“You can watch them all day and never know why…”
-The Mighty Machines Theme Song
I’ve spent the last 43 hours and 12 minutes with a song from my son’s Thomas the Tank Engine video in my head. The song is called “Accidents Can Happen” and, needless to say, it’s not very good. They tell you about a lot of things before you have a child, but they never seem to mention the debilitating effects of children’s music on the functioning of your mind. There was a point in my life where I was able to have a normal flow of thought. That time is over. In less than four years, my mind has turned into a Ringling Brothers sideshow act.
There was a song on a Blues Clues DVD called “Bebop A”. My 2 year old daughter spent the entire car trip from New Jersey to Atlanta screaming “BEBOP A…HEY, HEY…BEBOP A…HEY HEY!!!” Once or twice is very cute. Heck, 50 or 60 times isn’t bad. But after a while, the stuff gets into your blood. You can’t go anywhere or do anything without thinking of it. It’s like graffiti on your cerebral cortex. You zone out for a minute and there it is. Over and over. When you lay down and close your eyes in a 30 dollar a night Motel 6 somewhere in Southern Virginia and you see Steve from Blues Clues staring at you with that smug, goofy look shouting “BEBOP A!!!!” you really get how far gone you are.
There are three stages of CMOBD (Children’s Music on the Brain Disorder). The first is a general acceptance of the song. You hear the Clifford the Big Red Dog theme and you don’t think much about it. You go about your life pretty much unhindered. Occasionally, you notice that you are humming it, but you are nothing more than slightly amused that you remember it. This is the denial stage. Maybe you’ve been hooked before, but you think…not this time.
The second stage is where you start to lose control. It’s when the song starts to consume you. It runs through your mind constantly. Sometimes it’s just the chorus, sometimes it’s a just a phrase, but it starts to take over your life. You are driving a car. Suddenly, you realize you are headed in the wrong direction on a highway. You realize you were singing the awful Aaron Neville theme to The Little People. Something about how Aaron says “little people and we’ll always be friends”. Perfect. You are lost in it.
You are an air traffic controller and someone asks you ”What runway should we land that DC-10 on?” You reply with a blank stare. You were thinking about the music at the beginning of Dinosaur Train. Hundreds of lives hang in the balance and you are thinking about dear old Mrs. Pteranodon. You have lost all orientation. You are a CMOBD zombie headed with a one-way ticket to destruction.
Then, there is the third stage. Complete withdrawal. Blinding rage. Utter confusion. You are angry at the world because they can’t hear what you hear. You don’t care whether they understand you or not. You know that there is no thought that is more important than the Teletubbies theme. You close your eyes and you begin to understand that the smiling baby inside of the sun is looking at you and only you. You crave Tubby toast. You start to feel angry that the Tubbies have spilled things again and forced the Noo-Noo into more backbreaking labor. You can no longer distinguish the world from your own personal CMOBD purgatory.
Many recover, but a relapse is never far away. A CMOBD sufferer need only here a few notes and the whole vicious cycle starts again. The confusion. The hysteria. The shame. There is no known cure for CMOBD but we as parents must be vigilant. I have spent three and a half long years suffering from repeated bouts of CMOBD, but I have not lost hope. I know that a brighter tomorrow is just around the corner. Won’t you be, won’t you be, won’t you be…my neighbor.
Dear Paul, Ringo, John and The Other Guy,
As a concerned parent, I was driving my children to swimming lessons yesterday and your song “All You Need Is Love” came on the radio. I had never really listened to the words in this song, but as a concerned parent, I decided to try to listen to the words that my children were hearing. What I heard was truly shocking! I find the message in this song to be deeply troubling and, as a concerned parent, I beg you to do what you can to stop radio stations from playing this song.
I’m sure that you thought that you were just writing another silly love song and, I mean, what’s wrong with that? But, if you really think about the message in the song, I think you’ll come to understand why it disturbed me so much. Imagine for a second, that an impressionable child heard this song and took it seriously. Clearly, human beings need a good deal more than love to survive. They need food, shelter, clothes (preferably from a decent designer), and air. What if an impressionable child heard this song and decided to stop eating completely? His concerned parents would beg him to eat but he would not. What if, as he widdled away to the size of a twig, slowly starving to death and his concerned parents, now grief-stricken, asked him why he was doing this and he replied “Because the Beatles told me all I need is love”? Could you live with your selves?
What if, even worse, he just decided to stop breathing? He could die within a moment or two giving the concerned parents only a few seconds to react. What if his friends saw him stop breathing and thought that it was the “cool” thing to do? What if hundreds, thousands of children stopped breathing just to not be “square”? It could be an epidemic of epidemic proportions! Children, falling over dead in classrooms across America, with the words “All You Need Is Love” passing though their blue lips as they meet their maker. Is that what you want?
Music has a major effect on the ideas of young people. Do you know what Jeffrey Dahmer, Adolf Hitler, and Ted Bundy have in common? As young men, they all listened to music. And look what suffering they caused!
I demand that you stop allowing this song to be played on radio stations everywhere. I also ask that you never fill our children’s souls with such blasphemous, anti-social ideas by playing this live. Until you agree to stop this madness, I and a group of like-minded concerned parents, plan to boycott love. We will not express love in words or actions. We even plan on starting all tennis games at 15 so that no person ever has love.
A Concerned Parent
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz is a confirmed lunatic. That’s the only explanation for theodicy, the inane, laughable idea that he came up with to rationally prove that his version of God was real and all-powerful. Leibniz, for those of you who have lives and don’t spend your afternoons reading philosophical nonsense, came up with the idea that our world must be “the best of all possible words”. I believe that his “best of all possible worlds” hypothesis is in a category by itself in the pantheon of truly moronic thoughts. If I had to argue what the dumbest idea in history is, this is my vote. Now, I’m sure some of you have an crazy uncles who have theories that link vampires and global warming or think that the phone company had John F Kennedy killed, but I am speaking of ideas that have been taken seriously by a good number of people. Leibniz was and is a highly respected thinker. As a matter of fact, he is one of the most significant and respected minds of his era. They named a cookie after him in Germany for God sakes.
Granted, many great philosophers have had dumb ideas. Descartes had some pretty blockheaded ones and he was certainly no slouch. The guy ran around dissecting corpses because he believed that the soul was physically located somewhere inside of their skulls. God’s very own set of rabbit ears, I guess. Leibniz, however, took intellectual goofiness to new heights. Voltaire used the better part of his book Candide ridiculing Leibniz by portraying him as the doltish Dr. Pangloss. No matter what horrible bit of suffering affected his view that “all is for the best in this best of all worlds”. Voltaire clearly and succinctly put this idea out of its misery, but for an idea this horrendous, there are simply not enough nails for the coffin.
Leibniz begins this monstrous theory with the idea that God is perfect. This is a completely unprovable idea. How the heck would Leibniz know if God is perfect? Has he seen another world that God has created and compared the two? Has he evaluated each an every atom in the universe and found no mistakes? Who is he to even think he can judge the work of the creator of the universe? How does he even know for certain if there is a God? If Leibniz wants to say that he has faith that this is true, that’s fine with me. He can have any spiritual belief he wants. But that is not what he’s saying. He’s trying to make the assertion that his belief can be rationally proven. He gets no leeway here because he’s trying to smuggle his spiritual beliefs into the world of rationality.
Just so we can get to the silliness that comes next, let’s take him at his word about the God being perfect thing. This perfect God had a choice of every possible universe. He looked at each, evaluated it and came up with the perfect one. Why you ask? Because he’s perfect and is incapable of choosing a less than perfect world. If he’s perfect and has the choice of any possible universe, what makes Leibniz so certain he would choose the perfect one? Leibniz is making the mistake of trying to assume what the thinking of a perfect being would be. Again, how would Leibniz know what God would choose? Maybe God wanted to experiment to see what an imperfect world would look like if it played out for a few hundred thousand years. Maybe God just picked at random. I don’t know what happened and neither does Leibniz.
So, he’s 0 for 2 so far with two strikeouts, but he isn’t going to stop there. Now, he’s going to take his perfectly unprovable God who picked this unproveably perfect universe and pull the proverbial rug out from under him. See…cuz…this perfect being, right, he only had a choice of lots of imperfect worlds and he chose the best one he could find. So basically, God, the perfect being, is unable to go shopping at say, Macy’s, and instead has to pick potential universes out of the 9-dollar pile at TJ Maxx. He couldn’t pick a universe where people lived for ever and there was no suffering, no perception of suffering, no cancer, no starvation, no bubonic plague, an infinite amount of space, resources and joy. All of those were out of stock or on back order. He had a choice between lots of different universes that happened to have all sorts of design flaws. No new Mercedes for you God! Its either the 1998 used Saturn with no working radio or heat or the 1975 light blue Pinto with the flaming engine.
Leibniz rests a highly questionable conclusion on top of a mountain of conjecture. Does Leibniz mean to say that God should get credit for the good things in the universe but bare no responsibility for the bad? If you only have control of some facets of the universe, then how can you be called omnipotent? You could drive an 18-wheel cement truck through the holes in this argument and still have room for the University of Michigan football team and the cast of a Robert Altman film.
The only thing that Leibniz’ argument actually proves is that Leibniz believes in God. I have no call to hassle the man if he simply wants to make the point that he doesn’t know why, he just believes in God. I have a good deal of respect for people of faith, because they are able to believe in something they can’t exactly explain but feel deeply. An argument for the existence of God based on belief or faith can be a powerful and beautiful thing. Arguing for God based on quasi-rational statements that are filled with highly speculative “proof” is at best slightly insane and at worst highly disingenuous.
Paolo Sorrentino‘s 2008 film Il Divo might well be the best movie about politics I have ever seen. After reading a great write-up of the film in Dr. Matthew Ashton’s Political Blog and seeing the Roger Ebert‘s it’s “Nixon meets the Godfather” blurb I knew this was one I had to get my hands on. The minute the opening credits flashed on my computer screen I was hooked. The film, quite literally, takes you by the throat and never lets go. It is the story of Guilio Andreotti, Italy’s seven-time Prime Minister, might be the most polarizing Italian politician since Benito Mussolini. Andreotti has earned more nicknames than Apollo Creed and is known as everything from “The Hunchback”, to “Beelzebub”, to “The Divine Julius”, to “The Black Pope”. Andreotti, who once said, ”aside from the Punic Wars, which I was too young for, I have been blamed for everything,” has long been alleged to have significant Mafia ties and has been linked to all forms of malfeasance up to and including assassinations. He has the Clintonian ability to survive every political disaster and emerge with his fingernails firmly lodged in the cliff of political power. Andreotti is a walking advertisement for the ability of an intelligent but thoroughly unprincipled politician to overcome all obstacles in his quest for continued political power.
Il Divo is two hours of mind-blowing scene after mind-blowing scene. Sorrentino has a style that borrows heavily from some of the great masters of the craft, yet he manages to take those ideas in a unique and bold new direction. The film starts with a startling opening sequence, a modern, bass-driven update of the baptism scene from The Godfather. It is followed soon after by a slow motion introduction to Andreotti’s gang that feels like something out of a Leone Western. Then, there is the drum laden post victory celebration dance number featuring one of the most awe-inspiring tracking shots since Kalatazov’s pool scene in “I Am Cuba“. And all that is just in the first twenty minutes. Watching this film is like wandering through the Louvre; everywhere you look there is another classic moment of artistic expression.
About two-thirds of the way through the film, there is an absolutely jaw-dropping soliloquy where Andreotti (played to perfection by Toni Servillo) explains his internal contradictions and motivations. This two-minute section is the film’s crowning achievement. The short speech is an appalling vision of what it means to wield power. It is a statement of pure, unbridled cynicism. In it, Andreotti seems to justify every possible act of iniquity that he has committed as being in the public interest. What is really horrifying about this scene is how convincing his words are. Is the price of power the complete betrayal of all human values? Is this what a person must do to rule? Andreotti’s charisma almost makes you believe that anything is justified in the name of power.
Another element that contributes to the majestic feel of this film is the pulsing, resounding soundtrack. The film’s composer, Teho Teardo, provides one of the most compelling scores in recent memory. He seems to have a preternatural ability to frame the tone and character of a moment with blasts of inspired auditory brilliance. If Sorrentino’s camera is the film’s heart and soul, Teardo’s music is the blood that pumps through its veins.
Il Divo succeeds both as a sprawling masterpiece of epic dimension and a simple allegory of human frailty and weakness. The film never allows you to hate Andreotti but instead presents him as an acutely flawed leader with a deteriorated moral compass that seems to always point south. Sorrentino allows the audience to see Andreotti as not only a powerful man, but also a prisoner of his own power. It is a horrible cage he lives in and we are its bars.
Few films capture the spirit of modern American paranoia better than William Friedkin‘s 2006 film “Bug“. It is a bleak, disturbing picture of two people consumed by sadness and connected through a shared feeling of conspiratorial persecution. Peter Evans (Michael Shannon) is a drifter who wanders into the life of Agnes White (Ashley Judd). They quickly find themselves embroiled in one of the more unhealthy relationships in recent film history. Agnes has barely survived a horrifically abusive marriage and the kidnapping of her young son. Peter has just finished a stretch some sort of shadowy psychiatric hospital where, depending on who you believe, he was either a severely disturbed escaped patient or a survivor of a series of Operation MK-Ultra meets The Manchurian Candidate type experiments. Together, they become the proverbial Bogey and Bacall of the Black Helicopter set. It would be easy to dismiss their ideas as the demented imaginings of two troubled people, but the narrative they construct about the meaning of lives and their relationship to the world is a powerful statement about modern mass hysteria.
Peter gets the paranoia party started by insisting that a mysterious THEY have put bugs in his blood. He is deeply committed to this idea, to the point of yanking some of his own teeth out in order to remove the egg sacs that are in his mouth. Quickly, things spiral out of control. They cover the walls of the room in tin foil, buy up half the bug zappers in Oklahoma and embark on a wild spree of shared psychosis and Dionysian self destruction that eventually annihilates them. The logic that gets them to this point is nothing short of amazing. They come to believe that everything that is happening to them is somehow connected to a greater plan. Peter connects his own experience to sixty years of back room schemes created by a mysterious unnamed cabal bent on completely enslaving the entire human race. In an amazing monologue, Peter manages to link the bugs he believes to be carrying to The People’s Temple in Jonestown, the Bilderberg Group and their secret meetings from 1954 until the present and even Timothy McVeigh (who was apparently the other lab rat who was given these bugs). Agnes soon links her own experiences to his and comes to realize that her abusive ex-husband and missing child are also products of the exact same treachery. It is the ”everything happens for a reason” philosophy writ larger than life. All of these random, non-intersecting parts mean something. Each person’s life is a giant puzzle where all the pieces fit. It’s just a matter of collecting them all together and putting them in the correct places and then it will all make sense. This is the sort of thinking that Kurt Vonnegut lay bare in his book “The Sirens of Titan“. In that book, the entire arc of human history has been measured and calibrated in order create a replacement part for an alien space ship which will one day have the important task of placing a “greeting” message on a far away planet. We all have a purpose and that purpose happens to be completely absurd.
“Bug” takes this theme and runs wild with it. The characters have created meaning for their lives out of a mess of half-baked theories. Peter and Agnes really believe that this crazy composite of events was created for them. They see themselves as the protagonists of human history. They don’t simply pick one story as their narrative; they pick every single one that they have ever heard. The world really does revolve around them.
As I was watching this film I began to wonder if this was an accurate portrayal of the condition of the paranoia that exists in the minds of most Americans? Since I have never been in the minds of most Americans, I am not really able to say for sure. However, things are getting pretty weird out here in the real world and I have to wonder whether some of this isn’t the product of the same ideas that drove Peter and Agnes into mental oblivion. After all, there are a good number of people who will tell you that our President was born in Kenya, the National Security Council masterminded the 9/11 attacks, or the Federal Reserve killed John F. Kennedy. I’m not really interested in debating the validity of the ideas, I personally don’t believe them, but if you do that is really fine with me. I have a few pretty bizarre ideas about human history myself. What I find interesting about these theories is that how they illustrate the Woodward and Bernstein fantasy that some people are living. We are the investigators of some great cosmic puzzle whose pieces are scattered willy-nilly through a series of cultural and political markers. We are Sherlock Holmes turning our collective magnifying glass on everything. Media events are not things unto themselves; they are clues that connect us all to a larger picture.
Marshall McLuhan argued in his book “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man” that modern technology had “extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace”. In “Bug”, Peter and Agnes disappear as individuals and instead try to take on the narrative of the human race as their new identity. McLuhan saw this loss of identity as a dangerous thing. He ominously noted that “the loss of individual and personal meaning via the electronic media ensures a corresponding and reciprocal violence from those so deprived of their identities; for violence, whether spiritual or physical, is a quest for identity and the meaningful” (Canadian Forum, 1976) This quote is “Bug” in a nutshell. Two beings entirely destroyed (first as individuals, next as physical beings) by the electric connection to the rest of the world. If violence is a necessary and eventual component of this search for identity then maybe we do have a great deal to be paranoid of.
A popular expression that tends to get used when people make asinine comments to a member of the media is “What were you thinking?” It is a common retort used to illustrate when someone has said something so utterly without merit that the reporter doesn’t feel the urge to mount a counter reply. Recently, Luke Scott, a muscle-headed, mouth-breathing Baltimore Oriole baseball player, who clearly cut many a history class in order to spend an additional hour in his school’s Chik Fil-A sponsored batting cage, made some monumentally dumb off the cuff remark about Barack Obama not being an American citizen. This sort of remark has faded a bit from its mid-2009 health care hysteria peak, but you still hear the occasional Manchurian candidate nonsense rearing its jingoistic head. I don’t expect Luke Scott to say anything worth listening to. What passes for discourse between athletes and reporters is the general ever flowing stream of “I’m going to go out there and do the best I can and, God willing, my teammates and I will get a win” type truisms that are taught to these folks in six hour cram session classes run by slime bucket agents who are looking to make their commodities more marketable to the slab of the American public that loves to hear the same thing over and over again.
I really could care less what Luke Scott has to say. What annoyed me was the glib, dismissive way that Yahoo writer Steve Henson rejected his remark in his recent free agency winners and losers column. Obviously Steve, we know what he was thinking. He was very clear about that in his statement. He was thinking that Obama was born in another country and, therefore, is an “illegitimate” President. The question seems to not be geared to mock what he was thinking, but his inability to know that when a reporter is around it is your job as an athlete to spout nothing but inoffensive, meaningless, Hallmark card style platitudes. Henson was really asking, “How could he not know that saying this would make him look ignorant? Doesn’t he know that it is his station in life to carry on this endless tradition of banal player interviews that we so love and revere? Why didn’t he just say something like “Obama will be fine if he gives this whole being born in the United States thing 110 percent”?
One of the unnamed right of passage exams that an athlete goes through on the way to householdnamedom is the “Can you say absolutely nothing of substance every time you are within 50 feet of a microphone” test. This is why listening to most athletes being interviewed is a highly painful endeavor. It’s as if the interviewer and the player a conspiring to cover up any human characteristics the athlete could possibly have. Occasionally, we are treated to colorful dimwits like Charles Barkley or Curt Schilling who say embarrassing “what the average guy is thinking” sorts of things, but mostly it’s just more of the “It was my childhood dream” sort of garbage. The Barkley/Schilling type stuff is awful for other reasons, but at least when I listen to it I know that their is a human being in there instead of a piece of equipment that runs a 4.3 40.
There is an upside to athletes feeling they have the ability to express themselves with some degree of freedom. For one, I now know that Luke Scott, once only known to me as the guy I might pick instead of Edwin Encarnacion in the 14th round of my AL keeper league draft, is a raving lunatic. Luke Scott has gone from 27 homeruns and 72 RBIs to a real human with definable features. I can like him or dislike him based on his ideas. Maybe there are a few Bill “Spaceman” Lee, Dock Ellis or Jim Bouton types who really have something unique to say. There is a real loss sports fans experience when athletes do not speak their minds. It is the loss of the chance to meet these players as human beings with real ideas and emotions. The ideas they have may be shameful, obnoxious, or ill informed but they remind us that we are living in a world of humans who feel, think and dream just like we do.
I ain’t feelin’ no sweet mystery of life nonsense this evening. I have a miserable cold. My throat hurts, I’m tired and I feel like I fought a 50-foot killer sea urchin all day. I have nothing to add to your life but complaints; I am going to blog anyway. Being sick is awful.
The other night I tried to get rid of this thing by sucking down some Robitussin. How on earth the FDA approved this substance is beyond me. The stuff never makes me feel better, but it does always fill me with angst and white-hot rage. I took the recommended dosage and went to bed. Immediately I fell into hours of hellish dreaming. I had one dream where everything was normal except everyone I saw had tremendous goiters protruding from their necks. Just an average Saturday, I went to the supermarket….goiters everywhere…..I went to the bank….GOITERS….I got home….GOITERS on everyone. Nobody noticed except me. It was basically what would have happened if Ken Kesey wrote a Twilight Zone episode. You have been transported to a strange land where everything is the same, except everyone has goiters.
I woke up from that one sweating. It was 2:58 in the morning and I was staring at the ceiling. Being a basketball coach, I am familiar with this drill. Usually I lay there muttering to myself about how I should have gone to a 1-3-1 zone in the second half of a game from 5 years ago. This evening was different. I kept thinking about orange juice. For some reason, the idea of oranges being squeezed and put in bottles was making me insanely angry. Why do they do it? Who came up with the idea? Usually, I can distance myself from this sort of thing and laugh a bit, but I was full on committed to the grave injustice that was orange juice. Then, I started thinking about raisins. Ridiculous little things! Absurd!
I bolted upright in bed. My wife is familiar with these sorts of moments and has learned to not engage me at 3 AM. Nothing I say makes any sense at that time, but with a head full of Robitussin I was bound to start yelling at her because she didn’t know the two Senators from the state of Nebraska. I started pacing around the room looking for something to read. I found the most boring thing I could lay my hands; a nightmarish volume I found in the quarter bin years back on how the commodities market works. The plan was to bore the demons out of my body. The next thing I know I am sitting out in my car waiting for the thing to heat up with the first Suffocation album, a wonderful piece of music known as “Effigy of the Forgotten”, blaring as loud as my blown out Saturn speakers could blast it. (A side note…I am convinced that there cannot be a more bizarre vision then watching a 35 year old father of two sitting alone in a beat up car at 3 AM on a Monday morning blaring death metal and singing along at the top of his lungs)
Suddenly, I’m in a Dunkin’ Donuts. The guy behind the counter has that “please don’t hassle me” look that any rational person would have working a nightshift would have when a wild-eyed lunatic walked in with malice in his eyes.
“Boston Creme donut,” I mumbled.
Wrong answer. ”What do you mean!!!!? How are you out!!!! What are you talking about? This is a donut shop, man!”
“We don’t put those out until 4 AM.”
“Really?!?!!? really?!??!!? REALLY!!!!!!”
The poor guy was clearly feeling under the counter for the shotgun at that point.
“We have old fashions.”
“NO! NO! NO!!!!”
“Ehhhhhh. Give me two.”
I slunked away a defeated man. I sat there for an hour reading the same three pages on soybean futures over and over not understanding a word. The book might as well have been upside down. Every five minutes or so I got up and looked at the section of the rack where Boston Cream donuts were usually kept and there was nothing. I didn’t even want one anymore, I just felt like there should be some sense of completion, some end to this absurd journey.
I went home. I lay there for a while longer staring at the ceiling fan. It got light. It goes on.
My basketball team got beat by 31 points last night and I am still alive. It was a long, cold night, we got the bus back at nearly 10 o’clock and we committed 15 fouls in the first quarter, which must be a record in the state of Georgia. I have a vague fear that people watching might think that the team is losing because I am a bad coach and I have no clue what I am doing. I worry that there is something I am missing, some vital piece of information that could allow me to dramatically change our fortunes. Losing games has the painful side effect of bringing to the surface dormant feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. These are hard things to avoid. Yet, in spite of this, I really don’t feel that bad about the whole thing. Losing is not something I am proud of, but it is something that I have become less afraid of over the years. What I am about to say is heretical in the world of coaching and probably will elicit eye rolls from folks who worship at the altar of the “Church of the Winner”, but losing is really not all that bad. I’ll even go one step further into the nether reaches of coaching apostasy…I had a great time at the game last night and my players did as well! How is this possible?
A good deal of the culture of sport is built on the mistaken belief that winning actually means something beyond the basic fact that Team A scored more points that Team B. I have often been told that character wins basketball games. This is absurd. If a team has character and scores less points than the other team, they still lose. You could put together a team of sociopathic axe murderers and put them against a team of people who have run into burning buildings to save the lives of children and if the axe murderers put the ball in the basket more often they are going to win.
I have been told that winning is a product of hard work and determination. Another patently ridiculous statement. I have coached players who were extraordinarily committed to every aspect of the game but cannot keep up with disinterested natural athletes. Working hard may make you a better player but it can only close the gap so much. Hard work and determination are great character traits to have and will serve one well in life, but once the players step on the court it can only carry you so far. In order to get at the heart of how insane this idea is imagine for a second two basketball teams. One is a highly talented team who wins many of their games, some by embarrassingly high totals, and another is a minimally talented team who gets beat soundly on a regular basis. Which team really shows the most determination? The team that often loses has to deal with the hopelessness and sadness that losing can create. Sometimes people are angry with them because they have not performed well. Sometimes they feel embarrassed or ashamed because they lost. Yet they keep coming back game after game. During the 2007-08 season, the New Jersey Institute of Technology Highlanders men’s basketball team went 0-29. Can you imagine how much determination they must have shown to keep playing and working hard day after day?
The all time weakest sports cliché is the one where people think winning is a product of discipline. Bobby Bowden perfectly summed up the problem with this statement when he was asked if discipline was the key to winning. He responded by saying “if it was, Army and Navy would be playing for the National Championship every year.”
Maybe all of these positive attributes can be put together to create a culture of winning. They may help you, but when your team walks out of the tunnel and the other team has a significant advantage “height, speed, natural strength, etc.” there is only so much you can do. We don’t remember the story of David and Goliath because it is a regular occurrence; we remember it because it is the exception to the rule.
I once heard a football coach asked what he liked most about his star running back. He replied, “The kid makes me look like I know what I am doing.” I have stolen that quote and used it repeatedly over the years because I believe that it is instructive in understanding what I actually do for four months of the year. I try to teach skills and technique, but some players are able to get it and some are not. The great players often pick things up after a few repetitions and the ones with less ability may spend their entire time in high school working on one skill that another player could pick up in a half hour. Those with a set of attributes that gear them for success in the game will make them me seem as if I am a brilliant coach, those without the winning attributes will make me appear like I don’t have a clue about how to teach the game. If winning is the goal and my self worth as a coach is derived from it how on earth can I feel anything but anger towards those who don’t perform well and favor those who are successful?
Last night, while we were driving down to the game the girls on my team had a blast. They sang along to pop songs on the radio, they told hysterical jokes, wore funny hats and laughed uncontrollably. We showed up at the gym and were baffled by the bizarre conditions. The locker room looked vaguely like something out of the Saw films. The gym had no heat in it and it was a balmy 40 degrees at game time. We got on the court and the other team scored the first 17 points. None of the players put their head down and no one was angry. Our center hit a jump shot to get us on the board and the bench went crazy. My point guard picked up her third foul in the first quarter because of a bit of ill-advised gambling on my part. She came over to ask me to keep her in the game and I informed her that she had three fouls. She looked over at me and said “But I get five!” We laughed about that one the whole bus ride home. Another girl on the team asked me if she could coach the next game. I told her she couldn’t and she looked at me without a hint of irony and said, “Coach…let me shine!” Great line! We laughed about that for a while, too. We stopped for gas and snacks and two of the girls bought matching day-glow hats that made them look like a pack of tropical Skittles. Sitting on the bench with me was a young man who is the assistant coach of the boy’s team. He played for me when he was in high school and he loves the game so much he has decided to try coaching. He is a great person and is going to be a tremendous coach one day. I have been lucky enough to get a chance to coach with several athletes that played for me in high school and it is an unbelievably wonderful feeling.
I guess I should have been acting dejected after the game. Smiling while your team is losing seems like an act of betrayal, but it isn’t. It is an act of love for the game and your players and an act appreciation and reverence for how much fun a game can be. I have never been one for oft repeated bromides about how winning isn’t what’s important, but I have to wonder what type of person I would be to be surrounded by all that joy and life while sadly brooding about not winning a basketball game. Think of what I could have missed.
Vince Lombardi once said, “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.” Well Vince, I don’t want to teach my players to be good losers, I want them to be the best losers that ever stepped on the court. I want them to experience elation every time they play basketball. I want them to look back with an incurable fondness and veneration for every moment of the season. If I could choose one thing to teach every player who puts on a uniform it’s to love the game completely without reserve and to play like that everyday.