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SportsMonday: Even The Losers

I assistant coached my older daughter's fourth-grade basketball team during the winter and the season ended with a single-elimination tournament a week ago. We played a team we thought we would beat in the semifinals but lost instead and afterward she was inconsolable for a while.

I thought about reiterating all the usual stuff; that she had played hard and well and that we were proud of her and her team (I tried airing some of those sentiments to the team right after the game but a little while later on she was still very sad). There was also the fact that sometimes the other team is just better and there is nothing you can do. Sometimes the bounces just don't go your way.

But I didn't think that stuff was going to help. And I didn't think I was going to be able to say it with conviction.

When I was younger, I remember thinking I was so clever when I saw a different scene involving someone else's daughter who had lost a big game and was crying and I told her "If losing didn't feel so bad, winning wouldn't feel so good." But as many coaches have pointed out indirectly, that's just bunk. Most of the time, losing hurts more than winning feels good. And it obviously happens far more frequently at season's end to all but the tremendously lucky few.

So I stayed quiet and she stayed sad for a little while longer. Fortunately though, there is always the post-game snack. When we parked and walked into a little independent convenience store just south of the gyms at Loyola Park (which are very nice and far better administered than the vast majority of gyms in the Chicago Park District) and I told her she could have whatever she wanted, her mood brightened.

A pint of chocolate milk and a big package of Twix (with four candy-covered cookies instead of the usual two) later, she was a happy girl again. And she saved a small portion of the fourth cookie/candy for her little sister, meaning the snack was only 9,500 calories instead of 10,000. So I'm not that permissive.

When I was covering sports for the Pioneer Press papers in Glenview, Northbrook and Skokie, I used to be jealous of the guys from the dailies at state meets or tournaments. In the end those guys wrote about the Chicago-area winners (unless they lost to a team from downstate), whoever they were. I ended up writing about the local guys - usually the ones from Glenbrook South or Glenbrook North or Niles North - and those guys just about always lost (except for GBN in 2005, when junior Jon Scheyer led the Spartans to the state title). It would have been the same no matter what schools I covered. You start tournaments with all the boys basketball teams in the state and a couple hundred will end their seasons with losses no matter how many classes of competition you foolishly create.

When Hoosiers really happened in the '50s, Indiana had one state high school boys basketball championship and when little Milan High won it all, everyone cared. When Illinois went to two classes (big schools and little schools) in the early '70s and when it crowned two state champs for 35-plus years, lots of people cared. The Illinois High School Association instituted four-class completion in 2008. Now no one cares. The big positive is that 200-and-some schools finish with losses - as opposed to 200-and-some-minus-two. It obviously isn't worth it, people! Bring back two classes for gosh sakes! If not one!

As big tournaments proceed, a special few teams earn massive amounts of kudos and certain individual competitors excel and are celebrated. But when you look back on it all the by-far biggest thing that happens is that everybody loses except one.

I am becoming a huge Brad Stevens fan and not because he is taking his Butler team to its second straight Final Four, although that is an epic achievement. The coach impressed again in the aftermath of his team's absolutely unbelievable ninth win in its last 10 tournament games on Saturday. He did so when he made it clear that his joy was tempered by the fact that he knows the other team has seniors and he knows how painful it is to experience the loss that isn't only a setback, it is the end of a college playing career. ("Career" is probably not the right word - for it to be a career there should be some payment involved shouldn't there? - but I don't have a better term).

Perhaps Stevens was full of it, but it sure didn't seem like it at the end of the regional final, when he walked over to shake Florida coach Billy Donovan's hand and earnestly inquired about something. He then calmly walked to the locker room. There was no grandstanding whatsoever and there never has been with this guy. When Stevens celebrates with his team, he does so in the privacy of their locker room.

One thing I wasn't going to say to my daughter at the end of our last basketball game this season was that it was just a game and that she shouldn't be upset about something so minor. Of course, to her sports-obsessed dad, that sort of statement is blasphemy. But more importantly, we had just spent several months going to practices and games and pulling a team together and having a great time while we won some, lost some and always found ways to celebrate improvement in whatever portion of the game we could find it on a given night. Basketball was a big deal for too long to just dismiss it as "not a big deal."

I don't think I have any big conclusion at the end of these trains of thought. I refuse to bust out some sort of sappy "the most important thing is the journey" bromide. Heck, I have severe reservations about college sports in general in this country (I have been quoted in the past - by myself - as pointing out that college sports are great except for the fact that they are fundamentally corrupt). The guys who run these ridiculous universities where coaches are paid more than presidents deserve to lose and lose again again a thousand times.

The Sweet 16 are celebrated but 52 teams bowed out that first week of the tournament. The Final Four triumph but a dirty dozen hit the road on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The national champion is crowned but three last teams go home in ruins.

I just hope they stop for some candy on the way.


Comments welcome.

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