When it comes to sports, I am loyal to a fault.
In a previous post, I talked about the delusional level of optimism that my brothers and I must channel at times to continue to cheer for UVA football. My brother emailed me recently to ask if I wanted to renew our season tickets–which I did. Even though we only won 2 whole games last season.
I captain several tennis leagues every year. And every year, I invite all of the players from the previous season back to the team unless they’ve done something I consider egregious–like not show up for a match. Or not respond to my emails. Or cause drama on or off the court. I can tolerate a player with a losing record, but I won’t tolerate a person who disrespects me or other people.
There are many captains who have the opposite recruiting strategy: they will tolerate a strong but less likeable player but get rid of a nice person who is a weak player. Because the point of forming a team is to win, after all. I get that. And I’ve had winning teams. But I’ll admit, I sometimes choose loyalty over winning.
I’ve had friends leave my team and play for other captains because of this. I can’t really fault them for wanting to be on a winning team. But I am grateful for the friends who continue to play for me, because it makes our team feel more like a family. In fact, the tennis family that I featured in a previous post are all long-standing members of my mixed doubles team.
This team happens to be my winnningest team, too. So loyalty does pay off sometimes.
This year, for the first time in 38 years, UVA won the ACC tournament in basketball. And for the first time ever, we were both the regular season and tournament champions. And we did it without any superstar athletes. Without anyone noticing, really. Because when you win with defense, it’s not flashy. So we didn’t get as much press as some of the high profile teams in our conference.
I was there when they won the tournament, and what impressed me the most about them–other than how awesome they are–is how humble they are. No one sticking their faces in the camera talking smack about how they proved their haters wrong. Not even any “we’re number one” stuff. No ego at all. Just a joyful celebration of their accomplishment as a team. As a basketball family.
It takes faith at every level to be loyal to a losing team. In the post-game interview, Tony Bennett thanked God for getting his team through the low times. Bennett had faith that a team without a single McDonald’s All-American player could accomplish great things. The players had faith that defense and unselfish play could win championships. And UVA fans had faith that someday, our basketball team could return to the glory days of the Ralph Sampson era.
So this post is dedicated to the 2014 ACC regular season and tournament champs. See you in Texas at the Final Four!
This is the most vivid post I’ve ever read from your blog. I almost feel guilty about saying this, b/c topics such as family, grief, & coping occupy a much higher place than sports do in life. Still, at the risk of sounding like a Dick’s Sporting Goods commercial, sports do matter. They matter because they provide a layer of separation while allowing us to exercise a deep part of who we are. Because “it’s just sports,” I believe we aren’t under as much pressure to behave or react a certain way which frees us to behave naturally. For this reason, it’s easier for this post about sports to speak to me so deeply.
It only seems fitting that UVa should enjoy success in a high revenue sport. It’s not that UVa doesn’t enjoy success in collegiate sports—I talked to our brother today & he cited 20 national titles attributed to our various athletic programs. The knock on us over the last decade has been our inability to succeed at the high revenue sports—football & basketball. The world of fandom is a snobbish one. It’s not enough to compete. It’s not enough to pay fair. Heck—it’s not enough even to win….if we’re not winning in a sport that everyone’s watching. (My apologies to the competitors & supporters in these sports. I applaud your efforts nonetheless. I’m simply repeating what Virginia nay-sayers have been saying.)
Finally, we are winning in a sport that everyone watches. But as you stated, we’ve done so almost invisibly. It’s as if the sports world is embarrassed by our success. They act as if the prom queen has just fallen for the class geek—to use a high school analogy.
But I’m not worried. Winning is winning, & it feels good to pull for a Virginia team that finally does that so well. As long as we keep winning, the world will eventually have to acknowledge what we’ve accomplished. But I’ve been humbled by the conduct of the players that you described in the post. As a fan, part of why I want us to win is to show the world. But the message I get from our team concept & the conduct of it’s young players is that this shouldn’t be what motivates me. Winning is great, but winning the right way is priceless. The point of winning isn’t too be flashy or “to show up”anyone. Winning is a reward for the sacrifices made & the commitments poured in by the players, staff, & even fans. This team has the right attitude. They deserve to win, no matter what else happens from here. And loyal fans like us who have stood by our Virginia teams through the dismal seasons deserve the euphoria of success. It doesn’t matter who else has noticed or who else is watching. We’ve been here from the start.
Thanks! This is one of the best comments I've ever gotten! This post has not been as popular as the ones you mentioned because I don't think a lot of people get it. But I wrote it because it's meaningful to me, and just as important for the reasons that you've identified. Sports matter, and they demonstrate the way we approach life, adversity, team mates, and opponents. Most people cheer for teams and players and don't really care that much about what the players and coaches are like as people as long as they're good. If they are good people, that's a bonus. But if they have a bad attitude, get in a few fights, or even commit crimes that are not too egregious, we can live with that.
It feels great to cheer for UVA because they are my team, and I will not jump ship just because they aren't doing well–for years, sometimes. And it feels great because of what the values that the school, program, coach, and players have. They don't care if no one thinks they'll win. And they don't have a chip on their shoulder about it. No one would have thought they could have accomplished everything that they have. They look at each game as an opportunity to play their best, work as a team, but also to enjoy the ride. They're happy. They're having a good time. But they will execute their game with incredible focus and determination when they get on the court. I'm looking forward to seeing how that will play out against Michigan State.