunity to bring a new kid to the program. He will even crash your local farmer's market.

[00:22:40] Rajul Sheth:
So every Sunday, there was a farmer's market in Milpitas where there were a lot of people used to come there. We used to rent a booth there. Put a ping pong table there and a coach there, and few paddles, and anyone, you know, walking there, “Can you try? You want to try a little bit?”And then we used to try to promote that if you want to play more, there is a place here in Milpitas.

[00:23:02] Jody Avirgan:
Did any Olympians come from the farmer's market?

[00:23:04] Rajul Sheth:
Uh, not, no. No. Not, no Olympians came from farmer's market, but at least we got lot of visibility, and lot of, uh, recreational kids came from there.

[00:23:14] Jody Avirgan:
Rajul says all of this, whether or not it leads directly to a superstar, is crucial because it generates the volume.

[00:23:21] Rajul Sheth:
So our goal is to get volume for table tennis because when I see, uh, entire summer camp, I may end up getting around, uh, 400 kids, you know, introduced to the table tennis. Out of those 400, maybe 50%, 200 kids will continue after camps are over. After those 200 kids, again, we may end up having, say, only 50 kids, little talented, you know.

So then from that 400, we came back to 50. Then out of these 50 little talented, maybe we narrow down to another 8 to 10 kids who has that quality to become a, you know, Olympian or a National team member. And then we start working with those 8 or 10 kids very, uh, specific way and end up getting one or two Olympians out of it.

[00:24:12] Jody Avirgan:
And I love that, that math, I mean, it almost sounds, and I don't think you're using it as a euphemism, it sounds like you've sort of come up with a formula, right? It's 400 to 100 to 50, to eight to one, and I think this gets at something that I'm just so curious about because I think when people think about finding talent, they think about, “Oh, it's just the one, and you find the one and they pop out and you just have to pluck them.” But you're sort of really playing it like a volume game, like a numbers game.

[00:24:41] Rajul Sheth:
Yeah. If you don't play volume, it's very hard to find, uh, you know, consistent tell. Okay, one-off you can find by luck or you know, from small volume. But if you want to hit, like for example, 2012, uh, that was the first time we produced three Olympians. And then we maintained that. In 2016 we had four Olympians. 2020, we had four Olympians. If you want to be a consistently, you know, produce, uh, National team members and, uh, Olympians, uh, volume is very important.

[00:25:16] Jody Avirgan:
As Bomani pointed out earlier, a big part of making an opportunity pipeline is keeping those doors open for as many people as possible, as long as possible, and then seeing who walks through.

Oh, yeah, on our hotbeds list, funding: pretty critical too. Between rent for the Milpitas facilities, salaries for the staff, sponsorships for their most promising players, Rajul’s program now costs well over a million dollars a year, but the more successful the program is, the more willing people are to help out, and the more he can sponsor kids who have promise but may not have resources.

[00:25:55] Rajul Sheth:
We used to raise like, you know, a hundred thousand average every year to sponsor talented kids. And you know, we have to pay the rent, we have to pay salary to our coaches. So, you know, lucky again, we have a lot of people, you know, ready to support us.

[00:26:11] Jody Avirgan:
And I'll just say: along with the training and coaches and competition and funding, one of the key things Rajul is doing here, one of the most important is building community, in the truest sense. He takes care of his coaches. He provides other activities for athletes. He invests in his players' daily life. Sure, he's trying to find top players, but he's also trying to make his project vital to the families in Milpitas. It's a community center after all.

So, who ends up with their picture on that wall at the ICC? Take for example, Lily Zhang, one of the most successful American table tennis players and a product of the ICC.

[00:26:52] Rajul Sheth:
Lilly ended up playing 2012 Olympics. She ended up playing 2016 Olympics. Uh, she ended up playing 2020 Olympics.

[00:27:02] Jody Avirgan:
That's in large part because Lilly got put into the formula.

[00:27:05] Rajul Sheth:
She got opportunity, you know, because we got some high-level players and coaches for her from India and China. Funding, we sponsored her entire training for kind of a free. Plus, even in uh, 2012 to encourage them to play more table tennis, we even came up with a stipend system for them.

[00:27:30] Jody Avirgan:
Rajul saw the talent Lily had and did everything he could to make the system work for her.

[00:27:36] Rajul Sheth:
The problem in 2010, 12 or 14, you know, parents, they didn't wanted their kids to play more. You know, they, they didn't see much benefit in sports at that time. And when we were telling that, you know, your kid has a chance to play Olympics, they didn't believe us. So keep them motivated to play, we made entire training free for Lily.

[00:27:58] Jody Avirgan:
So you can see the pipeline worked for Lily Zhang, but it wasn't just the formula. Lily had more: something else worth considering as we think about opportunity. She had, and I'm sorry to be cliche here, but Lily had it: that cluster of qualities that makes someone great at a particular sport, and Rajul spotted it in her.

[00:28:20] Rajul Sheth:
The first thing I noticed in her is her mental game. She was very strong.

You know, sometimes you go on a floor, you have too much pressure on you. You know, people watching your matches or tournament. Even if you tell them to do something, when the, the rally starts, they are not able to, you know, follow your instructions. So at a young age, you know, try to follow all those things. You know, whatever you tell them, they just follow that. You know right away. Not everyone can adopt that.

[00:28:51] Jody Avirgan:
I'm fascinated by the IT factor. Of course, all the players that make it to the end of a pipeline from Milpitas or Kinston or wherever, they are really good, but we don't gravitate towards the really good, we look for the great, the singular.

I might be obsessed with that distinction because I was really good. But I don't think I was great, and there have been times when that's eaten me up. It might be something that eats Rajul up as well. Towards the end of our conversation with him, he brought up another player, he’s worked with a ton, maybe even more than Lily Zhang: his own son, Ved.

[00:29:30] Rajul Sheth:
So when I say not everyone can adopt it, I can just give example of my son as well. Now, when I talk about my own son, I still feel that he's not talented. He’s, uh, very hardworking, very hardworking, but not talented.

[00:29:49] Jody Avirgan:
Ved is really good, but he's not checking every box. He may not be the one.

And you can make that assessment with a lot of different, you know, with different kids as you've said. Was it particularly hard to see that with your own son?

[00:30:06] Rajul Sheth:
Yeah. Yeah. It's, you know, so when I, when it comes to my son, it's not… I, I tried my best, you know, to teach him. But see, it depends on each and every kids, you know. How much they can adopt that. Now he has some other plus qualities. He's very hardworking. So he is hardworking. He has a very good mental game. He is kind of, uh, diverting all his time to table tennis. He listens to the coach, everything. But now he miss something. You know, the talent.

You have a very high level, a professional Olympian or a Olympic metal winner, uh, kind of player. You have to have everything in them.

[00:30:58] Jody Avirgan:
So yes, not every kid is going to be Lily Zhang. Well, what hotbeds demonstrate is that if you give every kid a chance, if you get your own assumptions out of the way and give them the resources and the training and give them your faith, if you keep sticking your foot in the door of opportunity before it fully shuts, you never know.

Not everyone can become a great athlete, but a great athlete can come from anywhere. Yes, I just stole that line from the final monologue in Pixar's Ratatouille. Instead of listening to this whole episode, I probably should have just told you to go watch Ratatouille.

So that's it for the first episode of our new podcast, Good Sport. But if you're still listening, I should tell you that this is the part where I point out that what we just did, that's pretty much what we'll be getting up to all season. Each episode of this series will explore a phenomenon from the world of sports.

What makes a hotbed? Why stadium deals go wrong so often. How sports debate shows got so out of control. What comes next for athletes and us when our bodies age and our careers are over? All of these, I think, help us understand larger forces in the world we live in. From politics, to relationships, to culture and media and more, because it's my argument to you that when we look at the larger world through the lens of sports, maybe we can see it more clearly.

So this season, we'll carry that lens of sports around. Sometimes we'll turn the lens on ourselves, make it into kind of a mirror. Sometimes we'll use it as a magnifying glass and hunch over to examine something small but fascinating. Sometimes we'll use that lens as a telescope, a way of looking at something distant, but full of promise. Sometimes we'll take that lens metaphor and stretch it to the point where you're not really sure what the hell Jody is talking about anymore. All that and more this season on Good Sport. Let's do it. Go Sixers.

Up next on Good Sport, I channel my inner sports debate bro.

…And then you have the single most iconic moment in NBA history. Alan Iverson stepping over Tyronn Lue.

[00:33:23] Katie Nolan:
I mean, and you're not wrong.

[00:33:24] Jody Avirgan:

[00:33:25] Katie Nolan:
It’s an iconic moment.

[00:33:27] Jody Avirgan:
And why the way we argue about sports seems to be the way we argue about everything.

Good Sport is brought to you by the TED Audio Collective. It's hosted by me, Jody Avirgan. This show is produced by TED. This episode was written and produced by Isabel Carter. Our team includes Camille Peterson, Poncie Rutsch, Sarah Nics, Jimmy Gutierrez, Michelle Quint, BanBan Cheng, and Roxanne Hai Lash. Jake Gorski is our sound designer and mix engineer.

Fact-checking by Julia Dickerson. Thanks to Mumble Media’s, Jayme Catsouphes, who was our eyes and ears on the ground in Milpitas . Special thanks to John Cox, Keith Rumer, and Katie Clark, and very special thanks to Bomani Jones. Make sure to check out Game Theory on HBO for more of his excellent observations.

We'll be back soon with more Good Sport. Be sure to follow the show in your favorite podcast app so you get every episode delivered straight to your device, and leave us a review. We love hearing from our listeners. See you soon.