Championships and the Necessary Fictions of Life

As some of you have seen, Since Giannis’s post-game interview the other day, I’ve been looking at how we talk about sports in a new light.

One of the necessary fictions of life is that success and failure in our lives are at least to some extent under our control.

It’s a necessary fiction because if we don’t believe that to some extent, we will be discouraged, downhearted, despondent, and at the very least not put forward the effort we need to succeed. Or we wouldn’t be able to face the injustice of a world in which some people grow up in deep poverty and others grow up wealthy. Or we wouldn’t be able to deal with knowing that some of us are going to die young from an accident or disease, and others won’t.

But it is a fiction because so much of our lives are not under our control. Whether a basketball player wins a championship in their career or not depends on so many contingencies not under their control: their teammates, their opponents, the coaches, the referees—how the ball bounces. And, as I pointed out the other day about whether you can rise to the occasion in a particular game or whether you are mentally or physically not in sync.

We like to think that the great players always rise to the occasion. But that’s just not true. There is failure in the career of every great player. And successes are not just due to their efforts. Michael Jordan’s Bulls won some games even when he had a bad night because others on the team stepped up.

I was reading the Globe this morning just to see how the Boston reporters are covering the last game. And predictably they are saying just what our reporters and fans say after a tough loss: the effort was not there. Or, as some of the comments said, echoing my last post, “Jason Tatum Sucks.”

I don’t see that. The Celtics played hard. But they didn’t make shots they usually do, and the Sixers executed their powerful offense really well.

Sports is one of those areas where we act out the necessary fictions of our lives, so it should not be surprising that commentary on sports is shot through with them. (Nor is it surprising that the racism in our lives is seen in how Black ballplayers are talked about, although that’s a different story.)

Still, I wonder whether it’s not time for us to collectively grow up a bit and, at least after the game, stop rehearsing those fictions. Can we perhaps use the way we talk about sports to deal a bit more honestly with the reality of everyday life?

If we recognize that success or failure is in large part a result of contingency and not our own effort, maybe we would be a little more helpful to our fellow human beings, who by no fault of their own have found themselves stuck in poverty or devastated by illness and who need our help.

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