February 24, 2009 11:17 am ET by Kyle Whelliston
LYNCHBURG, Va. -- In the late stages of a Sunday flight from Raleigh to Nashville, after the announcement about portable electronic devices, I did what most people in need of an info-fix do: page through the Sky Mall catalog. It's only in those 20 minutes at the end when full-size Lord of the Rings swords and adult footed pajamas make 100 percent perfect sense, and I'm sure they'd sell a lot more if phone calls were allowed before the thud of the landing. It always breaks the spell.
One item I noticed, and lingered on, was an expensive framed shadow-box print featuring a speech by Vince Lombardi. He was a famous coach of American-style football before having his name placed on the best service area on the New Jersey Turnpike. It's a famous speech, delivered to his team one time, and historians and marketers have given it the title, "What It Takes to be Number One." It ends like this:
I believe in God, and I believe in human decency. But I firmly believe that any man's finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle - victorious.
Seriously? Are there people out there who believe this garbage to be true, relevant or inspirational? The part that's missing here is that time doesn't stop, and there's no happily-ever-after or The End with a great victory. Nowadays, as Lombardi's battle-man lies expended, agents will pick his pocket, and sportswriters will demand endless repeats of the performance for the sake of "validity." Then, some guy's liable to come long, pull down the hero's pants, and take a picture of his schwanz for Deadspin.
Number 1 has to come back and defend the title, over and over. Unless this great and noble warrior keeps winning, stays in first place forever, maintains a pure and perfect Johnny Champion image, the story arc always points to the same place: loser. With all due respect to Vince Lombardi, losing is not a habit, it's the default state of the universe. There is as much room for second place as there is for first, and a whole lot more room below that. To defeat enemies, expectations and the passage of time in equal measure is impossible, and nobody goes undefeated.
Vince Lombardi died of colon cancer several years after giving that speech.
I'm not a great coach, and as famous former colleagues have rightly pointed out, I never played the game. But I do know about losing. I see it every day after every contest, and I get to see the emotions it brings out: flashes of anger, somber regret, numb acceptance. No team that I've ever covered won at the end in March, and it always ends in a loss. The true alternate subtitle of this website is A Chronicle Of Loss Management. I've lost nearly everything I've amassed since I first began it, and have almost nothing of what I owned when I started.
The most profound type of loss is the inevitable and looming defeat. In basketball, this manifests itself in the wide and unbridgable deficit: down 20 points and sliding backwards. There have been plenty of pop-culture attempts to sell certain sports as "life" and the rest as mere details, but nowhere in Our Game is universal truth more revealed than in the inglorious blowout, when each small advance is met by three or four responses in kind. I've seen it in the struggle of North Florida's 40-point loss at Clemson, and on Cal State Bakersfield's own court. I see it at NJIT and Hartford and Fordham and Maryland-Eastern Shore, teams with wins in the single-digits, Division I's walking dead. I've seen the broadcast switch away to a game more interesting, and I've seen people leave with 10 minutes to go. Watching these games play out, it's a wonder why the team on the losing end doesn't just quit playing altogether. I've seen that happen too.
To know you are overmatched by forces too powerful, and to continue to stand up and fight anyway, that to me is true inspiration, the ultimate measure of a human being. To have lost before the game is over, and to never give up, that is spirit and faith and love of the highest order. With apologies to the late Mr. Lombardi, I firmly believe that any man's most important fulfilled test is that moment when he can stand erect on the field of battle, defeated by superior forces but an honorable survivor, thankful to God just for the opportunity to participate and compete.
A little late on this, but I wanted to thank everybody who took part in the BracketBusters Marathon Chat last Thursday. It lasted eight hours and 13 minutes, and there were no potty breaks and over 1,000 submitted questions. It was longer than the 6:01 we did last year before BracketBusters at a much more famous website, and it easily exceeded this (7:04) as well as the record that preceded it. 12:01 is within reach, but the key here is that this was done on an independent website and wouldn't have been possible without all of you. So again, my humblest gratitude.
Hello, Bally Tuesday
A few of you have asked me what happened to the BracketBusters slam poetry contest. Truth is, there were two that were really good and a handful that were overthought or uninspired, and a bunch that were, well... you know... In retrospect, I think this is a better contest to have in a chat format, where folks can spit lyrics freestyle. It's no place for a pen and a pad; on the streets, you have to think on your feet like the breakdancers do.
So for the first time ever (and most likely the last), we're auctioning off last week's Bally on eBay. No need to be creative or funny, just come with the auction sauce. The listing runs until March 1, so sharpen those elbows.
If you insist on winning a Bally the old-fashioned way, we do have another contest for you this week. It's inspired by one of the running threads of last week's chat, which was ignited when "Tom Petty" showed up and started telling everyone to love him. Bally is, of course, a big Petty fan, so it's only fitting that we go in that direction this week.
Now, this is as high-risk as last week's attempt at contest grandeur, and it is probably destined to be the goofiest Bally contest in site history. What we're asking you to do is write a plea to the Selection Committee as to why your favorite mid-major team should be included in the Big Bracket, but it has to be to the tune of a Tom Petty song. Just a verse and a chorus will do. Please include the name of the song you're aping, because it might not be obvious. And, as always, use The Formâ„¢, you have until Friday, and we'll put it to a vote over the weekend. Go!
Southern: In our game last night, the College of Charleston (13-5) seemed determined to throw away their game at Chattanooga (11-7), jacking ridiculous flat-arced 3's and sleepwalking through the first 17 minutes. But that was just one of those non-deliberate rope-a-dopes you sometimes see: a 13-3 Cougar run ended the half, and Chatty never recovered as CofC ran away with an 86-77 win. But because of Wofford's help in dumping NorDiv second-place squad Western Carolina by 15, the Mocs are division champions for the second consecutive year (although South third-placers CofC would have won that) and were slated to host the conference tourney anyway. Davidson hasn't clinched the SoDiv yet; with three games to go, they're two up on The Citadel, which has won 10 straight.
SWAC: It's still a two-team race in the Swickity, with Alabama State (13-1) and Jackson State (12-2) extending their win streaks over the weekend. ASU is on a seven-game tear and is spreading it around, with four different leading scorers in the past four games; 6-7 Ole Miss transfer Wesley Jones, in just his 10th game for the Hornets, excelled last night with 15 at Alcorn State in a five-point win. Jackson State, 1-10 to start the season, is marginally hotter with eight consecutive victories. There are four games to go for both, and a big one-seed battle coming up on Mar. 5.
U'useless Stat of the Day
It's time to settle a score. We talk incessantly about how crucial limiting turnovers is to a successful mid-major team. Others might say that superior numbers in the rebounding column is much more important. Granted, when going up against power conferences, that's not going to happen that often. But how often do you win games when you win the rebounding battle versus the game of turnover restraint?
There have been 4,428 completed games so far this season between Division I teams. The winner of the glass-off has won 65.4 percent of the time (2,898 games), while the team with fewer turnovers wins 56.7 percent of the time (2,510). This is quite consistent with previous years' results.
Image Â©2008 Zuma Press/Icon SMI
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