Monday, June 07, 2010

The Slipper Didn't Fit

This is my attempt at literary therapy to get over the men's college basketball championship game. Even though it happened 2 months ago, I've struggled to process my feelings verbally. It was a crushing defeat, for me, for Butler, for underdogs everywhere, for anyone who ever felt they weren't good enough, for the American farmer struggling to make ends meet, for scruffy orphans of the Natty Gann variety and, most of all, for the universal human sense of justice.

The day after the game I went to the health club and shot hoops for an hour, trying to reverse the outcome. But no amount of swished jumpers or sweet reverse dunks on the 8-foot basket could change the score, even if they did bring me some peace. Duke's crime against nature hadn't diminished my game, just my soul, along with the souls of every other person on earth who believes that dreams really do come true.

I thought of recording my own rendition of "One Shining Moment" and setting it to a montage of Duke's most painful defeats. There would be the No. 1-ranked Dukies losing in the championship game to Louisville in '86, a heavily-favored Duke team losing to UConn in '99 and, the coup de grace, Duke getting shellacked by UNLV in '90. The last game remains the Duke Hater's finest hour. It still holds the record for biggest blowout in a championship game (3o points). UNLV's run'n'gun style combined with the elevation at Denver and Bobby Hurley's flu (which resulted in him losing his lunch at halftime) made for a fabulous evening for the Duke Hater in all of us.

There's a sports journalism convention of featuring the champion in stories about the championship game and rightly so. But to me it often seems like more of a favor to the champs than the readers. The champs' stories aren't always the most compelling, especially when it comes to the Final Four. It may be the impulse to cozy up to the powerful, a trait that infects every segment of journalism. Or it may be our culture's worship of winners and the Social Darwinism encapsulated in the popular phrase "survival of the fittest" (a telling deviation from Darwin's original "survival of the fit"). Yes, all hail Mighty Duke, Slayer of Hope, Destroyer of Dreams!

Right on cue, that week's Sports Illustrated delivered its paean to the champions, Duke, with only a brief, cursory salute to Butler, the vanquished underdog whose story is about a million times more interesting, even in defeat. I think the real reason SI didn't focus on Butler is because it would've pissed off Duke. Mike Krzyzewski (Duke's legendary "Coach K") might never give SI an interview again or let them interview anyone else associated with the program. Or maybe they focus on the champions because they've always done it that way and they can't even imagine doing it any other way. I have a rather low opinion of mainstream journalists.

Is my despair at Butler's loss a symptom of my collaboration in the dominant narrative, the belief that the victor is always the hero of the story? After all, what does it matter that Butler came up two points short of the national championship when their performance was so inspired and inspiring? The point is not that they lost but that they played beautifully and would've been deserving champions had they won. The loss shouldn't diminish their achievement. After two months, I think I'm ready to start believing that.

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