By Kirk Mango, author of Becoming a True Champion: Achieving Athletic Excellence from the Inside Out
Making a difference in the loss of perspective and “winning at all costs” attitudes so prevalent at many levels of sports. Come see what “The Athlete’s Experience” is all about!!!
Let me start by stating that I am no expert on basketball. Sure, I can tell you when a team is pressing or when a player may be stronger on their right side when compared to their left…but that is about the extent of it.
I wouldn’t know the difference between a motion offense, zone offense or spread offense. I wouldn’t be able to watch a game and tell you when a team is running a single stack, double stack, or high post…two-three out. And, by the way, I had to look all that up on the internet.
What I do have some expertise in is what it takes on the inside to do well in sports, the work ethic and focus it takes to reach one’s potential, the heart that one must bring to the competitive floor (particularly when tough circumstances occur) if one wants to achieve excellence. Attributes that, when faced with adverse conditions, can carry an athlete and/or team over the threshold…beyond where most can see.
And these characteristics that come from within, they are relative to any sport. Whether in basketball, soccer, tennis, wrestling, volleyball, or whatever, doesn’t really matter. What really matters is what the athlete/team has on the inside; and if they are willing to bring the “right” stuff (what is within them) to the table when it is most needed…especially when difficulties arise and the “game” is on the line.
Such was the case with Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals as they defeated #2 Duke on their way to the NCAA Final Four. Sure Louisville is the #1 seed; however, it was not their ranking that carried them through this game, not from my perspective anyway.
Don’t get me wrong, it was easily noticed (even by a basketball novice like myself) that this is a very well prepared and coached team. From where I sat, their impeccable training really stood out.
They looked physically well-conditioned, remarkably skilled and fundamentally sound, and they never give up…not for an instant. Tenacious is a word that comes to mind when I reflect on their on-court demeanor after watching them play Sunday. Very little went uncontested as Duke faced a well-oiled machine, relentless in their pursuit of the ball on defense, and to score on offense. Quick, fast, and motivated was this team from Louisville, but that only tells a small part of their story in this game.
Not too long into the first half, Kevin Ware jumped off the floor in order to contest a shot by opponent Tyler Thornton right in front of the Louisville bench. However, what happened next…no one was prepared for. Not Pitino, not Ware’s teammates, and especially not Ware himself.
On landing, Ware’s lower right leg buckled, snapping in half as his body collapsed to the floor. It looked almost as if his lower leg had formed a second knee joint between his actual knee and his ankle. He had incurred a devastating injury, a compound fracture of his lower leg. It was a heart wrenching scene to watch as it played out live on television…simply awful.
As a former gymnast, and coach of that sport, I have seen compound fractures before. And let me tell you, they are even worse when witnessed in person. Definitely not something you would wish on anyone, even your enemy. That type of injury, well…it can really turn your stomach.
This was most certainly evident based on the reaction from Ware’s teammates, both on the bench and still on the competitive floor. They grimaced in horror at the site of what had happened to their fallen comrade as players in the game actually fell to the floor in apparent agony.
Emotions ran high as tears filled many an eye…Coach Pitino’s as well. It was difficult for me to watch, even as a spectator from my couch. I have chills just writing about it as I play that scene out in my mind.
In fact, severe circumstances like this can truly derail a team’s focus…put them mentally off track, make it almost impossible to play at or near their potential as they genuinely get sucked into the emotions that surround such a distressing event. Seriously, who would have blamed them…right?
But that is not what happened…not by a long shot. Pitino’s team pushed themselves beyond the emotions…beyond the normal drop in play one might expect. Whether it was Ware’s statement to his teammates to not worry about him and to go out and win the game that helped motivate them, or just the fact that this team sure seems to be made of the “right” stuff, Louisville proceeded to lay the hammer down putting it all out there on the floor.
Playing as if possessed, they left nothing to chance. I was in awe of their performance, of their willingness to make things happen, of their ability to take a situation of adversity and turn it into such an advantage that others would have trouble competing at the same level.
As I said at the beginning of this piece, I don’t know all that much about basketball. However, what I do know is this…I know when a team has heart. And Coach Pitino…your team has plenty to spare, and then some.
If they bring that kind of inner will and determination to the table the rest of the tournament, they will be more than just a force to be reckoned with. They will be a team nearly impossible to beat as they themselves will create their own destiny.