flipfansWe tend to think of rich people living lives of luxury, free to indulge whims that just aren’t possible for average, working folks. That’s largely true in a material sense; Kevin Love doesn’t just have wear a $1,000 turtlekneck and $4,000 jacket for a photo shoot. He can own those things in real life. I could, too, I suppose. I just wouldn’t make a house payment, a car payment, or eat for a month or two.

But two very different stories from the weekend have me thinking about athletes and the choices they have — and also the choices that are made for them.

Ricky Rubio is already wealthy, and he’s going to become exponentially more wealthy next year when a $50 million-plus contract kicks in. That money is guaranteed beyond anything short of the apocalypse. As long as he is not incredibly stupid, he can afford almost anything he wants for the rest of his life.

The price is that even with that context, his life has limits that we don’t have. Per reports, Rubio was going to do the Polar Plunge on Saturday — jumping into icy waters as part of a fundraiser. But head coach/basketball president Flip Saunders found out about it and shut Rubio down. Ricky still went to the event, but he didn’t plunge. (Later that day, he had one of his best all-around games of the season in a victory over Portland).

Most of us might think of the Polar Plunge and think “wow, that would be really cold,” but if we wanted to do it … we could just do it. For Rubio, it has professional implications because there is so much at stake in sports these days (italics because none of it is life or death, yet we pretend it borders on that).

The other story was a fascinating ESPN.com read about Blue Jays pitching prospect Daniel Norris. He’s living in a van in a Wal-Mart parking lot during spring training despite the fact that his signing bonus was $2 million. And it’s not because he blew all that money. It’s because this is how he wants to live.

His greatest fear is conformity; he likes to read, write in his journal, cook his own food and pitch.

It unsettled him in those first months to see so many zeros on his bank account balance — “Who am I to deserve that?” he wondered. “What have I really done?” — so he hired financial advisers and asked them to stash the money in conservative investments where Norris wouldn’t have to think about it. His advisers deposit $800 a month into his checking account — or about half as much as he would earn working full time for minimum wage. It’s enough to live in a van, but just barely. “I’m actually more comfortable being kind of poor,” he says, because not having money maintains his lifestyle and limits the temptation to conform.

If he wasn’t an MLB prospect, he would be eccentric … but he could probably live as he is living now for a very long time. As an athlete, though, he is already thinking of the concessions he will make:

Soon the season will begin in earnest, and he will eventually shave his beard and move into a teammate’s house — two concessions to the pressures of the major leagues. He wants the Blue Jays to know he takes his job seriously. “There are some things that I’m just going to have to get over,” he says. “I can’t be by myself all the time. I can’t live the total minimalist life. I guess I’m going to have to figure out where and when to give in. How much is necessary? How much feels right?

Listen: We all make choices. We all decide to what extent our lives can be our own. And nobody is forcing Norris to be a pitcher. Still, it’s a little heartbreaking to think that an athlete living far below his means is so rare that it would be considered weird or even disconcerting to some in the game (even if the Jays are cool with it).

I’m not saying we need to feel sorry for Rubio and Norris, who have wonderful athletic gifts that will afford them all sorts of opportunities many of us don’t have. But it is a reminder that having an abundance of options is not the same as having true freedom.

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