A standard with no winners

Tonight we saw that eight points and a couple brutal turnovers can define a legacy.

If that sounds crazy, it’s pretty much because it is. But that’s where we are in today’s sports world. And I think it’s a symptom of a greater issue beyond sports.

Tonight John Calipari finally shed the great backhanded compliment-of-a-title “Greatest Active Coach Without a Title.” And if everything that’s been written about the 2011-12 Kentucky men’s basketball team is to be believed, that is validation for a long coaching career that otherwise would have been incomplete.

Further, it finally satisfies the horrible title “drought” in Kentucky to appease a rabid fan base for the next nine months or so.

It amazes me how much meaning we derive from some of the most trivial things. I’m a moderately obsessive sports fan, and I will readily acknowledge how special winning a national title would be. But it terrifies me to think so many people allow it to fundamentally impact their identities.

First of all, let’s dismiss everyone not directly associated with the team. Beside the players and coaches, no one can claim the championship. As much as we refer to our favorite teams in the first-person plural form, we are not members of those teams. I don’t care if you are a Kentucky alumnus who hasn’t missed a game in 30 years and donated $10 million to the basketball program; you did not win a national title.

Now we can look at a small group of people who have dedicated a huge percentage of their lives to the game of basketball. They’ve worked practically since birth for this moment. To them I offer my sincerest congratulations. But does the outcome of tonight’s game dictate a fundamental change in their identities? Are the players and coaches who wake up tomorrow morning different people from the ones who arrived at the stadium hours before the game?

I think we can turn to the sled god himself, Irving Blitzer (John Candy), for wise words on this topic. When Derice, the leader of the Jamaican bobsled team, asks his coach what it is like to win a gold medal, Irv tells Derice that “a gold medal is a wonderful thing. But if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.”

Our world defines success entirely on tangible rewards, essentially gold medals. Setting aside several recruiting scandals, John Calipari has been one of the most successful college basketball coaches in recent memory. He boasts a winning percentage almost any coach would trade for and has led three different programs to the Final Four.

Yet so much of the lead up to Monday’s game focused on Calipari’s “failure” to win a championship. Countless commentators declared that his time at Kentucky would be deemed an underachievement if this team failed to claim the title. The Kentucky faithful would have been distraught at such a failure and would possibly turn on their coach.

May I never be held to such a standard. One team out of more than 300 in NCAA Div. I men’s basketball ends the season with a win to claim a national title. If we consider anything less than a championship a failure, what are we saying about 99 percent of the world?

It worries me how much emphasis we put on being the best. I think it is absolutely vital to a successful life to have a drive to excel and to devote yourself wholeheartedly to being the best you can be. But when we leave out those last three words we create an impossible standard for almost everyone to live up to. We wave a wand and declare that all but a small handful of people are failures.

And we pass this thought process on to those who reach the pinnacle of their respective fields. We teach that the championship ring means everything and rashly declare that Terry Bradshaw was a better quarterback than Dan Marino because he happened to be drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers at the right time. Adam Morrison won two NBA titles with the Lakers, therefore he is infinitely better than that horrific choke artist LeBron James.

We boil an athlete’s identity and worth down to a ring, and we do it with no hesitation. And why not? As Herm Edwards said, “You play to win the game.” But how many pawn shops have championship rings for sale because former champions fell on hard times and had to sell their most prized possessions?

When we so closely relate a person’s identity to such a stringent definition of success, we eventually declare everyone is a failure. Michael Jordan, often considered the ultimate champion, ended more seasons watching someone else crowned champion than he did standing under the confetti.

This issue is most clearly evident in sports, but it is a problem that transcends athletics. We’ve fallen into the trap of needing the tangible claim of being “the best” to feel adequate. It’s why we’re workaholics, neglecting the relationships that should matter most in an effort to move up the corporate ladder and earn that promotion and better title.

As long as we allow outsiders to define our worth, we will always fall short and feel empty. Even if we achieve that impossible goal, we’ll find it to be a mirage. Once the high wears off, those Kentucky players are the same people they were yesterday. To suggest otherwise is to devalue the 18-22 years of life that led them to this point.

If Kansas hadn’t committed several devastating turnovers in the final minutes, perhaps the outcome is reversed. Calipari goes to bed and wakes tomorrow morning to a barrage of columns claiming he’s a choker who can’t win when it matters most. Everything he’s accomplished is wiped away and forgotten in the midst of what we perceive as failure.

Instead he’ll realize just how much eight points can define a legacy. And he and his players will learn eventually that a national championship is a wonderful thing. But if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.

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