Saturday, February 18, 2006


Premature celebration

Yesterday, while enjoying a dinner of pizza, pub chips and beer at my smoke-free local tavern, I caught a segment on ESPN showing clips of "The Top Ten Premature Celebrations." The sound was off, so I didn't get to hear the setup commentary, but I gather now that it was a reference to Lindsey Jacobellis losing her sure thing gold medal in "snowboardcross." With the race in the bag, Jacobellis fell on the last jump because she tried to pull "a Method" -- grabbing the back of her board in midair. It was pure styling. Basically, she started her touchdown dance on the five yard line and fumbled away the ball before she got into the end zone.

Oh well. The easy "lesson" of course is "don't celebrate until you've locked down the win." But maybe life is a bit more complicated. Maybe that level of arrogance -- what the ancient Greeks called hubris -- is a necessary part of competing at that level. Maybe people who, like me, are always looking over their shoulder at the Evil Eye, and warding it off by touching wood or admitting our weaknesses, don't win gold medals.

By sheer coincidence, the Times chose today -- the same day it reported on Jacobellis's tumble on page 1 -- to run an op-ed point-counterpoint on Kobe Bryant by two NBA all-time greats. Kareem Abdul Jabbar says that Kobe's recent 81-point game is actually more impressive, in today's NBA, than Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game in 1962. Oscar Robertson argues that Kobe Bryant's apparent greatness is undermined by a selfish style of play that fails to "make those around [him] better."

Oscar Robertson was a bit before my time, so I don't know whether his reputation was "team player." Let's assume that it was. But if you were a betting person, and all you knew about Robertson is that he was a 12-time NBA all star, which statement would you bet was more likely "closer to the truth":
a) he is a genuinely humble person who always "knocks on wood" and wards off the Evil Eye by playing down his self confidence


b) he was supremely confident in his own abilities, believed he could control a game, walked into a restaurant or a party like he owned the place, and was quite arrogant by the standards of ordinary people?
Come on -- it's "b" and you know it. Top athletes are arrogant. Obviously, there's a range -- some are more arrogant than others. Yes, many of them have troubled psychologies in which their arrogance is compensating for inner feelings of inadequacy. Yes, they're not all assholes. But it's undeniable that we celebrate them for a level greatness that no one knows better than themselves, it goes to their heads, and they celebrate themselves. That's the way it is.

What's so fascinating to me about Robertson's op-ed, is what an old story it is. How many retired, aging athletes criticize current players for being too selfish and arrogant? How many of them mellow out and fall all over themselves to give helpful advice to younger players who they wouldn't have even looked at back in their own playing days. Ricky Henderson, Mr. Selfish who wouldn't mentor a teammate if his life depended on it, is now giving base-stealing tips at the Mets spring training. There are probably hundreds of cases of this.

It's the beautiful irony of age. It humbles athletes, inexorably and mercilessly. The decline is inevitable, and what's so crazy is that at their playing prime, they seem constitutionally incapable of forseeing it.

Talk about premature celebration.

I hated the way all the news people kept hounding her about it. She was obviously upset, and had (I would think) learned her lesson. How many times do they need to ask, "What were you thinking?", and "How did it feel?"
I felt bad for her ... but obviously most people learned from her mistake!
"Maybe that level of arrogance -- what the ancient Greeks called hubris -- is a necessary part of competing at that level."

Don't you believe it. SPorts history is full of examples of quiet, classy workers with drive, who can still win. Ryan Sandberg, Ted Ligety, etc, etc. Branch Rickey chose Jackie Robinson specifically for his calm, non-inflammatory approach, right?

This "only the cocky can win" phenomena is more a product of our recent marketing age. They may be more exciting personalities who can draw crowds and sell more, but arrogance is not a necessary personality component to winning.

That said, it was Jacobellis' race. She should compete in her own style, and I'd give her props for doing the exact same thing in her next race. I bet next time she would land the win.
Sorry -- it's Ryne Sandberg.
Anonymous: I agree with you that prima donna Kobe Bryant is part of the Lakers' marketing plan.

But I'm not limiting my point to athletes whose public persona is "prima donna" or asshole. Do you think that top level athletes who can come across as low key in front of the cameras are genuinely humble or self-deprecating people? Have you ever actually met Ryne Sandberg, Ted Ligety or Jackie Robinson? I haven't, but from the biographical accounts I've read, Jackie Robinson, while not a prima donna, was very tightly wound and very self confident.
jrdfft = juniored fit: an adult style that is made in kid sizes.
"Have you ever actually met Ryne Sandberg, Ted Ligety or Jackie Robinson?"

Ouch. You got me there. No, I have not me these athletes directly. (Have you?) But are only people who play in those social circles allowed to opine?

"Do you think that top level athletes who can come across as low key in front of the cameras are genuinely humble or self-deprecating people?"

From the many media interviews, as well as what I've read, I stand by my conviction that Sandberg (and I'm adding Walter Payton in here too now) are quiet men, surely confident in their own athletic skills, but humble as men. They don't fit this definition:

(Hubris or hybris (Greek ‛′Υβρις) referred in Ancient Greece to a reckless and violent disregard for the personal space of another person resulting in some kind of social degradation for the victim. According to its popular modern definition hubris is exaggerated pride or self-confidence often resulting in fatal retribution.)

I don't buy that the attitudes towards their games that they displayed in interviews was just a facade. I was guessing Robinson was the same, or else had remarkable self-control not to respond with ego. But I'll drop him and stick with the above two just to make a point-- that level of arrogance is not required to win. (I think you may be mixing up causation and correlation)

Probably more athletes today have that cocky attitude, and are catered to by their schools and sports programs from a young age. ("Sweetness" played at a small Missippi college and only took up football as a h.s. junior, so that may help you understand him better.)

Remember Daedalus who built wings of wax and feathers for himself and his son Icarus? Together they flew away, but Icarus flew too close to the sun and fell to his death when the wax melted. Daedalus escaped to Sicily.

Some atheletes are like Icarus (Jacobellis on Friday); some like Daedalus (Payton). Some careers have moments of both. Humble athletes are out there competing at all levels and winning too; they just might not get as much press as others.

Sorry -- that "me" should be "met" in the first paragraph.

And it's Mississippi.
Should be spelled "athletes" in the last graph.
I met a professional wrestler in a bar, once. *HE* was very nice and a gentle man (and also self-deprecating). But he was not a superstar by any means, and only on the local cable TV station, or something.

The famous musicians I have met, on the other hand (and there have been a significant number of these), have been arrogant pricks, even when trying to pick me up and so drunk that the conversation resets itself after 15 minutes.

Famous writers have a wide range of attitudes. Some are arrogant and some are quite self-deprecating (and I've met my share of these, as well).

ebbgql (ehb-GEL-kwil): The moment of inhalation and pause *just* before you sneeze.
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