Sunday, 3 August 2014

That Losing Feeling

By Shane Thomas

While history will likely remember the past year in basketball as the year LeBron James returned home to Cleveland, the 2013/14 NBA season could also be the one in which the sky fell in on the Miami Heat - James' former team.
In June, Miami went to their 4th successive NBA Finals to take on the San Antonio Spurs in a rematch of the previous season's Finals. Miami were the defending champions, having overcome the Spurs 4-3 in a classic series in 2012/13 - one that included arguably the biggest 3-point shot in NBA history in Game 6.

As prognostications abounded leading into the 2014 Finals, I was intrigued by the thoughts of journalists, Dave Zirin and Sekou Smith. It was not the fact that they predicted the Heat would triumph, but a substantial part of their reasoning for this prediction was that both men felt that Miami had "forgotten how to lose."

At the time, it felt like pretty sound analysis. They had won the last two NBA Championships, and had a truly epochal player in James[1].

I'm pondering penning something in the future on my overall theories of sport. One of which is "sometimes the only thing worse than losing is winning". The Spurs carried out this theory, as in a display of scintillating revenge, they dismantled Miami 4-1 to dethrone the team in South Beach[2].

It was the Heat's first loss in a playoff series for 3 years. Eleven straight playoff victories. It stands to reason that after a run like that, any team would forget how to lose. And it's that mindset that can ultimately prove so damaging. Once you've been reacquainted with defeat, how do you recover?

This is an area of sport where factors like tactics, athleticism and natural talent are superseded by one's character and temperament.

Being an Arsenal fan, I've seen this at close quarters. Arsene Wenger assembled a side that looked invincible. And for 49 Premier League games, they were. The only side of the modern era to go an entire title campaign unbeaten. They attained such an aura of intimidation that their opponents were beaten before the contest even began.

This is a paradigm that has been witnessed among teams and individuals such as Mike Tyson, Martina Navratilova, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, as well as the West Indies and Australian cricket teams of the 1980's and 1990's.

The one thing that links them all is certainty. Certainty that victory is inevitable. It's a certainty not only shared by the victor, but by the vanquished. But all those aforementioned names have been knocked from their pedestal eventually. When such certainty has been shattered, the foundation of habitual victories goes with it.

There are examples, such as Pete Sampras or Manchester United, when the once almighty finds a way to keep winning, but often it can lead to a substantial period of soul-searching. Having to recalibrate one's state of mind on the sporting field can be more onerous than any of the physical demands of sport.

Losing is the acquaintance that no athlete ever wants to meet. But it's the one that every athlete has to learn to live with. It's something only the true greats manage to do.


- Best to pay attention to this one now, as it's certain to be swamped by the return of the Premier League in a fortnight's time. West Ham's Ravel Morrison was charged with assault of his ex-partner, and her mother. He was denied bail, and will be remanded in custody until August 7th.

While I won't comment on the case, my reason for mentioning the story is to highlight sport's reprehensible unwillingness to tackle the issue of VAW (violence against women).

We only need to look at the NFL's recent shameful handling of Ray Rice assaulting his wife, or at the way incidents of domestic violence increase during England matches, to see that while sport isn't the sole proponent of patriarchal conduct in the world, it's sorely lacking in trying to ensure VAW is regarded as unacceptable[3].

Sadly, it's no accident that the more permissible the attitude towards VAW in sport is often commensurate with the talent of the athlete in question[4]. As with Rice, there will likely be talk of rehabilitating Morrison, but in this context, rehabilitation is nothing more than getting them to perform on the pitch. That's all well and good, but that doesn't fix the problem, nor does it help those on the receiving end of domestic violence.

I'm willing to believe a person can change for the better. I wouldn't want to see Morrison sent into professional exile. But rehabilitation has to begin with the man first. Only then, should we focus on the athlete.

[1] - Journalist, Simon Barnes once said, "I ask of athletes, 'has he Redgrave?'. It was a line that evoked Sir Steve Redgrave, opining that the man has a quality that is only found in the finest of athletes. Trust me, LeBron has Redgrave.

[2] - For the record, I'd picked the Spurs to win the series in six or seven games. But it wasn't a prediction I was wholly confident about.

[3] - While never found guilty, Premier League players, Raheem Sterling and Andy Carroll have both been charged with assaulting former partners in the past.

[4] - Wigan had little problem sacking Marlon King after he was jailed for breaking a woman's nose.

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