Friday, October 12, 2007

Winning, Part I

Triumph. We all want it. Some more than others, but it is there in all of us. That desire to emerge at a place in life where we feel like we have accomplished what was set before us to accomplish.

There are many classes of people in regards to coming out on top: those who want it, but don't have the desire to make it happen. Those who want it, but don't know how to make it happen (and thus gives up trying). And those who want it, and make it happen. Sounds simple enough. You could get more taxonomic than that, but I'm not. At least not in the next few paragraphs.

So, what is a winner? It is, in my humble opinion, not a title that should be handed out arbitrarily. Take sports for an example. In sports, the object is to win. So if a player is a 25 point per game scorer, but his team has a 35% winning clip, is he a winner? Me would think not, and I would probably hear dissenting views, citing the fact that a player must have help around him to win. Nobody does it by themselves, they would say. But those who express this view overlook one key element:

In the history of sports, the greatest players are recognized by the fact that they collect championships. The trophies, the rings, the dousing of the coaches. That's what it is all about. If I ask you to identify the greatest player who ever played in the NBA, NFL, and MLB, you would probably tell me Michael Jordan, Joe Montana, and Hank Aaron. Or Magic Johnson, Jerry Rice, and Babe Ruth. Or others. The point is, that the names you will think of when asked said question will probably have won a ring at a point in their careers.

Barring exception, the greatest players in each sport have acquired a championship at some point in their careers. I am sure everybody would agree with that.

Now here is where the interesting part comes. What about Karl Malone, Ted Williams, Fran Tarkenton, Carl Yastrzemski, Alex Rodriguez (career still in progress), O.J. Simpson, Dan Marino, and all the other countless players who put forth great careers and yet could not capture the jewelry? Are they not winners? So without further ado, I will attempt to explain a winner through a case study of the NBA (I would examine cases from all three on the blog, but that is coming in a forthcoming book), thus implementing a framework in which a winner can be quantified.


Robert Horry has won seven NBA championships: two with Houston, three with Los Angeles, and two with San Antonio. He has played a prominent role in all of them. He was the 11th overall pick of the Houston Rockets in 1992, and has never missed the playoffs. Despite being a 6'9 power forward, he has averaged over seven rebounds a game only once. His season-high in points-per-game is 12.0. His last five championship runs, he spent the majority of his games coming off the bench. He is a guy who prefers to play his role, and perfect it. Yet, he does not come off as a tireless worker who excels at any one thing (a la Bruce Bowen). Perhaps that is what makes Horry so special, his ability to perform a number of different roles well when it is needed the most. Some players have that in them, some don't. Or the fact that Horry was just in the right at the right time, after all, luck is a component in coming out on top. But what some people call luck, others may call a calculated foresight: Horry couldn't control where he was drafted, nor where he was traded (to Phoenix, then LA) but he had a direct control over his decision to sign with San Antonio. He is blessed to have played with four of the best players to ever play in the NBA (Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, and Tim Duncan), yet no one can say that he rode on those players coattails solely. While he is not a player whom you would build a franchise around, he is a player who your franchise could not win without.

Charles Barkley and Karl Malone are two of the best power forwards in NBA history. But yet, they have no championships. Barkley has played with Julius Erving, Moses Malone (albeit at the end of their careers), Kevin Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Scottie Pippen, and Clyde Drexler. Yet, his cupboard is as bare as a newborn. Karl Malone played with John Stockton, another Hall of Famer who is the all-time assists and steals leader, as well as Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, and Gary Payton (another future Hall-of-Famer).

Barkley and Malone has achieved massive personal success in their career. They both played in the midst of the second and third best dynasty ever in the NBA (the 90's Bulls and 80's Lakers, respectively). But despite the enormity of their stats, they could not, even with help, capture the essence of a player's true greatness. Is it their fault? Perhaps not. You could not question their desire to win. They gave 100% on the court every night. Sometimes in basketball, your contributions cannot be measured through quantifiable lens. You just have to recognize a winner from a stat stuffer. A lot of basketball players (Pete Maravich, Allen Iverson, Adrian Dantley) excel in pure basketball talent, putting the ball in the hole or making the pretty pass. But in performing those moves, are these players aware of the objective? Winning basketball is about everybody fulfilling their roles. Players have to trust each other on the rotations, in hitting the open shot, in hustling. This is often overlooked in not only basketball, but in all team sports.

Barkley and Malone, like many others, couldn't get it done. What do we make of this category? My proposal is that we make a separate pantheon for those who were great talents (stat stuffer and/or game dominance) AND won a championship. These people should be exalted higher because, contrary to popular opinion, you PLAY THE GAME TO WIN. Period. Anybody can make excuses for why a certain player didn't win (bad talent around him, bad coaching, played in era where Michael Jordan ruled, etc.), but I won't do that.

That's too lazy and easy.

I'll be back. We're not finished yet.


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