As Michigan students, we all know coach Bo Schembechler’s legendary speech about ‘the team’ from 1983. “No man is more important than the team. No coach is more important than the team. The Team, The Team, The Team…” In fact, this quote is one of the most famous lines in sports history. But is the team actually more important than the coach, the catalyst and leader of that very team? In many instances yes, the team as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but what if I told you there are several circumstances in which the coach is in fact more important than the team?
The objective is the same: shoot the ball into the net. The height of the basket is the same. The number of players on the court is the same. The fundamental rules of the game are the same. But what makes college basketball so different than the NBA? Maybe it’s the difference in the shot clocks or the number of fouls it takes to be disqualified from the game. After attending both a Detroit Pistons game and a Michigan game, I realized It had nothing to do with the petty differences in the rules. Rather it was something much greater than that. I discovered that the true disparity in the two games was between the passion displayed by the college players and fans versus the NBA players and fans.
While at the Detroit Pistons game against the Phoenix Suns on November 19th, I noticed a lack of intensity and focus by several players on each team. At times, some guys even looked completely disinterested in the game altogether. While many people prefer watching the NBA over college ball due to greater athleticism and faster play, I was surprised by the overall determination of the players, or lack thereof. Don’t get me wrong, there were several great dunks and flashy plays throughout the game by big-time players such as Andre Drummond and Goran Dragic, but as a whole the game proved very lackluster. I understand that it was a less than meaningful regular season game, of which there are 82 games, but for all the money the players make they should be playing with full intensity for all 48 minutes.
By now, most of us have heard of 13-year-old pitching phenom Mo’ne Davis, who caught the world’s attention at last summer’s little league world series by delivering a show-stopping complete game shutout. Against all boys. What made her performance so fascinating, in my eyes, is that she expected to pitch that well, even though she was pitching against all boys at the highest level of little league baseball. We have seen Michelle Wie compete in men’s golf tournaments, but rarely do we see a performance by a female while competing against men quite like Mo’ne Davis’s.
Unless your name is Samantha Gordon. Because in that case, outcompeting and running all over boys is just another day at the office. If you have never heard of Sam Gordon before, I suggest you get used to hearing her name a lot because her football highlights are going to be shown on SportsCenter for years to come. Not to mention a picture of her on the cover of Wheaties. And she’s only 11 years old, for crying out loud. (If I recall correctly, I was concerned about not spilling any Wheaties; not being on the flipping cover of it). For those that don’t know about Samantha or her unbelievable football talent, her highlights first went viral about two years ago and resurfaced about few weeks ago. And just like Mo’ne, Samantha was playing with all boys.
But why don’t we see women compete in men’s sports more often? And why can’t women’s sports gain the popularity that comes with men’s athletics?
“I rather live my life, doing what I love, than not live at all. If that means dying prematurely, then so be it.”
This is the motto through which my uncle lives, or should I say lived, his life; a motto that all daredevils and adrenaline junkies would agree with; a motto that John Stuart Mill would think is completely acceptable as long as the daredevil does not harm others in the process.
But what if the individual’s actions start to hurt their loved ones? Then does it become their right to intervene? I will leave that answer up to you as I go through the miraculous story of my uncle Michael.
In his book Homo Ludens, translated to “Playing Man”, Johann Huizinga examines the idea and importance of play in modern society. He characterizes the idea of play as being:
While many people, including myself, believe that Huizinga’s definition of play is very accurate, I feel that one component of his description brings up a very controversial question: Is play actually non-competitive? According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, “competitive” is defined as, “of or relating to a situation in which people or groups are trying to win a contest or be more successful than others.” In the eyes of Eric Dunning, play is indeed non-competitive. In his book The Dynamics of Modern Sport: Notes on Achievement-Striving and the Social Significance of Sport, he argues that as competitiveness increases, so does seriousness and that as competitiveness decreases, the fun increases. Typically, we associate play as something we do during leisure time or for fun. However, that in no way, shape, or form means that play cannot be both fun AND competitive.
I have been playing both competitive and pick-up sports for as long as I can remember. Whether it was youth soccer, basketball, or football or just playing a game of pick-up basketball at the park with my friends, sports in general were always my number one source for leisure. However, for some reason I always enjoyed the league games more. As I look back on it, the competitive nature of the organized league games made them that much more exciting than the unorganized, often chaotic games in the park with my friends.
Take basketball for example. The intensity of the league games was just that much higher because there was a title to be named the best team on the line, as opposed to pick-up games where play often turned into joking and messing around. As an athlete, specifically someone who thrives off competitiveness, I always had more fun when there was pressure on the line, even though the games were more serious. My competitive nature only fueled me for the next level: high school sports.
In high school, I played four years of varsity tennis. While there were many days that I didn’t feel like practicing on the court or running several miles, the competitiveness of high school tennis in Florida always drove me to improve my game. And even though my body hated me at the end of the workouts, the joy of winning made it that much more fun and worth it in the end. Anyone who has played a high school sport knows that the competitiveness increases as the state tournament progresses. For me, nothing compared to playing in the state quarterfinals. The competition between my opponent and me pushed me to play that much better. And even though I lost the match, there was nothing more FUN than playing at the highest level of high school tennis.
I have made it clear that as the level of play increases, so does competitiveness. In other words, high school sports are more competitive than youth sports, collegiate sports are more competitive than high school sports, and so on. But does this mean that as an athlete improves at a sport, the fun in the sport decreases? When watching college and professional sports, I find it hard to believe that the athletes are not enjoying themselves when playing. While the practices may be brutal and the grind of the season may seem long, there is nothing sweeter or more enjoyable than holding up the championship trophy at the end of the season. And even if that doesn’t happen, which it doesn’t for every team except one, the pure love of the game is often enough. And besides, you can’t tell me Dennis Norfleet isn’t having fun while dancing to “Atomic Dog” before he takes a punt return. I am aware that there a group of college and pro athletes who play their sport just because they are talented and that they will get something out of it such as a scholarship or monetary worth, but I believe that most athletes are playing for the love of the game as well. Sports in general are supposed to be fun, and the competitiveness of the sport shouldn’t change that.
Michael Jordan, six time NBA champion and one of the most competitive athletes to ever live, once said “Just play. Have fun. Enjoy the game.” This quote comes from a man who put more hours on the practice court than anyone, a man who wanted to win more than anyone, a man who played his best basketball when the pressure was highest. But just because he was that competitive, does not mean he didn’t have more fun than everyone else while doing it. Some people live for competition, and Michael Jordan and myself are a few of those people.
While Dunning and Huizinga wrote that play is non-competitive, I believe they are only speaking for a part of the population. Many people do not have an inner-drive for competition, and that is completely acceptable. But for us athletes, play is synonymous with competition for all intensive purposes. What is a basketball game or tennis match without a little competitive fire?
Game on anybody?
As a die-hard Chicago Bulls fan, this NBA season couldn’t come fast enough. The re-return of Derrick Rose, along with the additions of Pau Gasol, Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirtoic, and others, was enough to electrify the entire city on opening night.
While watching the Bulls thrash the New York Knicks on Wednesday night, I could not resist thinking about how special this season could be IF Derrick Rose and company could stay healthy. However, anyone who knows anything about basketball knows that health and Derrick Rose don’t go very well together.