American sports fans are a cynical bunch. Who can blame us? The modern landscape of sports celebrity is a mangled mess of ego, scandal, money, and various law enforcement agencies. It is easy for the modern sports fan to think ideas of the "sports hero" as a nostalgic and naive relic of some indiscernible glory days long gone.
Knowing that, I'm not surprised when I field the inevitable question about Orlando's star in the middle, Kaká. Both soccer's biggest fans and detractors sometimes ponder "Is Kaká really that sincere?" As they see him signing autographs late into the night after a tough loss or talking to the media, they wonder "How can a guy be that nice all the time?"
This past week's MLS All-Star Game in Denver had Kaká center stage as he captained the best the league had to offer up against Tottenham Hotspur. On the field, he scored and assisted, showed an impressive work rate for an All-Star Game, and walked away with MVP honors by the end of the night. In the midst of a grueling stretch of the season and a heavy travel schedule for his club team, a trip across the country for a meaningless friendly couldn't have felt convenient at all, and yet I don't think I saw Kaká stop smiling once on the field.
"Most Valuable Player" is the right name for an award for a player that graciously is becoming the face of the league. You couldn't get on the Internet's soccer sites without seeing interview after interview with the Brazilian legend. Yet each one of them felt like a brand new conversation, with that trademark shy smile and humbleness.
My first interaction with Kaká was at Orlando's media day at the beginning of the season. As the rest of the press moved towards the provided lunch, I went the wrong way and ended up in the room set up for the press conferences later. Seizing the opportunity, I sat down and waited. An hour later, the press conferences started and I had a front row seat. Not 10 feet from Kaká, I was amazed at his grace handling questions (in multiple languages mind you).
I'm one of those cynical American sports fans and I was charmed in an instant. From 10 feet away, I couldn't see ego or pride. All I could see was a humble, yet confident guy, who genuinely seemed thrilled to be here, playing for my team -- to be playing in my city.
This weekend, as I watched and read a number of the interviews with Kaká, all I could think was this guy is representing my team and my city so well. Like many of you, I'm an Orlando sports fan who survived the Shaquille O'Neal "small pond" comments, and Dwight Howard's general desire to get as far away from Orlando as possible. They and all the other great players that have come through the Orlando Magic locker rooms all felt like hired guns, playing with loyalty to themselves and their paychecks.
Now, I'm not that naive -- I know Kaká is the highest paid player in MLS. Having played for some of the best teams and in the best leagues in the world, I understand Kaká is a hired gun as well. He is getting paid very well to be here. I couldn't pretend to know why or how he's so happy to be playing in MLS.
Maybe his relationship with Orlando City's majority owner Flávio Augusto da Silva is an important part of that equation. Maybe Kaká is just a guy who has overcome some impossible odds in his life and through his religion has found that source of inner peace that brings true contentment.
What matters is that no matter who you ask, from Head Coach Adrian Heath to one of the ball boys, from the fans who know him from the stands, or the ones that waited in a parking lot until nearly midnight for an autograph and a selfie, this man is 100% genuine.
So when people ask me about Kaká I just remind them to not always be so cynical and enjoy the game. Kaká certainly seems to be.