“You must never be satisfied with losing. You must get angry, terribly angry, about losing. But the mark of the good loser is that he takes his anger out on himself and not his victorious opponents or on his teammates.” — Dick Nixon
“I wouldn’t give a hoot in Hell for any man who lost, and laughed.” — George Patton
I write about sports in the City of Champions during a period of dynastic success the likes of which haven’t been seen on this Earth since the Mongols swept through the Eurasian brackets in the 13th century. So therefore, it’s probably hard to believe this, but I know a thing or two about losing.
I mean no one — not even in Boston — wins all the time. With the exceptions of Rocky Marciano, UConn women’s basketball and Hulk Hogan, everybody loses sometimes.
As a lifelong fan of Boston sports, I’ve seen losing done in every conceivable way. I’ve witnessed enough kick-in-the-groin, history-changing losses for countless Dan Shaughnessy columns to write themselves. (And judging by how they came out, many have.) I’ve watched two different Bruins teams decades apart blow two different Game 7s with too-many-men-on-the-ice penalties, a mental error that can be prevented with the ability to count to six. I’ve seen soul-destroying losses at the hands of Buckys, Mookies, Magics, Boonies and Plaxicos … more funny namers than you’ll see on an entire season of MTV’s “Teen Mom.”
And yes, while this will come as a shock to those of you who think a sports columnist's life is all success, fame, riches and bra clasps coming undone with a snap of the fingers, in my athletic career I too have tasted failure. I’ve had my fill … my share of losing. I’ve been on a freshman football team that lost every game. Last-place CYO basketball teams. I’ve been in enough bad foursomes at Florida scramble tournaments to win a Tiger Woods trophy case worth of Horse’s Ass trophies. In Weymouth Farm League, I played third base and I wanted to be thought of as the Human Vacuum, like the greatest that ever played: Brooks Robinson. And I was. Except they called Brooks that because he picked everything up. And they called me the Human Vacuum because … well, because I sucked.
The point is, while it’s painfully obvious I’m a winner in life, when it comes to sports, I’m well-versed in the art of losing.
And if there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that nothing reveals the character of a man, a team or a fan base like how they deal with losing. It’s like a reverse peephole into the Kramer’s apartment of your soul. And the last week or so has provided us with a virtual Kellogg’s variety pack of different people handling the ol’ Agony of Defeat in different ways.
Example No. 1: LeBron James. After seven NBA seasons, one trip to the NBA finals and zero championships for King James, you would have thought he would’ve gotten good at this whole “handling defeat” thing. But apparently he’s still perfecting his craft. Last season, after losing in the Eastern Conference finals, he accepted the loss graciously. If by “graciously” you mean that right after the final buzzer he yelled “Hey, everybody! Look over there!!!” then ran the other way, crashed through an alarmed exit door, ran to his Cadillac Escalade and sped home while banjo getaway music played.
So after this year’s annual playoff exit, LeBron tried the opposite approach. Having lost a series in which he couldn’t have disappeared faster if he’d had a Harry Potter invisibility cloak or parquet-floor camouflage fatigues, James proceeded to hug every member of the C’s like he was Richard Dawson and a team of Playboy Playmates was playing the "Feud." Poor Tony Allen got the full brunt of King James affection, which may have even included a tongue in his ear. He looked traumatized the way you do when someone’s greyhound is sniffing at your crotch.
But it was in his postgame comments that the man called King pulled the robes back and showed us what he’s really all about. “I make no excuses,” he said. “I’m not using the elbow as an excuse. It limited me some.” Perfect. The old, “I’m not making excuses, but if you wouldn’t mind making them for me I’d appreciate it” excuse. And something for every general manager with the cap space to think about before deciding to offer him an Obamacare bill-sized contract in a couple of months.
Example No. 2: Russell Hantz. Russell has won the last two seasons of “Survivor.” Just ask him. Because he doesn’t let a little thing like the fact that someone else came in first and cashed the million-dollar check stop him from saying he has. To give him credit where it’s due, he is a master manipulator of people. He’s like Machiavelli, Scott Boras and Billy Mays rolled into one big, fat, southern redneck package. Russell could sell vodka and Affliction T-shirts to Mitt Romney. He threatened, coerced, cajoled and deceived people at every turn and pulled their puppet strings to get them to do precisely what he wanted.
But if you know how “Survivor” works (and I know 90 percent of you are saying you don’t, but I refuse to believe CBS has done 20 seasons of a show that only I and My Sweet Irish Rose actually are watching, so someone here is lying), those same people whom Russell lied to in order to get to the final three get to decide who wins. And to his utter amazement, people to whom you swear on your children’s lives you’ll take to the finals with you just before you vote them off are in no mood to hand you a million bucks. Therefore, he got zero votes and went home empty-handed.
And he handled it with all the dignity you’d expect of someone who’d risk his kids dying from bad karma in order to win a game show. He whined and bitched and said how unfair it is and how the public should vote on who wins. In other words, to change the way things had been done the previous 19 seasons because he’s too evil to win under the rules as they’re written. Al Davis has been saying the same thing since the Tuck Rule, and how’s that worked out for him?
Example No. 3: The Bruins. Say this about the B’s: They didn’t half-ass it. When they blew the Philly series, they went all out. This was a gigantic mega-disaster of the kind normally seen in Roland Emmerich movies. It was a choke job on a global scale.
And almost to a person, they took it rather well. They took the high road, expressed their disappointment, gave the Flyers credit for how well they played and, in general, handled the whole collapse with dignity and class. Which was exactly what the situation did NOT call for.
This was the ultimate punctuation mark on 38 years of utter futility for a once-proud franchise. The only appropriate response was angry, ranting, hysterical self-loathing spewing out of every member of the team like oil from the Louisiana seabed. And yet they weren’t even as upset as a fat hillbilly who lost on a reality show. I would’ve preferred to see them sitting on the bench like Wade Boggs in 1986 sobbing uncontrollably or Larry Bird in his Indiana State jersey hiding his shame under a towel. Or at the very least someone yelling “RatFARTS!!!” to the heavens rather than hear Milan Lucic quietly muttering something about “complacency.”
See, there’s a time for handling things with class and a calm demeanor, and this was definitely not it. Possibly my favorite all time Boston Loses story (that is, if I have one) involves the 1966-67 Celtics. They were coming off eight straight NBA championships but this year they lost in the Eastern finals to Wilt Chamberlain’s 76ers. The last time the Celts hadn’t won it all was 1958, when Bill Russell was out injured. So, including his pro, college and Olympic careers, Russell hadn’t walked off the court at the end of the season a loser since his sophomore year at the University of San Francisco.
So after the loss to Philly, the C’s sat at their lockers listening to the wild party going on in the locker room next door. And after a few minutes of silence Russell spoke up. “OK, fellas. Let’s go over and congratulate the winners.” Which they did, to incredulous looks of gratitude from the Sixers players.
I love that story for one reason: because it demonstrates what losing AND winning are all about at the same time. The moral of the story is that the best team is the one that wins, period. Not who you think the better team is. Not who had a convenient excuse like a bad elbow or his unpopularity with his fellow castaways or complacency. It’s not about bad breaks or tough luck or bad calls. Your opinion doesn’t count. You determine who is best by playing the friggin' games and that’s it. In that series in ’67, Philadelphia was better and the Celtics were man enough to admit it. Just as the Patriots went from being the “Best Team in NFL History” to “The Second Best Team on the Field” in the span of a couple of minutes in the Super Bowl That Shall Remain Nameless. And if memory serves, they all admitted as such just as Russell’s Celtics had.
And that’s the difference between those two teams and the LeBrons, the Russells and the Bruins' Epic Choke team. They knew what it takes to win. And sometimes you have to be a champion to know how to lose.