(Note: The following originally appeared as one of my newspaper columns a few years back. With another high school football season quickly approaching, it seemed like a good time to share it here.)

Once upon a time - and yet not really all that long ago, if you stop to think about it - all it really took for the boys in the neighborhood to have a good time was an empty lot, the proper equipment, enough fellows to make up two full teams, and one captain willing to let Little Brother Tag-Along play on his team regardless of talent.

Yes, those were the good old days. I don’t even know if there is such a thing as friendly neighborhood ball games anymore. And quite frankly, I miss them.

Because what we now have in place of those neighborhood games of yesteryear - a premature striving for professionalism that affects the attitudes of player and spectator alike - is a whole lot less fun.

To some degree it has always existed. And it’s not altogether a bad thing; it does teach a child to strive to do the very best job that he can, a lesson that surely will serve that child well in other areas of his life as he grows older.

But it’s different now somehow. Parents always like to see their child win. It’s only natural to claim a certain amount of gratification from our children’s success, as if their success somehow legitimizes our very existence. But in the old days parents used to put more emphasis on the idea of trying; even if you made the last out or missed the last basket or dropped the last fumble, Mom and Dad were still proud because at least you were out there making an effort.

I’m reminded of the old television advertisements for Life Savers, the ones where the young athlete lost the game but dad was right there to give the boy a pep talk and give him a piece of candy to get his mind off his troubles. You don’t see much of that sort of thing anymore. If you lose the game nowadays you hear about it from the coach in the locker room, then again from your father when you get home.

And the pressure to be the best seems to start much earlier these days. First, there’s mom or pop out there in the back yard, teaching their little son or daughter how to play the game. Then come the little league and junior high coaches, prepping their young charges for the rigors of a successful high school career.

If the child is especially talented, four years of high school stardom are followed by four more years at the collegiate level. And from a select few may be lucky enough to pursue the ultimate dream: a career in the professional arena.

Along the way that child may have experienced a good deal of success, but he or she has no doubt also experienced emotional trauma so great that we armchair athletes who just sit back and keep cheering them on to bigger and better things can’t even begin to comprehend it. The impact such trauma can have on a youngster with a passion for success and recognition is acute, and will sometimes remain to haunt him despite future successes.

One minute you're featured on the cover of Time magazine and being hailed as America’s best hopes for bringing home an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics. The next minute you’re taking a header off the balance beam, while some know-it-all sportscaster who couldn’t keep his balance in a field sobriety test is telling millions of viewers that you're all washed up. Ask Kim Zmeskal how it feels some time.

Sometimes the athlete will work a little harder to put that kind of trauma behind him. Some can’t, and as a result all the joy that person derived from his sport is gone. 

If a young basketball player is benched for one mistake on the court, he may mope around for days because suddenly he’s not so sure he’s really as good as he thought he was. And the coach, obsessed with the idea of claiming the win and caught up in the emotions of the moment, may unwittingly harass players or let those emotions get the better of him.

(An aside: I don’t know what Neanderthal decided that the Bobby Knight Temper Tantrum style of coaching is the best method to use, but as far as I’m concerned that individual ought to be soundly thrashed about the head and shoulders. Preferably with an aluminum baseball bat.)

Because any professional success promises great economic potential, even the most exceptional athlete will feel considerable strain. I remember that story of the high school All-American who heard that the coach of one of the top college basketball programs in the land would be in the stands doing some scouting that night. 

His team did well throughout most of the game, but this particular boy lost his cool during the game because he decided that his teammates were not giving him the chance to suitably impress the visiting coach. So he took it upon himself to demonstrate just how much of the team’s success that season had depended upon him as an individual.

To make a long and incredibly sad story short, his efforts brought about nothing but trouble for everyone involved. His team lost the most important game they would play all year. He came across looking like a spoiled brat who had never learned the concept of teamwork. 

And the coach he had wanted so badly to impress told him to his face that he didn’t have what it took to be a college player. So much for superstardom.

Compounding the problem is the attitude of the people in the stands. Unruly fans have become an unfortunate staple at all levels of the athletic arena, from Wrigley Field, the Super Dome and the Olympics all the way down to the kindergarten-age T-ball teams. Fans jeer the players, razz the coaches, tell the umpires and referees how to do their jobs and throw bottles onto the field.

Some years ago, a battle of epic proportions broke out during the semi-finals of a high school soccer tournament I was covering. Not between the two teams, or even their coaches, but between the parents of the opposing players. It took the officials so long to break up the fight that the game itself had to be finished the following evening.

I was there. I saw it.

So you sit there and you watch this sort of thing, and you have to ask yourself: whatever happened to “It isn't whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game?”

And it is, after all, only a game. The fate of the world doesn’t depend on who racks up the most points. And the desire to succeed just isn't worth the incredible toll it can exact.

Who should know this better than Michael Jordan? 

Here is a man who had all the success anyone could ever expect to have, and then some. All from running back and forth and jumping up and down shoving a little orange ball through a little hoop. Heck, he probably made more money filming a couple of Gatorade commercials than a guy like me will make in a lifetime. 

And he walked away from it all – for a little while, anyway – at the height of his fame.

He told us at the time that there were no goals left for him to attain. He said that he wanted to spend more time with his family, and that the brutal murder of his father had made him reconsider what was really important in his life. 

And maybe there was something to all that. But that wasn’t what ultimately forced Michael Jordan to take a break from the game he loved so well. Not really.

No, it was our fault. We drove him away – “we” in this case being both the fans and the media.

The fans saw his talent, his abilities, and took him to heart. First they made him a hero. Then they made him a god.

Jordan never wanted that. He told us so a million times. All he wanted to do was play the game. It probably never even dawned on him that he might well be the best to have ever played that game until we told him so. He just felt lucky to be able to make a living doing what he loved best.

But the fans wouldn’t let up. And the press, who had been among his most loyal disciples at the start and who had played a large role in his transfiguration, began to assume the identity of Judas.

It was the press who made his extraordinary talent look like nothing more than an attempt to upstage his teammates. It was the press that took what was probably just an innocent game of poker at Atlantic City and a few friendly wagers on the golf course and made it all seem like the Second Coming of Pete Rose. 

And it was the press who linked those allegations of a gambling problem with the murder of his father, thus creating questions that still persist in some minds despite the evidence and the testimony offered up by suspects and witnesses alike.

But it was the fans who kept lapping it all up and coming back for more, all the while still proclaiming their love. And so it is the fans who must bear the ultimate responsibility for robbing Michael Jordan of the joy his career once gave him.

And even though he ultimately returned, somehow it just hasn’t been the same. Not for the press. Not for his fans. And, I suspect, not for Michael.

In a Nike ad that aired on television at the height of his fame, Jordan walked onto a dark basketball court and shot baskets alone. No cheering crowd, no opponents looking to take him down, no Bob Costas sticking a microphone in his face asking silly questions. Just one man, shooting a little orange ball through a hoop.

“What if my name wasn't in lights?” we heard him ask during the ad. “Can you imagine that? I can.”

So can we, Michael. You made certain we could.

And some of us probably owe you an apology for that.