Sports can be wonderful, glorious, thrilling, the sweetest thing among all in this world that doesn’t really matter. But it can be one cruel mother, too, because to those who pour their sweat, their soul into the endeavor, it matters like breathing matters.
There are thousands of examples, in each direction, at each extreme, but Utah’s Jenna Johnson’s tears showed the vicious-wicked side in the Sweet-and-Sour 16 of the NCAA Tournament on Friday.
Through a brutal battle between Utah and LSU in that nationally televised setting, with advancement to the Elite Eight awaiting with open arms at one end and elimination threatening from the other, that rough-and-tumble affair required everything each squad could muster. Undulations of all kinds benefited and challenged both teams. And at the close, opportunity beckoned the Utes, called their name and offered victory’s prize.
Another cruelty: A team sport often falls into the hands and at the feet of an individual player. Individual sports are always in the hands and at the feet of the one. When a team sport does that, colleagues and coaches depending on a single athlete, cruelty gets crueler.
Into that vice entered Johnson.
With Utah down, 64-63, mere seconds left on the clock, having been fouled, the sophomore had the chance to win the game for the Utes or at least to tie it — or … no, no, no … to lose it. Yes, yes, yes. She launched an airball on the first attempt. The second came hard off the rim, with LSU grabbing the rebound, and for all intents and purposes the win.
There were two made Tiger free throws that followed, and a desperate Ute heave in the last second, but everyone knew where gravity took the blame.
Did we mention, sports can be cruel?
Nobody — rather nobly — on Utah’s side wanted in the loss’s wake to put words to the blame, to aim them. Not Johnson’s teammates, not her coaches, and, with any luck, not Johnson herself. But …
Coach Lynne Roberts, who wrapped her arm around her weeping player at the end, said the following postgame: “I told her I was proud of her. A game never comes down to the last shot. I mean, that’s what we remember, that’s what we talk about, but there’s so much that goes in before that. I just told her I loved her and I was proud of her.”
Question remains: Did she hear what Roberts said? Will she hear it when she wakes up and the first thought that rushes into her head is … well, you know.
That’s the awkward and delicate part to what team competition dials up, the scenario and the drama and the difficulty and the first thought it stirs.
Ask any placekicker, college or pro, who faces a last-second field goal with the game’s balance at hand, a batter who comes to the plate down a run with two outs and the bases loaded, a footballer for the win with a PK attempt in front of him, all his and his mates’ energy spent.
When it’s missed, whiffed, botched, tears flow, and if they don’t, if the plumbing stays under control, the heart aches. Man, does the heart ache.
Sometimes, depending on specific situations, the dreaded choke label is applied. Sometimes it does apply, sometimes it doesn’t.
I’ve asked enough athletes put in a press and a grip like that, not by their own asking, but the asking of some combination of their team and their team’s circumstance, to describe what they were feeling in the aftermath.
Inexplicable joy to the left, abject pain to the right.
Winning for everyone is a thing of beauty. Losing it for everyone is a beast.
As for the beastly part, letting down their teammates, the folks they’ve worked and perspired and competed and dreamed with is one nadir to climb out of, forgiving themselves is another.
It doesn’t matter what kind words anybody speaks, what encouragement is given, how many times friends and mentors pronounce this-is-a-team-game-and-one-play-doesn’t-win-it-or-lose-it solace, doesn’t matter that those same people utter the words, again and again, we wouldn’t be here without our teammate, the hard-edged self-perception of what occurred at the end is like shaking a shadow at midday.
But just like all the unfortunate others before her, fine and talented company indeed, Johnson must now shake that shadow. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow. But someday. Feel the pain, then get rid of it. Michael Jordan used to say he made a lot of game winners, but he missed some, too. True for the Great One, true for thousands more.
Roberts said she would count on Johnson to make those shots were the player to face a similar scenario in the seasons ahead, emphasizing: “She’s a fighter.”
She’ll have to be.
I do not know Jenna Johnson. But I’ve talked to the others, mighty competitors, just like her who found themselves suffering in the same spot. Many of them went ahead and felt what they felt, but then turned the temporary pain into lasting determination. What hurts at present, they said, not only heals in the future, but helps in yet-unknown ways.