Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Winners: Not Just the Ones with the Highest Score

In sports, as in life, there are winners. Sometimes, the winners are identified as "the one with the most points" but that's not all there is to winning.  Some winners are easily predicted, others are a surprise. But this post, while about some folks that happen to be athletes, is not about sports.

A prime example of a winner is the University of Louisville's Men's Basketball team - collectively, as in ONE team, not a dozen players - and I'm not talking about the number of games won, though I could be.

Last year's team was plagued with injuries most of the season. While they were hopeful, not everyone was even sure they'd be in the NCAA tournament until near the end of the season. But made it they did, and each game was a gift. No one, not even the team, thought they'd win more than a game or two. But win they did, one game at a time, until they found themselves in the Final Four!

Another state school, Kentucky, was also there. The difference is that Kentucky had the top players in the country and spent the entire year fully expecting to win the tournament. The Cardinals, thrilled to make the Final Four at all, felt every bit as much the winners since they over-came so many obstacles to achieve that point. It was impossible for both teams to go on because they played each other to get into the Final Game. If Louisville had won, it would have crushed the Wildcat fans and they'd feel cheated and bitter for decades, just as they are now towards Duke, because they lost to them in a close game 20 years ago. (I don't even think it was a final game!) Louisville fans and team would have enjoyed going on, but I didn't hear a single complaint when we lost that game. The Final Four was an amazing achievement for a team that had overcome so much.

How did this happen? There are some good players, the kind that arrive as freshmen and stay to improve each year. But it wasn't just that. The players have an internal drive to excel personally. But the thing that took all these individual drives to success is their TEAM mentality. Members of the team, as well as the coach, motivated each to do his part. Together, they won game by game in last year's tournament, all the way to their slot in the Final Four.

But that was last year - what next? One of the most dangerous risks of success is feeling you're the best around. Sometimes people don't develop the internal drive needed to excel, especially if each individual sees only his own place in the picture.  That hasn't been the case at Louisville at all this year.

All season long, the members of the UL team did a great job. But the most impressive thing to watch wasn't the win-loss record, but the attitude. The players seemed to enjoy playing the game. They took "sharing the ball" to new levels, as they passed it around over and over. Players set up plays for each other and blocked the way in order to allow the other one to perform. On and off the court, the players enjoyed each other. they laugh and smile as they play. It is heartening to watch.

The coach, Rick Pitino, says that every year they set a team goal and also create a theme, a mantra. The goal this year is to make it back to the Final Four, and each step was tackled one at a time. The word for this year's theme? Humility.  They reminded each other, "Don't think about last year's Final Four achievement. This is a whole new year." They used the goal and attitude as their mantra. That same humility was evident in the way they sacrificed when playing, knocking themselves out to get the ball and sharing it with teammates. As the year progressed, the attitude of the team was more and more apparent. My  facebook friends will recall that I've mentioned it many times - they play with heart and love the game.

In the last basketball game, the unthinkable happened. One of the players, Kevin Ware, was hurt - not just a twisted ankle, but a severe injury most often described as "gruesome." His leg, broken in two places, stuck out of the skin 6 inches. Other players were devastated seeing their fallen brother, many falling to their knees. Several started praying. Some broadcasters said they thought shots might have been fired when so many sank to the ground at once. It was the most emotional time I've ever witnessed during a game, with the coach and players all crying, many sobbing, and the gym silent.

Perhaps the award for the "Silliest Interview Questions" should go to the journalist that said,  “You just saw your beloved team mate snap his leg three feet away from you, and then you spent the following minutes sitting on the court sobbing and in tears. Tell us how seeing the injury affected you? What kind of emotional reaction did you have? Can you put into words how this made you feel?” Seriously???? What do YOU think the answer is?

The team captain, Luke Hancock, went and stayed by Kevin and said a prayer for him. Kevin reported that even though in horrible pain, he felt a moment of peace after the prayer. This gave him the strength to speak to his  team of brothers, encouraging them before he left on a stretcher.  This in turn helped the others pull themselves together and somehow manage to play and win the game they dedicated to him. Players held his jersey in the picture of the team with the winning trophy.

The picture shown is of Kevin Ware encouraging his teammates saying, "I'll be okay. You just win the game." He knew how they felt. He knew they were devastated for him and their hearts were not in the game. They are reaching out in support to him,  just as he is to them. It reminds me of a Norman Rockwell painting. It's the picture of real winners, the kind that succeed in life, long after basketball careers end. This is the kind of winning that can only be shown by example, not easily taught.
This same injury could have happened to any team in any game. Yet, I don't think the reaction would've been the same with other teams. The humility encouraged, mixed with the unusual bonding of the players, created just the right combination for the reactions to that injury. It became a human interest story that stretched way beyond the sports arena.  Broadcasters reported a quiet locker room at the half, all thoughts on their friend. After the game, after celebrating making it to the Final Four, players were still emotional and crying, focused on their teammate.

Miraculously, the gym where he was injured is located close to a well known trauma center that specializes in severe cases. He had immediate surgery, and is even expected to recover. It will definitely impact the team as they continue because he is a valuable guard. But if the team doesn't win anymore games, it won't be due to lack of trying or making excuses.They made their original goal in style. Now, time for the next game! Go Cards!

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