Friday, April 10, 2009

Spartan Pride Not Defefated

(From the April 9 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I am not a sports writer. This is not the sports section.

But this is a special circumstance.

Earlier this week, the Michigan State Spartans played in a national championship game of basketball. They lost. You might even say they got blown out, creamed, annihilated, tarred by the Tar Heels.

But, that’s not the whole story. I have to write about it.

It was interesting this year to see a sidebar on the usual national media chatter about basketball. Along with the talk, the predictions, the utterances of defensive strategy, posting up, three-point percentages, fast breaks, runs, inside the paint, and other sports-related jargon, there was a more interesting narrative.

National sports columnists and cable TV news anchors were talking about the Spartans’ run through the tournament not just as a sports story. They were lifting the young men from East Lansing to symbolic status. It became an occasion when sport was a metaphor for life.

In this case, a handful of young basketball players under the direction of a man with the improbable name Izzo became the embodiment of the entire state of Michigan. And the NCAA basketball tournament played the role of the economy.

It didn’t make sense, really. What does a handful of young men playing a game have to do with the pressing reality of the current economic doldrums?

On the one hand, nothing. The basketball tournament was like Nickelodeon theatres during the depression of the 1930s—a diversion from the overwhelmingly negative truth.

But then again, maybe basketball had a direct relationship to economics. It’s not for nothing that economics is called the “dismal science.” It is hard to come to solid, empirical agreement on causes and effects in economics. When it comes to forecasting the future, it seems there are as many opinions as there are dollar bills in circulation. Many economists talk not only about static cause and effect relationships, they talk about fuzzy concepts like rationale, mood, exuberance, momentum, confidence, destiny, and, yes, rebound.

These are the same concepts with which people were talking about the Michigan State Spartans this past few weeks. That’s what caught my attention, and what I will remember, more than any slam dunk, fast break, rebound or even final score.

There are various indicators reported as a way of “keeping score” on the economy. There are unemployment rates, increases and decreases in CPI, GDP, stock market indexes and the like. But these scores don’t always reflect the experience of each individual.

It is the same for me and the Michigan State-North Carolina game.

The score and other statistics about that contest would tell an entirely depressing tale. The Spartans got whipped by a superior team. But my experience is different.

I watched a group of young kids, most of them from blue collar towns in Michigan, rise to an incredible occasion. They emerged with dignity from poor backgrounds. They avoided the lure of a gang life. One escaped from a war-torn foreign country. By some reports, they came together like more than a team. They were like a family. That doesn’t end with a final buzzer.
All season long they had fought for respect and been disregarded, in the same way the State of Michigan is panned as an economic lost cause. But they persisted, against a wave of setbacks. They hoped. They worked hard. They eventually proved people wrong, going up against better teams and winning, including two number-one seeds in the tournament. They won with scrappy hard work, more so than flash, and this is what endeared them in the end to so many fans. This is what made a group of college basketball players a symbol of economic hope.

I was impressed as well by how they spoke, and how their coach spoke about them. The players were gracious and calm in their remarks, always offering more hope than bravado, more gratitude than pride. Someone taught them well—their parents, their professors, their coach. The thing that impressed me most was when Coach Izzo spoke of his players’ attributes, and among them mentioned that they graduate. Meanwhile, the storyline for North Carolina was that several players gave up pro contracts and returned for their senior year to win a championship. Not a degree, a championship. While the ball didn’t drop as often for the Spartans as it did for the Tar Heels Monday night, I think our boys have more reason to hold their heads high.

People often say when a team loses, “there’s always next year.” Indeed there is. Michigan State has some young players who will be back next year, giving them a good chance at another opportunity to win a championship.

But there’s also right now. Right now I am proud. Coach Izzo motivated his team all year with the words of the NCAA tournament theme song, “One Shining Moment.” They lost the final game. But I think they shone nonetheless. For more than a moment. In more than a game.

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