If We Long For Greatness, Why Do We Root Against It?

Last week, I wrote an ad for a freelance sportswriter that included two simple questions. In order to write about sports, you must have a passion for them. The passion must go beyond average interest. If not, you will bore and tire of the job. You will become a slug or a hack – or both – and you will walk away.

The ad read:

“Do you remember the moments in sports that took your breath away? Are you excited when you see something happen in a game that you’ve never seen before?”

They’re simple questions at surface level. Days later and countless answers brought the understanding that greatness filled a portion of the things fans hold so dear.

Greatness is tough to describe. Great shots can be made by less-than-average players. Great finishes can occur in sparsely attended games. Great pitches can disappear in memory as quickly as the next one that catches too much of the plate.

It’s hard to hang your hat on greatness, as it’s usually fleeting. So, we turn to the players with the highest averages combined with success and late-game heroics. Those become great to us, as they should. We watch reels of footage full of Magic Johnson no-look passes and Barry Sanders jukes. We try to imagine what it was like to see Jackie Robinson steal home and Bobby Orr take the puck from end to end. Our presence is absent, and fans long to have been there with our own eyes and ears.

Game after game, season after season, year after year, fans watch. The games fly by quickly, and the stench of analysis fills the air. Bits of truth latch on to rumors and opinions to form slightly refined ideas. Somehow, we seek greatness from one game to the next. It isn’t enough for a player to play a great game, or two or 35. They simply must deliver that greatness when we want them to do it most. If not, it’s all for naught.

We mold stories of the great ones of what we see, read and hear. How many times must we go over the résumés before we acknowledge who belongs at the top of our invisible, man-made pyramid?

The crux of the enigma sits in the actions of what seems to be an increasing number of fans. If they watch for greatness, then why root so hard against it? Impervious to previous success or hopeful futures, many throw whatever stones they can grab towards the stars.

While media exposure is overkill for many, upon last review, it’s still selling. Major outlets will give you something to consume as long as you continue to consume it. That’s smart business. To continue to tune in despite disdain is foolish. If the haze of LeBron on ESPN is too much, then why blame him for that? One public relations nightmare – “The Decision” – is enough to throw him under the bus forever. Can we really hate a man for something so trivial? Sounds like sour grapes.

Maybe that’s what it is. The 99th percentile of former athletes is made up of those who weren’t the star player. Perhaps some type of unsettled friction of yesteryear’s experiences creates bitterness. It makes sense.

Great players often love to watch great players. At any level of competition, they face double teams and dramatic game plans that give them a better appreciation of what greatness takes. A night of Kobe Bryant could give way to understanding how to properly get to the hole against a zone trap.

A clean-up hitter at the local high school sees a pitcher throw around Miguel Cabrera three times. On the fourth try, Cabrera’s patience pays off and he takes an outside pitch the other way for a double. The four-hole batter now appreciates that. He too knows what it’s like to be pitched around. He learns what it takes to channel frustration into production.

It might be too much for us less-than-stellar athletes to appreciate. We don't know what greatness takes. We've never had the tools to achieve it in sports.

There also exists the possibility that people simply want to hold on to what they believe in. That belief’s nestled next to Joe Montana’s late drives and Larry Bird’s jumper. It manifests itself in the nostalgia of what once was, a better time with better days and games.

Today’s players can’t reach that summit. The point of the pyramid is far too far for today’s mere athletes to grasp. Never mind the fact they are all bigger, stronger and faster than those of yesterday.

While we all watch on pins and needles to see great things happen – or great things to fail at the precipice – we must remember why we hold these things so dear. We keep them close to us because they are great. Greatness is something we all tune in to see.

Maybe we should actually root for it more often?

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