Winning Isn’t Everything (or is it?)



Well, whose name do you remember?


Synopsis:  This post examines the importance of winning vs. losing in American sports (e.g. Manning vs. Manning, Bumgarner vs. Kershaw).  Generally, winners receive the glory but can there be any glory in losing? After making a 12 on the 72nd hole of a fictional golf major, Roy McAvoy (Kevin Cosner) laments, “I just gave away the U.S. Open.”   His girlfriend (Dr. Molly Griswold / Rene Russo) responds, “No one’s going to remember the Open five years from now, who won, who lost, but they’re going to remember your 12. My God Roy, it was, why’s it’s immortal!”  Does life imitate art?  I don’t know, ask the guy in the water?  If you know his name and not the name of the guy with the trophy, the answer is yes.

By reading my last post, you can learn the magic (or Magic) behind why your favorite NBA player from the last 35 years mostly likely is named Larry, Ervin, Michael, Kobe or LeBron.  If you live near Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Cleveland, you might scoff at the notion that any magic is involved; however, you might be more impressed knowing that the prediction holds regardless of your hometown.  More so than any other Big 4 professional sports league, the NBA has seen its popularity soar through its extensive promotion of superstars and creation of legends.  In which other sport would either of the following occur:  a player is named to an all-time Top 50 list after only 4 years in the league (like Shaquille O’Neal was in 1996 before even winning one championship); or a game ends early because the storybook ending is too good (like the 1992 NBA All-Star Game after Magic’s meaningless 3-pointer assured him the MVP trophy)?  In addition, NBA referees seemingly interpret rules differently for its superstar players. By pushing Byron Russell to create space for himself, Jordan had a wide-open shot to clinch his 6th (and final) NBA Championship.  No ref in his right mind would have called the foul on MJ because the following shot was supposed to be our lasting image of the NBA’s G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All-time).

I’m surprised David Stern didn’t stop the game after this shot even though more than five seconds remained.  After all, Jordan rules (in more ways than one).

The NBA owners clearly have benefited from the strategy of building the league around its superstars, but so have the players.  Just like all PGA players benefited from soaring prize money attributable to the Tiger Woods effect, all NBA players have benefited financially from the Michael Jordan effect.  At the same time, however, the legacies of many NBA players have been negatively impacted because only a select few dominate the headlines. In particular, certain all-time greats have become marginalized while certain marginal players have become all-time busts.

Even though the term “bust” is subjective, I’m trying to make lists of Top 10 Busts that are as objective as possible.  In particular, I intend to base the rankings on criteria that are more quantitative and less qualitative.  Most importantly, I want to identify the worst of the worst while minimizing false negatives (i.e. incorrectly excluding players who belong on the list) and false positives (i.e. incorrectly including players who don’t belong on the list).   It’s futile to think that I can eliminate the heated argument that usually devolves from a civil discussion about any sports ranking, but it’s worth a try.  Then again, most sports talk shows rely on such debates to drive ratings so maybe it’s a good thing.

My compilation of Top 10 NBA Draft Busts follows my first effort regarding the NFL Draft.  In both cases, I became more concerned with false positives than false negatives because it’s much harder for bad players to avoid detection than to be over-exposed given the non-stop coverage of sports by the national media.  Whereas most false positives regarding the NFL involved players who suffered career-ending injuries, most false positives regarding the NBA involved players who simply weren’t bad enough.  I believe that an injured football player should be exempt from being labeled a bust given the violence in the sport, but I can understand the debate.  On the other hand, too many basketball players are given the label unjustifiably because they were more productive than a Top 10 Bust should be.  I’m not saying that these players were not disappointments (because they were), but rather they shouldn’t be considered the worst of the worst.

I fully understand that history tends to be recorded from the perspective of winners and not losers.  To the victors go the spoils, and one of the spoils of winning is being able to tell the story.  For example, would anyone buy a book written by Warren Buffet if he were not a billionaire businessman?  Sometimes, winners are even able to revise history by rewriting it years later.  For those of you who believe in parallel universes with alternate realities, this revised history might simply be a recounting of events that actually happened, just not in our universe.  Based on that perspective, there may be a reality in which: the Bills won Super Bowl XXV against the Giants because Scott Norwood wasn’t wide right; the Knicks won the 1994 NBA Championship against the Rockets because John Starks went 5-18 instead of 2-18 in Game 7 (or more simply Starks didn’t get blocked by Olajuwon at the end of Game 6); and the Indians won the 1997 World Series against the Marlins because Jose Mesa didn’t blow the save in Game 7. You’re welcome Tony, I could have mentioned you instead.

While Tony Fernandez (the second baseman) often gets more credit for the Indians’ World Series loss because of his error on this play, he had two RBIs in the 3-2 loss so it’s hard to blame him too much.

We don’t exist in one of those alternate realities so there’s no reason to belabor what didn’t happen.  In addition, that’s not the bias of history that’s relevant for this post.  I’m more interested in how modern historians (i.e. the media) determine what’s worth remembering.

In a culture driven so much by winning, the 2014 MLB season will be remembered more for Madison Bumgarner’s epic World Series than Clayton Kershaw’s incredible regular season.  Perhaps Bumgarner’s performance should be our lasting memory of the 2014 season, but Kershaw’s two bad innings in the playoffs overshadow a year during which he won the National League Cy Young and MVP Awards after going 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA.   Of course, it didn’t help that Kershaw’s 2013 playoff performance was equally bad.

Is Kershaw baseball’s equivalent of Peyton Manning?   As if that would be a bad thing.

Speaking of Peyton Manning, certain sports journalists favor Eli Manning instead of his brother because Eli has won more Super Bowl rings (two to one).  All that mattered to these reporters was who won more championships, regardless of the circumstances.  Humor me for a minute and imagine the reality in which Eli got sacked or David Tyree forgot to put Stickum on his helmet such that the “Immaculate Connection” never happened.  Furthermore, imagine that someone in that universe describes another universe (i.e. our reality) in which Manning avoided the sack and Tyree made a miraculous catch secured by his helmet such that the Giants denied Tom Brady his storybook ending to a perfect 19-0 season.  You (and I) would laugh and say that there could never have been a reality in which a play like that could happen.  Sports are so compelling because truth is stranger than fiction.


Even though the source of the quote predates him, Vince Lombardi memorably said “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” I don’t know of many quotes that can be so inspirational and sad at the same time.  By no means do I support a socialistic approach to sports (i.e. everyone who participates is a winner), but I worry when winning only applies to gold medals or championship rings.  A silver medalist is not a loser, nor is a conference champion.

Despite the consistently strong contributions from Patrick Ewing and Karl Malone throughout their Hall-of-Fame careers, they are most remembered for not winning it all.  If you’re older than 30, how easily can you visualize Ewing’s missed two-foot shot against the Pacers in final second of Game 7 of the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals (you can see the bricked lay-in here – or Karl Malone’s turnover in the final minute against the Bulls in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals?

Malone turnover
Don’t worry Karl, there may be a reality in which you didn’t commit this turnover.

Given the importance of winning, LeBron James decided to leave home so that his legacy couldn’t be questioned like Ewing or Malone’s. By going to four consecutive Finals and winning two rings with Miami, he doesn’t’ have anything to worry about anymore because he will always be considered part of the NBA elite.

Neither Ewing nor Malone won championships, in large part because their teams couldn’t get by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.  Unfortunately, their careers are viewed as being incomplete as a result. Jordan’s success impacted not only their legacies but also the legacy of Sam Bowie, a somewhat productive player who is often regarded the biggest bust in NBA history simply because he was drafted ahead of MJ.  While Bowie was a disappointment because he didn’t live up to the Portland Trailblazers’ expectations of him, he certainly was productive enough during his career to avoid all-time bust status.  Bowie is an example of a false positive who appears in many all-time NBA bust lists.  Through the creation of the Top 10 NBA Draft Busts, I intend to expose (and hopefully correct) the negative bias regarding Bowie, and others like him.

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