Failures in sports, life just steps on path

  • Derrick White of the Boston Celtics looks down as they lose 103-84 during Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat at the TD Garden in Boston, May 29. TNS FILE PHOTO

Published: 6/10/2023 9:00:14 AM

Quick — what six- or seven-letter word is synonymous with “ignominious,” i.e., something causing or deserving public disgrace or shame?

If this were a recent Boston-themed crossword puzzle or “Jeopardy!” episode, the answers would resound off the downtown skyscrapers and Berkshire foothills: the Bruins or Celtics. (It’s not really an accurate answer since “ignominious” is an adjective and the teams are nouns. But the noun “ignominy” doesn’t roll malevolently off the tongue like the adjective. Besides, linguistic rules are made to be broken, especially if I’m the breaker.)

But how to explain the extreme roller coaster ride for sports-addled fans (like me) to a non-fan or a temperate one? They began spectacularly, boasting new coaches and playing styles. The Bruins started with a record string of home wins and ended with an all-time win record. By mid-December, the Celtics, with the league’s best record, were anointed the “best team” by the media with Jayson Tatum a lock for MVP. Let the good times roll!

The dismal playoff endings came recently. The Bruins lost three games in a row to a team with a far inferior record. The Celtics dug themselves into a hole too deep by losing the first three to Miami (again with a far worse record) and getting destroyed at home in Game 7.

Failing to fulfill expectations is a common theme in all sports, locales, and levels of competition. This year, the Milwaukee Bucks, 2021 world champs and the one team with a better regular-season record than Boston, were sent home more quickly than the Celtics, winning only a single playoff game.

Players are often asked to assess a season that fell short. In 1997, Hall of Fame Yankee Derek Jeter said, “If we don’t win the World Series, the season’s a failure.” He repeated that view each non-winning year of his long career and for years afterward.

“Failure” is a heavily loaded word, allowing no nuance or mitigation: failure is black and white, do or die, all or nothing. If a bridge span fails, the whole bridge goes down; if a key electrical connection fails, an entire city or area may go dark.

The Bucks’ superstar, Giannis Antetokounmpo (I could teach you the pronunciation in person) is a shining example of achievement: one of the best big men in all of basketball, and a model citizen off the court, respectful and gracious, and a recent immigrant who became eloquent in his non-native English. He was asked if this season was a failure.

He hung his head for a moment, not for the loss, but because he’d been asked the same question last year. Finally, he explained, using comparisons beyond sports. He suggested that many people work every year to get a promotion or raise so they can better support their family. But if they don’t achieve that goal, “It’s not a failure.” Instead, “it’s steps to success.” He doesn’t consider Michael Jordan’s nine non-championship years, or the Bucks’ 50 years before his arrival, as failures.

“There’s no failure in sports,” he stated unequivocally. “Some days you are able to be successful, some days you’re not. Some days it’s your turn, some days it’s not your turn.”

Jeter has now modified his definition of failure, telling young people that it’s important to take chances and “learn how to fail” so they can build on their learning. It’s a great message for kids and adults in our dog-eat-dog society that quickly labels winners and losers.

In a larger, metaphysical sense, they might be describing a quasi-Buddhist view: Every victory or defeat can be part of a lifelong effort at learning and growth, steps up and down a ladder toward greater enlightenment. But with sports salaries worth hundreds of millions of dollars, is effort enough to accept lesser achievements? Is it enough that the Celtics were better than 28 of 32 teams by getting to the conference finals?

If each loss or “failure” is merely a chance to improve, then we can go into the next Celtics’ and Bruins’ seasons (or before stepping outside a personal or business comfort zone) confident that the next steps will lead upward. But how should we judge a team like the Celtics, who had multiple opportunities to learn from their mistakes, but instead repeated them, almost willfully, with the encouragement of their coach?

We don’t know. That’s one of the beauties of playing and spectating sports: The ladders to success lead up and down, and we don’t know which direction people or teams will go.

Allen Woods is a freelance writer, author of the Revolutionary-era historical fiction novel “The Sword and Scabbard,” and Greenfield resident. Comments are welcome here or at

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