My assembly address to the Upper School boys this past Monday:
Even if you’re not a sports fan, you are likely aware of the NCAA Basketball Championship Final that has been in progress for the past few weeks and is reaching its climax, as the final four teams have now been determined. I happen to love this tournament, as viewers have a chance to watch some remarkable athletes in action, ones who don’t play for money, but for pride in their school and passion for a sport they love. And, if I can brag a little, I’m proud to say that my bracket is still alive – I picked Michigan to win the title this year. However, I must admit that I am conflicted. You see Michigan plays Loyola Chicago in their next game, and like millions of viewers across North America, I have become a big fan of the Loyola Ramblers. They entered the tournament as an 11th seed and very few people gave them a chance of advancing past the first round. Since that time, they have, against all odds, squeaked past their competition and won the favour of fans everywhere to earn the role of this year’s tournament darlings. Interestingly enough, the team’s most well known personality hasn’t hit a jump shot or lay-up all tournament. In fact, this person hasn’t even played in a single game.
You’ve likely heard of Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, Loyola’s team Chaplain. At 98 years old, sitting in her wheelchair, Sister Jean has become synonymous with the team’s winning streak and some of the most endearing pictures and clips from the tournament are those that show the respect and admiration that the Rambler players have for their oldest, dearest fan. Here’s a quick clip (https://twitter.com/twitter/statuses/977708312174186498) that illustrates the meaningful connection between these young student athletes and Sister Jean. By the way, I understand that the Sister Jean bobble-head will soon be released. You know you’ve made it when you get your very own bobble-head.
The image of the Rambler players hugging Sister Jean, and their unbelievable run as the tournament underdogs this year reminds me of another famous final four moment – one that happened 35 years ago. Here is the scene: the NC State Wolfpack went a mediocre 26 and 10 in 1983, but they did end up winning the ACC Tournament which gave them a birth in the National Final Four playoff, where they were ranked 6th in the West Division. Their opponent in the championship that year was the tournament favourite Houston Cougars who, by contrast, had a league record of 31 and 3, were riding a 26 game winning streak and were ranked #1 in their division. As evidence of their strength, there were three players from that team who were eventually drafted in the NBA’s 1st round, including hall of famers Clyde Drexler and Akeem Olajuwon, who incidentally spent his final year in the NBA with our own Toronto Raptors.
But I digress, back to the game that some call the greatest championship upset of all time. Not surprisingly, the Cougars were heavy favourites going into that final game. They were nicknamed Phi Slamma Jamma because of the dunking power they possessed, annihilating almost all of their opponents throughout the regular season. Nobody gave NC State a chance…I’ll ask the AV guys to play a short clip (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ICZ8HO8c9bw up to 1:15) showing the final closing seconds of that game, one of the greatest upsets in sporting history. You gotta love sports – anything can happen!
We’re going to watch the clip again, but this time in two parts. First I want you to watch up to the 14 second mark. Pay attention to coach Valvano’s reaction here. AV guys, the first 14 seconds please… You see Coach V running around there, looking for someone to celebrate with…It’s sort of funny – here he is, in the biggest game of his coaching career, and he can’t find anyone to hug. In addition to being a great coach, Jimmy Valvano, who sadly passed away after a courageous battle with cancer 10 years after this game, was also a great public speaker and in referencing this particular moment, here’s what he said:
“The kid, Derek Whittenburg, who took the winning shot [that missed] is a kid who broke his ankle, after the 7th game of the season. Doctors said he’d never play again, but he made it back. Miraculously with rehabilitation just [a few games before] the tournament…the next game we lose, is the last game of his career. Not only varsity, his career, so every game we won he’d run over and he’d hug me. We won 9 games in a row. And he’d run over and he’d hug me every single game…The shot goes up, it’s to the right, I see its gonna be short, Lorenzo Charles grabs it and he dunks it. And at that moment I knew two things: I was the 28th coach in the history of the game to win a championship and there were 50 million people [watching]… I sprinted and got to centre court, in Albuquerque, New Mexico with 50 million people watching me, to hug Derek Whittenburg, and for the first time in 10 games, he’s hugging someone else. I’m out there all by myself. With 50 million people watching me, so embarrassing you know?”
Needless to say, Coach V got over his embarrassment, but it is amusing to watch his reaction – overflowing with joy, but a little dismayed that he can’t find anyone to celebrate this great accomplishment with.
Let’s watch the remainder of the clip – this time, I want you to pay attention to the reaction of the Houston players. We see the dejected athletes static, some sitting down, but most alone and isolated from their teammates. Their disappointment is very clear, as they struggle with their loss and are emotionally despondent with the entirely unexpected outcome to their situation. Indeed, they serve as a great contrast to the victorious NC state players who are dynamic, vibrant, gathering together and embracing each other with jubilant hugs. Now I’m certain those Cougar players banded together back in the locker room and consoled one another – no doubt through some tears – but I’m always struck by their reaction after this loss, by their sadness and despair.
A few points to ponder:
First, celebrating accomplishment is a key to wellbeing. Renowned psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman says that doing so is one of five or six fundamental characteristics of flourishing people. Recognizing our achievement, personally, or as a community, is one way to boost confidence and bring about feelings of positive emotion. We should be grateful that we are a community with much to celebrate.
Second, things may not always go as planned, so we need to be able to adapt in every situation and take things in stride. When he was alive, Coach Valvano consistently made fun of himself for what happened after that amazing upset. Ironically, he might even be remembered more for his reaction after the game, than for the remarkable feat that he and his players accomplished that day. But he always placed what happened post-game in perspective, and chose to focus on the positive emotions that came with that historic upset.
Finally, and most importantly, we need to be comfortable with leaning on others in times of struggle and despair. Just as it is beneficial for our wellbeing to celebrate our accomplishments, it is crucial for us to acknowledge our vulnerability and open up to others during times of disappointment and despair. As a caring community, we need to appropriately honour our individual and communal achievements, but also be ready to support one another in times of struggle and challenge.
May we be a brotherhood that is empathic and deeply caring for one another, in times of victory, and defeat.
Thanks for reading,