Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Badger State way

Photo by Oregon Dept. of Fish and Game on Flickr
I have an admission - I'm not a huge hoops fan. Yes, I just finished up several months worth of articles detailing area basketball games for the sports section of this newspaper, and yes I enjoyed being at the games and watching and learning more about the sport. But despite my best efforts, it still doesn't matter very much to me.

Heck, I even love playing basketball on the outdoor courts in the summer, but the NBA has never appealed to me. Maybe it's because I don't know the game inside and out, or perhaps there's just a disconnect between playing and watching, or maybe I haven't grown fond of it because my shot is still terrible (much to the appeal of my friends' laughter); I couldn't tell you for sure. Even March madness, with all of its close contests and upsets and fast-paced games, struggles to truly command my interest for more than a couple games.

I'm coming clean about it because as much as I have tried to show more interest, I simply hit a wall in caring about the game, and I constantly wonder why.

Last Friday, the Badgers men's basketball team went out in the second round of the NCAA tournament to Ole Miss, 57-46. Making the loss difficult to swallow was that Wisconsin led at the half, was seeded much higher than the Mississippi team, and snapped a first-game six-win streak for themselves by letting the game get beyond their own grasp.

Under head coach Bo Ryan, the Badger men have been well-known for playing stout defense, for playing scrappy and hard-nosed, for making other teams flounder offensively, and for generally creating a ruckus mess on the court of play. In short, the Badgers have acted like badgers.

Truthfully, the University of Wisconsin has one of the few sports organizations blessed with a sigil that accurately reflects the mentality of their home. The creature itself is a stout menace of unexpected strength with an ornery disposition and short temper - much like many northerners. The expectation of a badger is simple: Be tough, unyielding, absolutely fearless, and aggressive when threatened... welcome to Wisconsin!

In the basketball game though, it didn't work. The badger attitude couldn't overturn the results of that live or die (in tournament speak) contest. Wisconsin's Sam Dekker and company played their game the way taxidea taxus would have ransacked a challenger at his den - with long, thick claws digging and scraping, grating and cutting - but it wasn't enough. The badger snarl and muscle was undone in the second half, and in the end, the den dweller went back to his hole to hibernate until next season.

Wisconsin was undone by a true enemy in Marshall Henderson, the over assuming talent to the Ole Miss offense. A guard, who throughout the season has made a name for himself by becoming a trash talking, walking narcissistic reality show/sideline attraction. The kind of player who thinks he owns the moon, who seems to expect fealty and admiration for doing nothing more than what he was recruited to do. The kind of guy for whom the character-driven Badgers would never settle.

And that's where I found the important parallel - the strong, defensive, proud and respectful Badgers were dismantled single handedly by an irreverent scab, and there's nothing they could do about it. The Wisconsin attitude failed; the lesser man won the day.

We could blame the loss on a change of momentum, or missed opportunities, or a failure to adapt, but the truth is those are all related to the bad guy setting fire to the second half of the game. What do you do when suddenly your opponent has the upper hand? Do you stay the course with your game plan and plow ahead regardless of whether or not things are working according to plan? Or do you try to learn and adapt to what has changed; find a new way to win?

There's a line here, I think. A fine line between adapting for success and keeping your identity. How much are you able to change about yourself to overcome an obstacle without losing yourself - without going beyond your capabilities? How far can you stretch yourself mentally, physically, emotionally before 1) you snap or 2) you're someone else?

Life throws things at us.

Life throws things at us, and more often than not, those things are not as obvious as a rude basketball player. In fact, sometimes we don't realize the game has changed until it's already too late. Sometimes we don't even know the game is over - the crowd gone, bleachers swept - until our window to act is long gone. Sometimes this happens and we wonder how we've become the people we are now.

At these junctions we have a few options. We can accept our fate, build up a wall against what has injured us, and seal it tight. Or, we can learn from what happened, study it exhaustively to envelope the experience, and fight for life.

Now, we're all guilty of the first option, or at least I am, and that's because it's easier. It's easier to hate than it is to love. It's easier to ward off, take flight, or board up the problem than it is to meet it open and head on. And maybe that sounds familiar to you. Maybe you've boarded up the defeat, or ran far away from it. Only you can say, but I think there is always a way to come back.

I think that, like me, you have a guiding set of principles that you've been chiseling on your whole life - digging, testing, refining, implementing, and testing again. There is a backbone of guidance that you can fall back on; an identity that no matter who you are, what you do, or how deep you burrow, is something you carry with you. When you come out of your den, when you're ready to go face-to-face once again, don't leave your principals behind.

The Badgers may have lost and ended their season early in the tournament this year, but they didn't compromise themselves. They didn't lose their heads or play dirty. They didn't blame each other or anyone other than themselves, and they won't let outsiders dictate their collective attitude. Most importantly, they won't let the defeat sting them forever.

Next season they'll come back and fight again. They'll work and struggle and sweat and push themselves like they always have - why? Because they want to succeed. The team plays with our state animal as its mascot - a representation, an attitude of Wisconsin that every member of the team must uphold. A discipline of this state that serves as a common guideline, and one that has tasted success and will again.

I guess I got something more out of a basketball game after all. 

“No man is great enough or wise enough for any of us to surrender our destiny to. The only way in which anyone can lead us is to restore to us the belief in our own guidance.” 
- Henry Miller

See you out there,
A woodsman in training.

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