By Andy Weddington
Friday, 01 April 2011
"Those things which are precious are saved only by sacrifice."
David Kenyon Webster (1922-1961)
"Unbeknownst to most historians, Einstein started down the road of professional basketball before an ankle injury diverted him to science."
And who knew young Albert was 'relativity' athletic and talented as he didn't play high school nor college ball. Though lore has it he had the complete game; a 44 inch gravity-defying vertical leap, an out-of-this-universe silky smooth sweet jumper out to 25 feet--either hand, and a likewise ambidextrous lethal slam dunk known as the "floating tomahawk," how fortuitous for the world his ankle injury. For it wasn't all that long after switching from dribbling on hardwoods to chalking theoretical physics on blackboards that he proposed his famous E equals MC squared formula. Of course his startling theory, scribbled out that notable March while working Xs and Os with a basketball coach, led head-scatching brainiac colleagues (most of whom knew nothing and cared less about James Naismith's invention) to conclude their pal, Albert, had gone completely mad. Hence the original coining of the term 'March Madness.' Oh, his marvelous hairdo came much later in life--leading the way for players to sport tribute afros in the late 60s and early 70s. Who knew?!
It's the time of year when teams of youth play a simple game in a single loss elimination tournament based on the objective of who can put the ball--also called the "orange" and the "rock" and who knows what else--in the basket for more points than the other team during a prescribed period of time. And do so while abiding by rules enforced by neutral judges, known as referees and slangly as "zebras," armed with whistle(s) and authority to call the game.
And the game(s)--these days looking more like a tattoo exposition--is played in an arena stuffed with fans and before an enormous television audience--all eating or drinking something on the Health Czar's chopping block. God Bless America--homeland of the free because of the brave.
Anyway, the intent is for the players--the teams, not the officials, to decide the game's outcome. Most of the time it works out that way. Rarely it does not. But zebras are people too and prone to mistake. So what.
Remember, it's a basketball game.
Sometimes players, coaches, and fans get carried away and refer to games as a "battle" or "going to war." They forget to preface their comment with, "metaphorically speaking."
Remember, it's a basketball game.
Sometimes fans wear school colors, paint their faces and bodies, behave most peculiarly, fly school banners and flags on cars and trucks, in homes and yards, and post comments on Internet social-networking sites professing die-hard allegiance to their team.
Remember, it's a basketball game.
So let's be clear. Basketball, at any level--from neighborhood dirt courts to polished hardwoods, is a game.
Basketball is not a battle.
Basketball is not going to war.
Remember, basketball is a game. A game invented in 1891. It's come a long way. But war--it was invented at the dawn of man. It, too, has come a long, long way. Basketball may one day fall out of favor. That is not likely to happen with war.
For the better part of the month of March much of America has been preoccupied--"obsessed" might be more accurate--with their NCAA Division I basketball tournament brackets. Even the president filled one out--finding time between sundry national and international crises and catastrophes, monitoring, massaging, and gaming his Middle East brackets, and squeezing in golf games; his brackets not doing so well.
Just like every year past, there's been plenty of upsets in the tournament--Davids slaying Goliaths. All good. Brackets shattered. Money lost. Tears spilled. And hearts broken.
But remember, it's a basketball game.
Friends have written and phoned asking how my brackets are doing. Just fine. Just fine. My response to all is the same--"I fill my brackets out when the tournament is over. That way I get every single game exactly right. No upsets. No surprises. Besides, as a general rule I do not bet--especially on sports. And I never bet against another man's trick. Ever."
Remember, it's a basketball game.
Yes, I watch a good bit of the tournament and confess to having a preferred team or two--growing up sandwiched between UNC, Duke, N.C. State, and Wake Forest, ACC basketball is in my blood. But, not to any sort of fanatical allegiance or, for that matter, really giving a damn whether or not they win or lose. Frankly, I pay more attention to the team's character and sportsmanship and either impressed or not by their coaching--their leadership. For players reflect coaching. Players reflect leadership. And, most importantly and sometimes disappointing, players reflect the void of leadership.
Remember, it's a basketball game. Nothing more.
I watch to marvel at the athleticism--the defiance of gravity. How is it some people are able to effortlessly jump so high and, at times, appear to fly. Amazing!
And though I momentarily marvel at not so much talent but raw physical prowess of youth on the basketball court, it's another cohort of youth that's on my mind and believe we all should take pause and be thinking about. They, a special team--recruited from coast to coast, deserve to be listed, by name, on brackets in each of the four locker rooms for the remainder of the tournament. For it is these youth, and some not so young, who have made the ultimate sacrifice so peers can play basketball, and so peers can watch and cheer for peers playing basketball.
At this writing, during March 2011, 30 military personnel wearing a uniform of the United States armed forces gave their lives in Afghanistan defending America.
You can undoubtedly name the starting five of your favorite college basketball team. And likely the sixth and seventh man. And probably some of their past teams; particularly the stars. How wonderful.
But can you name one of our 30 deceased warriors? Just one. Why not?
So here are my "brackets." The names--our country's true stars--that should be familiar to everyone in America.
By rank, name, branch of service, home town, and two-digit date of death.
Specialist Jason M. Weaver, U.S. Army, Anaheim, CA 03
Corporal Jordan R. Stanton, USMC, Santa Margarita, CA 04
Staff Sergeant Mark C. Wells, U.S. Army, San Jose, CA 05
Staff Sergeant Eric S. Trueblood, U.S. Army, Alameda, CA 10
Private First Class Arturo E. Rodriguez, U.S. Army, Bellflower, CA 12
Private First Class Rudy A. Acosta, U.S. Army, Canyon Country, CA 19
Private First Class Dustin J. Feldhaus, U.S. Army, Glendale, AZ 29
Specialist Jameson L. Lindskog, U.S. Army, Pleasanton, CA 29
Specialist Andrew P. Wade, U.S. Army, Antioch, IL 09
Corporal Ian M. Muller, USMC, Danville, VT 11
Private First Class Andrew M. Harper, U.S. Army, Maidsville, WV 11
Sergeant First Class Daehan Park, U.S. Army, Watertown, CT 12
Staff Sergeant James M. Malachowski, USMC, Westminster, MD 20
Staff Sergeant Joshua S. Gire, U.S. Army, Chillicothe, OH 22
Staff Sergeant Frank E. Adamski III, U.S. Army, Moosup, CT 29
Specialist Dennis C. Poulin, U.S. Army, Cumberland, RI 31
Corporal Loren M. Buffalo, U.S. Army, Mountain Pine, AR 09
Staff Sergeant Travis M. Tompkins, U.S. Army, Lawton, OK 16
Lance Corporal Christopher S. Meis, USMC, Bennett, CO 17
Staff Sergeant Mecolus C. McDaniel, U.S. Army, Fort Hood, TX 19
Corporal Donald R. Mickler, Jr., U.S. Army, Bucyrus, OH 19
Specialist Justin D. Ross, U.S. Army, Green Bay, WI 26
Staff Sergeant Bryan A. Burgess, U.S. Army, Cleburne, TX 29
Senior Airman Nicholas J. Alden, U.S. Air Force, Williamston, SC 02
Private First Class Kalin C. Johnson, U.S. Army, Lexington, SC 08
Master Sergeant Jamal H. Bowers, U.S. Army, Raleigh, NC 18
Private First Class Michael C. Mahr, U.S. Army, Homosassa, FL 22
Petty Officer First Class Vincent A. Filpi III, U.S. Navy, Fort Walton Beach, FL 23
Sergeant First Class Ofren Arrechaga, U.S. Army, Hialeah, FL 29
Private Jeremy P. Faulkner, U.S. Army, Griffin, GA 29
It's a tough call but with sea service bias--my "Starting Five," the four Marines and Sailor. "Sixth man"--a fellow Tarheel, Master Sergeant Bowers, from Raleigh, NC.
Remember, all of these brave souls volunteered for service during time of war well knowing they'd likely go to war. A real battle. They did.
Some probably played basketball. Some surely had plans of going to college after completing their service. Some may have been gifted enough to play basketball at the collegiate level. And some, though thousands of miles from home, may have been keeping track of the tournament--never to know how their brackets faired. But you can bet they all knew the difference between war and game.
They, 'rough men doing violence on our behalf,' sacrificed so we all can, as George Orwell observed, 'sleep peaceably in our beds at night.' And play and watch basketball; which we will do on Saturday and again on Monday evening.
These folks are the real "All-Americans"! The least we can do is know their names and recognize their sacrifice and heroism. Their families are grieving, and will for life.
Grieving--crying--over losing a basketball game makes no sense.
Noted some teams sport small U.S. flags on their jerseys. Good. Maybe it reminds them about the price others paid and are paying for their privilege to play basketball.
Maybe this Commentary will somehow find its way into the hands of the four head coaches that will lead their teams on Saturday, and two of the four on Monday. Maybe they will post "March Madness" brackets in their team's locker room(s) and point out to their players these true warriors (and many before them) selflessly sacrificed for them, and now is there time to thank them--by playing their hearts out, and finishing the game with absolutely nothing left. Then leave the floor, win or lose, with heads up dignity.
Were I a coach, that's what I'd do. That's exactly what I'd do.
And remind my players, "Play hard--with class. Play together. Have fun. But remember, it's only a basketball game."
1. Since the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) the following "March Madness" casualties pertain: 2002 (9); 2003 (12); 2004 (3); 2005 (6); 2006 (7); 2007 (5); 2008 (8); 2009 (13); 2010 (26); 2011 (30 and counting). And let's not forget the dozens and dozens of wounded, nor those in harm's way this moment on duty in Afghanistan, and across the globe.
2. David Kenyon Webster, author of today's opening quote, was a U.S. soldier during World War II, journalist and author. He jumped on D-Day participating in the Battle of Normandy and Operation Market Garden. He earned the Combat Infantryman and Parachutist Badges. And among other decorations, he was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart with one oak leaf cluster. He was discharged from the Army as Private First Class. His interest in sharks led to his death--in 1961, having one book about the deep blue's predators to his credit, he was lost at sea off the coast of Santa Monica, CA. Webster might have played and enjoyed watching basketball, I don't know.
3. Gary Larson authored today's opening sentence--it's from one of his hilarious 'The Far Side' cartoons. And yes, as some may have wondered and suspected, the paragraph following is my fiction; every word of it. April Fools! How else could Larson and Einstein--geniuses in their own right--possibly end up in the same dialogue?!
1. Butler University--small school and modest but successful basketball program led by a young man who looks more like an "Einstein" than a hoops coach, and a scrappy team of players overlooked by big-time schools, that finds ways to win; to beat giants. Coach Brad Stevens knows Xs and Os and statistical analysis; maybe even theoretical physics. His victims, from the so-so to the distinguished alike, would not disagree. Butler University--an example of something right with college athletics. Butler University's men's basketball team--might they play two more games and win them both. We'll see. Plenty of readers are shaking their heads and mumbling, "No chance. No chance in hell." Ha! But wait, there's been plenty of upsets and never forget the Wolfpack of N.C. State, led by Coach Jim Valvano (1946-1993), stunning the high-flying 'Phi Slama Jama' of the University of Houston Cougars in the 1983 championship game. Sports "experts" said hell would freeze over before N.C. State won. The "Cardiac Pack's" smart, inspired, and junkyard dog play with a dunk at the buzzer win--54 to 52, is considered one the greatest upsets in NCAA basketball history. And hell did not freeze over. That game was played on Monday, 04 April--same day as this year's championship game being played in, of all places, Houston. Coach Valvano was in his mid-30's and head coach for a few seasons at N.C. State. He led a talented team of over-achievers against superior teams over and over to win the championship. Coach Stevens is in his mid-30's and head coach for a few seasons at Butler University. He leads a team of talented over-achievers and has, up to now, been putting away superior teams over and over. Karma? Is a championship in the cards for Butler? Hmm! If betting, think carefully.
Einstein concocted a famous equation. Maybe Coach Stevens scribbles one on his team's locker room blackboard--a different 'theory of relativity' (and one, for all intents and purposes, practiced in the military)--right under the "March Madness" brackets:
V = (C + P) x TW
Victory = (Coach + Players) x TeamWork
Beyond Coach Valvano, Coach Stevens and his intellectual, calm style is reminiscent of another great NCAA Division 1 leader and winner, UCLA's John Wooden (1910-2010)--a Naval officer during World War II and who later offered much to the game and, more importantly, left an enriching mark on the lives of his players. A couple of Coach Wooden's thoughts are germane to today's Comment:
"Winning takes talent, to repeat takes character." (Butler is repeating their Final Four appearance.)
"What you are as a person is far more important that what you are as a basketball player." (Butler players appear to understand--it stems from their coach.)
But it matters not if Butler University's basketball team wins or loses come Saturday (and maybe Monday), they are winners...
"Remember, it's a basketball game."
2. And finally, the below link came my way while applying the final coat of 'spit and polish' to today's words. Regardless of political persuasion, a more uplifting way to conclude does not come to mind. Our Stars and Stripes--Forever May She Wave. Semper Fidelis! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1d4opG2s0o