After reading many of the comments in the postmortem from the other night, one could be forgiven for thinking that John Calipari had recruited a bunch of geldings to Kentucky this year, rather than young studs. We saw plenty of manhood-questioning and laments of a lack of fortitude.
But is that what really haunts the Wildcats? After some consideration, and listening to Calipari’s comments, I don’t think so. I think it is something rather more fundamental, and I believe I have identified it:
This is a team that loves to win, but doesn’t hate to lose.
That may seem like distinction without a difference, but it really isn’t. When you love something, you want it a lot, even to the extent it becomes your whole world. You immerse yourself in trying to get it, and when you do, you are happy. When you don’t you are sad, but you know that there will be other chances. Tomorrow will come. Love is gentle, love is kind. Love is good.
A person who hates to lose is a completely different animal. "Hate," even when used in this context, is a much more powerful, raw emotion. It will drive people consumed by it to try anything to make it stop – compulsive practice, every available moment trying to figure out how to win, because the alternative is intolerable. People who hate to lose are driven by pain, rather than drawn by pleasure. The sun may come up tomorrow to these people, but they can’t get that victory back – it’s gone. Pink Floyd, or something of similar dark nature, rings in their head:
But it was only fantasy
The wall was to high, as you can see
No matter how he tried, he could not break free
And the worms ate into his brain.
The only brains being eaten by worms on this team are perhaps those of Calipari and Nerlens Noel. The rest of the team just doesn’t mind losing enough to take it personally.
Hating to lose is not gentle, it is not kind, and it is not good if you are living it. It is a dark emotion, painful and obsessive, and it doesn’t stop, or relent. It eats at you, consuming your soul, driving your body and focusing your mind.
Every year for the last three, we’ve had at least one guy who took a loss like it was the end of the world. In 2010, it was John Wall. In 2011, Brandon Knight. In 2012, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. In 2013, there is not a single player left available that hates losing enough to turn this team around.
You know who hated to lose more than any person I have ever seen in any sport? Jimmy Connors, retired tennis player. He embodied his philosophy in this quote:
I hate to lose more than I love to win.
As for UK players, perhaps the guy who hated to lose more than anybody that I can remember was Travis Ford. You can see that in him now, in his coaching, perhaps more clearly than when he wore the Blue and White.
Hating to lose is something you cannot learn – it has to be bread into the bone. You can learn to hone your craft to the point that you’re sufficiently better than the competition that you will win anyway, but you cannot learn to hate losing. Ever.
Fortitude has nothing to do with it. Bravery has nothing to do with it. Boldness has nothing to do with it. A person can be a lover of winning and still be courageous, bold, and tough. But a person who is a hater of losing is kind of like The Terminator: They can’t be reasoned with, and don’t care about little hurts, or coaches yelling at them. The don’t feel pity for the other team, or remorse about the way they beat them. They only feel relief at not losing, and perhaps a little joy of winning to share with their teammates.
This is a team of nice guys who love to win. There is probably not a dark cloud among them, ever optimistic that tomorrow is another day, hope springs eternal, all that fluffy, butter-soft love stuff. None of them feel the bitter anger and frustration of the opportunities lost, and hence are not driven hard enough to fix the cause, which is why Calipari finds himself rehashing the same explanations every single game: Didn’t compete, didn’t battle, didn’t want it as bad as the other guy. Lovers can be winners, but a team full of lovers is a soft team that has to be way better than everyone else. Kentucky is manifestly not way better than everyone else. "Love to win" forgives a loss. "Hate to lose" does not, nor does it forget.
When you hate to lose, you want it more than anybody. You fight for it until exhaustion or injury forces you to withdraw. How many times have we seen that this year? Once.
Which is why we are where we are.