A valuable lesson in losing

By Richard Cohen Published:

By Richard Cohen

Tis a pity George Bush did not own the New York Knicks instead of the Texas Rangers. History might have been different. His cocky approach to war in Iraq might have been tempered by the knowledge that money and power doesnt always guarantee victory. Sometimes, as Don Rumsfeld has memorably noted, things happen.

However the Texas Rangers might have done, the performance of the Knicks has been beyond imagination. The team has the highest payroll in the National Basketball Association ($125 million) but nonetheless will finish the year at the very bottom of the Eastern Conference. Its payroll is so rich that four players sitting out the Charlotte game the other night -- Quentin Richardson, Steve Francis, Jalen Rose and Stephon Marbury -- had contracts worth $53 million. That is one expensive bench.

I confess to not being much of a basketball fan. In fact, I am not much of a sports fan in general, having been disabused of fandom as a child when the Dodgers left Brooklyn (and me) for Los Angeles (and other people). Since then, I think of fans as I do cigarette smokers or lottery players -- suckers who are addicted to something that takes their money. Nonetheless, the game -- baseball, basketball, etc. -- still holds my occasional interest, and nothing holds my interest more than losing. Vince Lombardi was wrong: Winning is not the only thing.

The virtues of losing were driven home to me many years ago when the great Gil Hodges, first baseman of the aforementioned Dodgers, went into a prolonged slump. In the 1952 World Series (against the hated Yankees), he went 0 for 21 with five walks. This was extremely painful to watch. The sainted Hodges was a beloved figure, modest in the forgotten way of great athletes, immensely strong and genuinely gifted. When his gift left him -- suddenly, mysteriously -- it was like watching some proud animal brought low by a disease it could not come close to fathoming. The pain on Hodges face was shared by (I thought) the whole world. A public impotence, Roger Kahn called it in his classic, The Boys of Summer.

Packages arrived with rosary beads, rabbits feet, mezuzahs, scapulars, wrote Kahn. A priest, Herbert Redmond of Brooklyns St. Francis Roman Catholic Church, told his congregation one Sunday, Its far too hot for a sermon. Keep the Commandments and say a prayer for Gil Hodges. In our own ways, we all did.

The mortification of the mighty Hodges was a lesson to a kid. This was not a case of some hot dog getting his comeuppance, but of the fates punishing a modest and good man for no apparent reason. It had a Job quality to it and, the Bible aside, it showed you what could happen in life. It showed you that, yes, things happen. This was not a lesson lost on Brooklyn, the quintessential working-class borough of the time. People there knew that life aint fair. It aint even logical. Sometimes two and two dont make four. The fans understood. Hodges, whose slump persisted through the next spring, was never booed.

It probably matters that the Knicks are owned by the son of the man who originally bought the team. It probably matters that Bush got to be president in sort of the same way. It definitely matters that all his lessons in life deceived him into thinking that money and connections and a cockeyed sense of destiny somehow added up to success. Bush did not know, as the Knicks now do and any Dodgers fan of old has never forgotten, that sometimes things just go wrong. You can, as we now know, put the greatest army the world has ever seen up against a ragtag bunch of Iraqis (led by a raving lunatic, incidentally) -- and still be there three years later. Its the Knicks all over again. The rich payroll produced nothing.

Henry Ford, not my favorite historical figure, was an ignoramus and a bigot, but besides being something of an industrial genius, he once said something very smart. After a harebrained scheme of his to end World War I came to naught, Ford said, We learn more from our failures than from our successes. To hope this will be the case when it comes to the Knicks trivializes hope itself. Basketball, after all, is only a game. But Iraq is a war, fought by the modest and the brave. Still, as with the sorry Knicks, the lessons of defeat are clear: Its not the bench that needs to be replaced. Its the front office.

2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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