On March 7 as three of the Utah Jazz’s players as well as coach Quin Snyder were gearing up for the NBA All-Star Game, they received the news that longtime team massage therapist Doug Birrell had died. He was 51.
Birrell had been privately contracted as a massage therapist for John Stockton and Karl Malone during their playing days with the Jazz before being hired on as the team’s full-time massage therapist, a post he held for 21 years. Though massage therapist was his official title, Birrell meant much more to the team.
“I don’t know if there’s a title that can capture, that would be fitting, to all the ways that he impacted people,” Snyder said on Friday. “It might say healer, because he healed all of us physically, mentally, emotionally.”
Birrell’s joyful demeanor and penchant for cracking jokes endeared him to everyone he worked with, and he became more than just a colleague.
“He was almost that glue guy off the court for us,” Joe Ingles said. “I wish I went to one more massage that I didn’t go to...I guess I’m very grateful that I got seven years with him and some hilarious times and sad times.”
Throughout the week, Jazz players and personnel posted tributes of Birrell on social media, expressing their grief. On Thursday night, the team attended a private viewing. On Friday, Birrell’s family attended the Jazz’s game against the Houston Rockets at Vivint Arena, where a moment of silence was held in his honor before tipoff.
“We lost one of the best people I’ve ever known in Doug Birrell,” Snyder said. “He touched everybody in our program. There wasn’t a person whose life he didn’t impact, and just our condolences to his wife Melissa and their family. He’s someone that we think about every day who gave everything he had to us, and he had so much to give.”
Those were the circumstances under which the Jazz spent their All-Star break, and they then had to get on the court and find the energy and emotion to play basketball on Friday. The Jazz won the game, but it was certainly not the best they’ve played. Even then, not a single player used their grief as an excuse for their lackluster performance, although if they had, it would have been completely understandable.
NBA players are in the business of entertaining, and that entertainment is expected of them no matter what is going on in their lives.
“It’s hard,” Ingles said. “I understand that we normally play in front of 20,000 people here and, it’s not that they don’t care what’s going on in your personal life, but they’re here to watch us play. They want to see us play well, but at the end of the day, we’re real human beings that have stuff that goes on...It’s our job to be able to compartmentalize parts and try and leave it in the locker room and go out there and do what we are obviously paid to do, but no doubt it’s hard.”
Ingles noted that it’s not as if Birrell’s death is the first instance of being obligated to play through something difficult for him. When his son Jacob was diagnosed with autism, he still had to show up and do the job.
Going to work and doing your job while dealing with the stresses and trauma and chaos of life away from work is not unique to NBA players. Everyone has to do that. What is sometimes unique is that if an NBA player has an off night or doesn’t have the expected amount of energy or effort on the court, what is happening off the court is rarely taken into account.
They are expected to perform as elite athletes, no matter the circumstances, no matter what is happening in their lives. Not only that, but the way that one person deal with stress or reacts to grief or any other emotion could vary wildly from one person to the next, but NBA players are often put into a box where they’re expected to push through or be tough or any other number of cliches that are thrown around.
It’s not like you can pinpoint or measure how much these real life situations impact on-court performances, but with a little bit of compassion, we can look at what the Jazz are experiencing and understand that they aren’t going to be perfect basketball players every minute of every game.
Birrell was not a public-facing member of the Jazz organization. For many this may be the first time hearing his name. But, for the players and personnel and staff, Birrell was a giant and his loss leaves a hole that is just as great as he was.