Today’s word of the day on Sesame Street was champion. I know because I watched it with my three year old Elliot. They talked about what it means to be a champion, at least in the context of life sized muppets and their human friends. As a guest on the show, LA Clippers forward Blake Griffin contested a muppet chicken in a rooster calling contest. And, spoiler alert, Blake won. So he was the champion.
Unfortunately for Blake, he wasn’t technically the champion in real life, or at least his NBA professional life, as his Clippers team was beat by the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round the playoffs. And for that, yesterday they fired team head coach Vinnie Del Negro, despite having won 56 games this year and winning the Pacific Division. Apparently and contrary to Elmo’s teachings, winning a division doesn’t make you a champion, or even help you keep your job. That’s tough love vs. Children’s Television Network, I suppose.
By that calculus, the Clippers aren’t the only losers in the league right now. One of the loneliest is the New York Knicks, who were upset in the second round by the Indiana Pacers, a team they were supposed to beat. For all their investment in starpower over the past few years, with Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler and Amare Stoudemire, they won exactly one playoff series against a team that’s aged out of most men’s rec leagues at the Y. And with that, the Knicks will spend their off-season scrambling for that one extra piece, that one hidden talent that will help them go from the team that finished second in the East this regular season to something that can beat the Heat and the Spurs and all comers to reign NBA champions, a singular, not shared distinction.
Regardless of what New Yorkers want to hear, that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. This Knicks team is, shall we say, more senior than most, and was built for maximum velocity right now, not steady acceleration. There are at least two teams, if not more, that are younger, faster, just better than the Knicks. And that will only get worse next year. So while Knicks fans like to fancy this year a stepping stone, it’s probably more of a landing pad on a slow descent.
So if that’s the case, and you’re welcomed to disagree, then we should all consider the question, is there value in the process? If you know going into a sporting season that you will not be the champion, is there any reason to play in the first place, other than to give the eventual champions someone to beat? For us fans, is there any reason to watch? As a Houston Rockets fan, I can tell you they’re not winning the title next year. So why do I care?
That’s a question on the mind of several NBA GM’s last night as they did the ceremonial draft lottery, determining who actually gets to pick first in this year’s draft. Cleveland won, which, sadly is their second number one pick in three years. But it’s their hope that finishing last is maybe the best way to eventually finish first, since it gives you top draft picks and likely open salary cap space, something the Knicks have neither of right now. The Cleveland Cavaliers are going to get better, although who knows how much. The Knicks, probably not.
And next year, they’ll both most likely finish their season’s disappointed, losers of some regard, not the World Champions, as the league calls its victor. It’s an odd thing we do, create pastimes that disappoint all but one fraction of its participants and spectators. Where we hope and pray, hire and fire, all in the dim hope of becoming this thing my son Elliot learned about this morning.
I hope he can resist that message, that winning and champion are not only synonymous, but also paramount. Sport is about so much more than outcome. Like a great dunk or a beautiful pass, or even a last second loss that kept us breathless past midnight. And I hope Elliot won’t be the fan calling for Vinnie Del Negro’s head or curse the Knicks after their best season in recent memory. I hope he’ll even be happy for that chicken that lost to Blake Griffin, although it did seem a strong favorite going in. Maybe the chicken, unlike Griffin’s coach, can at least keep his job.
Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.
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