Don't Rob Us of "Failure"
Steph, Giannis, LeBron and greatness needing that one big risk
Having just seen Steph Curry score 50 in Game 7 against the Kings, I’m reminded that I love, of all things, failure. Yes, failure as a necessary condition for greatness. The former’s a concept that’s apparently under assault this week. I wouldn’t ordinarily thrill to failure but my fondness for it grows as others attempt to meme it out of existence.
Here’s what I mean: The prospect of failure is such a necessary component for the sort of suspense and triumph we saw Sunday afternoon. Almost every NBA fan is blown away by Steph’s performance, but the prospect of season ending disaster informs why it’s such a special feat. You can’t really get the moment without the potential for that moment to get ugly.
Every time a superstar’s season is in variance, there’s some juice to that situation, a sense that the legend can grow or shrink. The latter is so even for the guys who are secure as all-time greats, like Curry. What if he fails? What if he falters? What if he’s humiliated and this is our last memory of a game that really mattered?
So now it’s going to be Steph Curry vs. LeBron James in the second round. To quote Homer Simpson, about his own children:
The winner will be showered with praise. The loser will be taunted and booed until my throat is sore.
Indeed. In a collision of the greats, someone will lose. There are valiant losers on occasion; Jerry West famously lost in eight NBA Finals over which he was mostly brilliant and regarded as such. But usually, losing looks bad and the loser will be questioned if not excoriated at scale. It happened to Steph when the Warriors lost a 3-1 lead in the 2016 Finals to James’ Cavs. It happened to LeBron when he flamed out in the 2011 Finals against Dallas. Their status took a hit in each case, only for both to eventually establish successes that outweighed those failures. And each will remain all time greats after they face off, but both risk something in comparison if failure strikes. And that’s a lot of fun.
Apparently, it’s now fashionable to try and rob us of that fun.
If you’re a regular reader of this site, you probably already know about Giannis Antetokounmpo's speech about failure in sports, or rather, it’s non existence. On Wednesday, the 8th-seeded Miami Heat eliminated Giannis’ 1st-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, prompting Bucks beat writer Eric Nehm to ask if the season was a failure. Unexpectedly viral content ensued.
So that’s an interesting clip. There’s something captivating about the way in which Antetokounmpo reins in his boiling frustrations while trying not to incinerate a quality writer he knows personally. But that’s not all, of course. There’s a thesis here and it gets at a major tension within professional sports. In my conversation with Spike Eskin, he called it an ideal sports radio topic. The more I mull it, though, it’s bigger than that. This cuts to the core, which is why it went viral and also why it’s inspired such silliness and fundamental denial.