Being an Elite Athlete: "It Looks Like Peace, But It's War."

Teams are completing their assessments, in preparation for Thursday's NBA draft. They are having players show how well they use ball screens, shot fakes, and jab steps. They are measuring just about everything.

And yet many will pick poorly, which surprises me none, because one of the most important things to measure is still largely unmeasurable: the ability to keep caring, day after day, in what is a true test of endurance.

A really good NBA career is a decade-plus obstacle course.

Pick a successful NBA player. Almost anyone. Chauncey Billups, Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash ... they have all had unbelievable bumps in very long roads. And they are all A-List athletes today because, unlike most people, they did not let those bumps knock them off course.

Looking for that quality, in a morning workout, is like picking who's going to win a marathon based on watching people line up at the starting line. It's some information. But not much.

Just about every top player faces punishment from opponents (some bigger, some stronger, some younger, some smarter), injuries, complicated relationships with coaches and teammates, family and friends competing for time and money, media pressure to be everything all the time, stretches when playing time is hard to come by, and all kinds of times when -- ask Amare Stoudemire -- you can't show the world the best of what you can do.

Succeeding as an NBA player means dispensing with these obstacles one way or another. Getting stuck on any one of them, in such a competitive environment, only creates opportunities for others to pass you by.

So, in these final days before the draft, as teams perform their final workouts, and take their final measurements, the challenge is to go far beyond assessing a player's reach, charisma, or sprinting speed. The success of the pick will ultimately rest onhow well a player's will holds up over the course of a tough decade.

David Thorpe tells his players that a career in the NBA is a slog. That's the word he uses. What he means is that it is a long fight, and it is frequently inglamorous.

I remember a Liz Robbins New York Times article from last summer, about legendary Ethopian distance runner Haile Gebrselassie. Last summer he was 34, and had already won just about everything a distance runner could possibly win. Many consider him the greatest distance runner ever.

Have you ever run eight miles? No one feels perky at that point of a race. It's just not how humans are wired. Gebrselassie himself says that in long races, you don't race against the competition or the clock, but against the distance. That's your real challenge.

Anyway, so getting up there in age, having endured all kinds of injuries and heartache, Gebrselassie finds himself eight miles into the New York City Half Marathon. He has mananged, somehow, to get himself in the lead group. Meaning he has run so fast that many of the finest runners in the world can't even keep up with him thus far.

Then, when any normal human would be happy to just kind of hang in there and see if they might win, another runner challenges him to run faster -- and he does, all the way to the finish line, where he won by more than a minute.

Just before the eight-mile mark, Gebrselassie broke away from Abdi Abdirahman of the United States and Robert Cheruiyot of Kenya. Gebrselassie then ran gracefully down the West Side Highway to finish in Battery Park City in 59 minutes 24 seconds. ...

As Abdirahman crossed the finish line in 1:00:29 to take second place, 1:05 behind Gebrselassie, he slapped his head in frustration. Abdirahman surged a little too early, he would lament. Gebrselassie quickly recovered and later said Abdirahman had told him to go.

"What do you mean, 'Go'?" Gebrselassie said he wondered. He did not hesitate. "He ask me to go, I am going to go." ...

Of the 9,920 runners who finished (9,960 started), no one was more embraced at the end than Gebrselassie. Fervent Ethiopian fans, wearing the green, yellow and red of the country's flag, waved flags and serenaded him with "Haile, Haile," written by the Ethiopian singer-songwriter Teddy Afro.

Gebrselassie patiently posed for pictures, signed copies of his biography, "The Greatest: The Haile Gebrselassie Story," kissed his fans, did interviews and ran through the crowds, along with two bodyguards, to the awards ceremony.

Running alone must have seemed like a respite from the celebrity fishbowl. "Oh no, it looks like peace," he said, "but it's war."

My thought is that if you could draft yourself a player with that mentality -- to own the race even at its toughest moments, after a thousand challenges -- you'd probably do well, no matter how high he can jump, or how long his arms are.

Which players are built for that? Who has that kind of grit? That intestinal fortitude? That poise? Sadly, we just don't get to know, at this age, for the most part.

But I can tell you this: On Thursday evening, when 60 of the best players will walk the stage at Madison Square Garden, some of them will be thinking that they have arrived at a destination.

The player you want on your team, however, will know that making the League may end the challenge to pay the rent every month. But it does nothing to end life's challenges in general. The work is just beginning. Players who are comfortable with that idea will be the ones winning championships down the road, and making GMs look really smart.

UPDATE: David Thorpe weighs in on this blog post, after the jump.

Thorpe e-mails:

That may be my favorite TrueHoop post. But there is one added element I'd like to mention. That "certain something" the runner from Ethiopia has is not quite what an NBA champion needs.

He does need it, but he must be able to manifest it within a team framework; leading at times, but following at other times. Yet, still hungry for the fight every step of the way.

Perhaps that's what separated Boston's Big Three from Kobe Bryant this year.

I heard many inside stories from Boston about the Big Three competing for "hero" roles. To most people, that sounds unseemly, and should have been an obstacle to ultimate success. But in reality, each of them has that same kind of feeling the runner has.

Somehow, they were able to channel it in a way that brought out the best in each other, and their other teammates too.

Who were the heroes in the Finals? No less than Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo, Leon Powe, James Posey ... all played the hero role for at least one game. Eddie House, P.J. Brown, and Sam Cassell had multiple moments too.

Runners only need to inspire themselves, but ballers need to carry their team with them, while allowing themselves to be carried sometimes as well.