What is winning? What is losing? What is success? What is failure?
Answering those questions, even in sports, is a bit more complicated than just the numbers on the board, deeper than what a lot of people think.
And it probably applies to your life, my life, everyone’s life — in this way: Winners don’t always finish first. That’s true, even in a world that often finds virtue solely in the favorable final result, only in a numerical definition of winning, a world where the score is the only thing that matters.
Ever stop to consider that in that line of thinking real victory, steps to eventual victory, can be lost? And that we all miss it, blinded by the aforementioned numbers?
Giannis Antetokounmpo has. He did on Wednesday night.
His instantly-famous response to a related question after the No. 1-seeded Bucks were eliminated in their NBA playoff series, 4-1, by the eighth-seeded Heat was both profound and almost perfect. He was asked whether the 2022-23 Bucks season was a failure.
This was part of his answer: “It’s not a failure. It’s steps to success. There’s always steps to it. Michael Jordan played 15 years, won six championships. The other nine years was a failure? That’s what you’re telling me?
“It’s a wrong question; there’s no failure in sports. There’s good days, bad days. Some days you’re able to be successful, some days you’re not. Some days it’s your turn, some days it’s not your turn. And that’s what sports is about. You don’t always win. Sometimes other people win. And this year somebody else is going to win, simple as that.”
Antetokounmpo went on to point out, in so many words, that people go to work, put on their hard hats, try to do their jobs, support their families, add productivity to the world, but don’t necessarily land on the top shelf, don’t win a trophy, don’t win the game or the series or the championship.
Good stuff from an athlete who faces definitions of triumph and defeat 82 times during the regular season and more during the playoffs, a guy who regularly stares down the criticism of second place being the first loser and eighth place being well south of that.
Not channeling Socrates or any other philosopher here, but it’s worth stopping every once in a while to consider the worth in the fight, in the attempt, not necessarily in the last margin on the board.
It reminds me of the main character in Ernest Hemingway’s classic novella, “The Old Man and the Sea.” I’ve written about that book before because I love it, what it says to me. There are a hundred different interpretations of what it means. Hemingway himself said he enjoyed writing stories that could have multiple meanings. But in that tale, Santiago, an old and unlucky but proud and determined fisherman goes out to sea and hooks into an 18-foot marlin. He does everything he can to best the fish and to bring it back to his village to market. He puts up a mighty effort and does, in fact, catch the fish, strapping it to his small skiff. But on his trip to harbor, the sharks come and, despite his attempts to fend them off, they devour the marlin.
The poor fisherman, whose ragged and patched sail, as Hemingway described it, “looked like the flag of permanent defeat.” Using his expertise, his acumen and doggedness, he wins his wonderful reward. And then …
Then it’s gone.
Antetokounmpo knows the feeling. All the exhausted first and second and third and fourth losers know the feeling.
When Santiago floated back to harbor in the dark of night, while the village slept, he ingloriously stumbled alone back to his shack, the skeleton of the great fish still tied to his boat. As daylight came, the subsequent conclusion drawn, at least by villagers and by all those who didn’t look closely, is abject failure.
The valuable meat was not delivered to market.
But those with a keener eye see something else, they see the triumph of energy and effort.
Antetokounmpo himself in the postgame had criticism for some of the things the Bucks did and didn’t do, identifying the problems, not running from them. But comprehensive failure? He was not going to go there. And he made that clear.
Winners don’t always finish first. They don’t always bring the catch home. Sometimes they move under a sail that only looks like a flag of permanent defeat. In reality, and as far as Antetokounmpo is concerned, it heralds — or can herald — the exact opposite.