Andre Dawson Tim RainesIt happened about a week ago. I was walking to the subway after work when I spotted a former co-worker coming toward me on the sidewalk. I was friendly with this person when we worked together. We went out for drinks a couple of times. We liked/hated the same people around the office. We shared common stories about our past. We got along well. So, of course, upon seeing this person walking in my general direction, I crossed the street at the first opportunity presented to me in order to avoid any and all contact.

Of all the luxuries afforded professional athletes, the time-honored tradition of dodging former co-workers is rendered almost impossible by the close-knit world of highly competitive sports. Pro sports leagues are small ponds full of the most elite fish in the world, most of whom have grown up together from the time that they were guppies, participating in the same activities designed for elite performers. By the time they reach their peak, their pool has been decided with only the smallest portion of annual restocking and retirement.

Athletes are bound to come across former teammates from time to time and be expected to compete against them. This, much like our own exchanges with those to whom we were once forced to associate, can be difficult. Unfortunately for professional athletes, there aren’t any streets to cross or stores to duck into as a means of avoiding a former colleague on their respective fields of play. Instead, awkward confrontations are inevitable.

Here are a number of simple steps athletes can take to keep awkwardness at a minimum, and spin a potentially negative situation into a positive outcome.

Open A Dialogue

If you know an encounter is around the corner, be prepared.

Preparation is a vital aspect of an athlete’s life. While most of us associate athletic preparedness with physical training, it also applies to the mental side of the game. Nothing tests the fortitude of an athlete quite like engagements with former teams. In order to ace such tests, it’s often best to open up a dialogue with past teammates  by publicly reflecting on your history with a previous organization.

This is the tact that Dwight Howard took when he was interviewed ahead of his scheduled return to Orlando on Tuesday night as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. He humbly suggested the following:

My team in Orlando was a team full of people who nobody wanted, and I was the leader and I led that team with a smile on my face.

Thanks to this comment, current Orlando Magic guard Jameer Nelson, who was drafted the same year as Howard, was able to open up, and embark on his own personal spiritual journey, learning something about himself and growing in the process.

At some point, when are you gonna, as a man, when are you going to take ownership and stay out of the media in a professional manner? I would be less of a man to comment on certain things that people comment on about me and my teammates. We had a great run as a group, as core guys, and he was a part of it and for him to say things about anybody in a negative manner, that’s up to him.

Any potential negative feelings were neutralized by Howard’s initial communication, and now we can rest assured that no ill will exists at all between the Magic and their former star player. Absolutely none. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

No, YOU sound like you’re trying to convince yourself.

Friendly Acknowledgement

If you left your previous place of employment under less than ideal circumstances, a certain amount of tension might exist between you and your former co-workers. To alleviate said tension, a simple tap on the helmet is a nice personal way of informing your old teammate that while you no longer play for the same club, you both still share a collective empathy as members of the human race.

Look at how well this strategy worked for Deion Sanders back in the Autumn of 1994 when he faced former colleagues in his first game against the Atlanta Falcons as a member of the San Francisco 49ers. His gentle tap on Andre Rison’s helmet inspired a friendly embrace between the two former co-workers, who suddenly couldn’t keep their hands off each other.

The Waiting Is The Hardest Part

If you feel the urge to testify against a former teammate before a grand jury or even a governing body, it’s likely best to wait until you’re all retired.

While it remains unlikely that George Hincapie, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, Frankie Andreu, Michal Barry, Tom Danielson, Levi Lepheimer, Christian Vande Velde, Jonathan Vaughters, David Zabriskie or Stephen Swart will ever be extended a dinner invitation from Lance Armstong after they all testified to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that the cyclist acted as a ringleader in what USADA chief executive Travis Tygart referred to as “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen,” at least there were no awkward moments in the peloton.

That would’ve been a sticky situation. I’m glad that all the parties involved managed to avoid any awkwardness connected to their past indiscretions.

All Apologies

If you have to score against your former team, be sure to do so in a manner that eliminates them from a tournament or demotes them into a lower division that cripples them financially and spoils the club’s morale. Anything less, and the mandatory apology that follows seems insincere.

While Cristiano Ronaldo’s strike against Manchester United – effectively eliminating his former team from the Champion’s League – was perhaps the most recent example of this phenomenon, the best also happened against the Red Devils.  In the last game of the 1973–74 season, former Manchester United superstar Denis Law, who ended his brilliant career for rivals Manchester City, scored an 81st-minute goal at Old Trafford, which he believed would result in his former team’s subsequent relegation.

It turned out that Manchester United would have been relegated no matter the result. However, the Scottish striker didn’t know this at the time and walked straight off the pitch in anguish, forcing his manager to substitute him.

Milestones Forgive All

If sincere apologies aren’t really your thing, be sure to set some sort of milestone when scoring against your previous team.

Such strategies are a little bit easier when you’re Wayne Gretzky and you get to the point in your career when every single thing you do ends up being a record. Perhaps the finest of these was breaking Gordie Howe’s all-time points record as a member of the Los Angeles Kings against the Edmonton Oilers on October 15, 1989.

The record was broken during Gretzky’s second season in Los Angeles after spending ten years in Edmonton. Apparently, the whole don’t-celebrate-scoring-against-your-former-team thing doesn’t extend to the unwritten rules of hockey.

Best Shot

If you were particularly attached to your former club, nothing says “I miss you” quite like a free base for your ex-team’s oft injured star player. Such gifts speak measures. After getting plunked by Cleveland Indians pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez, Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki had to be restrained from interrupting play to thank his former teammate for the massive show of respect.

The free base for Tulowitzki via the fastball to his elbow was likely itself in thanks for the great advice the shortstop provided Jimenez after the pitcher revealed an ongoing fascination with his former club earlier in the Spring of 2012.

There’s a certain point in this game where you go play and you shut your mouth. And you don’t worry about what other people are doing.

The urgency with which Jimenez runs toward Tulowitzki to receive his hug is one of the nicer occurrences of baseball sportsmanship in recent memory.

The Golden Rule

Of course when dealing with former teammates, the best rule is also the oldest: Do unto others as you would have them do to you.