“If you ain’t first, you’re last.”
It’s a funny Will Ferrell quote from Talladega Nights.
The line is also a succinct assertion about our society and, specifically, our society’s relationship with sports.
You can find this attitude everywhere: from the after-school park district basketball court to the Staples Center.
Playing to win all the marbles is not a mentality, it’s a framework in which all sports actions are judged.
When Dave (nbaroundtable) shared his thoughts on the recent Vlade Radmanovic-for-Adam Morrison trade, I was struck by the home run-or-nothing sentiment.
…the Bobcats just keep cutting off their options and with each solid role player that they acquire they also remove themselves from the running for a high lottery pick (they win more games).
His argument is certainly very logical and I agree with it to an extent. But permeating that thought is this value statement: NBA champions or bust.
Suns GM Steve Kerr’s actions over the last couple years are indicative of this core value. Kerr brought in Shaquille O’Neal, forced Mike D’Antoni out because an offensive-minded coach doesn’t win championships and has now replaced Terry Porter because, I guess, a defense-oriented coach can’t win a championship.
Robert Sarver, the Suns owner, is obviously complicit in all of Kerr’s actions but the sentiment is still “win or else,” regardless of who is driving it.
I hear the same call-to-action from Chicago Bulls fans around town. “We have Derrick Rose! Let’s just start over!” Everyone I talk to thinks they should literally trade away the entire roster and “rebuild” around Derrick Rose.
I’ve lived in Chicago since 1998 and the Bulls have won 312 regular season games. They’ve lost 529 out of 841. That’s a .37 winning percentage. I’m sure there are junior college kids next door that have a higher BAC. As much as I would love a seventh trophy, I wouldn’t mind seeing them at least field a competitive (ie. non-lottery) team for more than three consecutive years.
So if you don’t win everything, what constitutes success?
Consider that the NBA has 30 teams in the league. Only one of them will “succeed” each season. Twenty-nine other teams will effectively be “worthless” to the vast majority of their stakeholders.
Think about the San Antonio Spurs and how successful they have been this decade. Not only have they won several NBA championships, the Spurs own one of the top win-loss records in the four major American sports. The organization is a blue-print for success. Their success is so heralded that a few business meetings I’ve gone to have referenced their winning culture — and I work in the healthcare industry, far from the hardwood.
Now, keep the Spurs’ winning percentage and their culture but extract their four championships since 1999. Would a typical sports fan consider these theoretical Spurs a “successful franchise?”
My guess is a resounding no.
I’m not against “reach for the stars.” The NBA championship should still be the primary goal. But should we place the value of a team solely on whether they get a ring at the end of every season? Is “first or last” the lesson we want to impart in our sports?