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The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat

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When the Alabama Crimson Tide won the college football national championship last Monday night, head coach Nick Saban was interviewed at midfield after the game. Dripping wet from the obligatory orange Gatorade bath and oozing with a level of confidence that could be interpreted as arrogance, Saban held his hands on his hips and listened to the inane questions being thrust at him.

He almost looked interested, almost. But one question got to him and pierced a veil that pushed him to answer beyond his usual load of “coachspeak.” If you’re a sports fan and you’ve ever sat through a press conference with a coach of any sport, you know exactly what I’m talking about—those answers that coaches give that sound as if they were delivered straight from the manual, “How to Give Answers in a Press Conference Without Really Saying Anything.”

What was the question that got Saban? He was asked about the impact and importance of the victory. After some additional meandering coachspeak he said, “We’re going to enjoy this for 24 hours.” This, too, was coachspeak, but from the mouth of Saban, it actually rang true. He meant it. He really meant it.

After all, he’d just won his second national championship in a row and his third in four years in Tuscaloosa, Ala. You don’t win back to back championships in any sport or win repeatedly at any endeavor without an innate ability to celebrate briefly, before getting back to the grind.

The Blind Side

I have one degree of separation from Michael Oher, the starting left tackle of the Baltimore Ravens and the subject of Michael Lewis’ excellent book, The Blind Side. Oher’s father, Sean Tuohy, was my basketball coach at summer camp at a time when Elton John’s “Blue Eyes” and a re-issue of Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” were getting extreme airplay over the radio. I know this because when we weren’t playing basketball we were back in our dorm rooms thinking about playing basketball and resting our weary bodies and listening to the radio.

Tuohy was a terrible shooter. I mean, he couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn with the basketball, but he was a terrific playmaker, the best. He led the Southeastern Conference in assists all four years as point guard for the Ole Miss Rebels and remains, 30 years after hanging up his sneakers, the SEC’s all-time assists leader.

He was a good coach, too. When I played, I was a gunner. I guess that’s a nice way of saying I never saw a shot I didn’t like. But with any shooter, even the Jordans and Kobes, you hit a slump. I hit one at camp. Shot after shot clanged the rim until the ninth consecutive miss from the baseline, which hit nothing but air. I loped down the court with my head down, wanting to keep running to the lockers or the dorm where I could lay down, turn on the radio, and hear Elton or Otis belting out another heartbreaker for the millionth time that summer.

But something compelled me to look toward the sidelines, to look over at Coach Tuohy. I figured he was going to give me the hook, tell me to sit down by him or maybe even point toward the end of the bench.

Instead, he held his right arm at a 90-degree angle and mimicked the act of taking a shot. “Keep shooting,” he yelled to me. “Keep shooting.”

And the next time on offense I launched another one that misfired, followed by another, but I kept taking shots until one finally fell. I’d like to give the Hollywood ending and say we came back and I hit 10 in a row including the game winner, but that’s the stuff of movies.

What I did was I kept on shooting.

It’s all the same

Before I held this current position, I worked as a book critic. Publishing houses sent me tomes of every imaginable genre; many I probably, definitely, wouldn’t have sought out and read on my own, but did so because it was my job.

One of the books I received was a re-release of the hippie new age classic, Be Here Now. I didn’t want to open it at first but when I did, as happened with pretty much all the books I read, I learned something. Somewhere in the midst of a lot of rambling about in the Himalayas, there was a poem that went:

Pleasure and pain

Loss and gain

Fame and shame

They’re all the same

Nick Saban might not have said it exactly the same way, but it was the core of what he talked about as he stood on the 50-yard line after beating the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. Whether you win or lose, you celebrate or sulk for 24 hours or maybe just for a split second; then, you get back to it and you take your next shot.

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