Monthly Archives: May 2014

Spelling and Meaning

Have you ever seen the word “paixtle”? Do you know the language of origin or how to use it in a sentence? More importantly, can you spell it on stage in front of a full audience and cameras clicking all around you? No? Well, maybe you’ll have better luck with “ctenoid.” The “c” is silent (obviously). And yet, for hundreds of young students, the Scripps National Spelling Bee is the culmination of hours spent studying dictionaries, reading vocabulary lists, and learning different etymology patterns of multiple languages so that they could correctly spell those two words and many, many others too.

It’s even more impressive considering the participants in the Bee are no older than fifteen (or eighth grade). Many had previously attended the event as young children. They’ve been coached for years, practicing all the time. You’ll see students who are focused and determined to win, demonstrating a remarkable drive to become champions.

On screen we witness the brilliance of these young spellers. And we also see evidence of another reality: they’re kids. They let their personalities shine on stage. They joke around with the judges; they smile on camera. During interviews, their answers are candid and honest (and of course their grammar is perfect too). If someone misses a word, they can count on a line of high-fives when they exit the stage. If a particularly challenging word is spelled correctly, the other competitors applaud enthusiastically. Moreover, both participants and spectators alike recognize and appreciate all the effort that the competitors have invested. When was the last time you saw a 13-year-old receive a standing ovation for an incorrect answer? The competitors want to win; they take the Bee seriously, and yet they don’t take it too seriously. No whining about the officiating; none of the “win at all costs” mentality. Watching the Spelling Bee, you get a sense of what is possible when the spirit of competition meets the excellence of sportsmanship. During the final few rounds, the last two competitors spent time chatting with each other in between words. You think that happens often in sports? I hardly think Tiger Woods is joking around with Rory McIlroy walking up to the 18th green. Roger Federer and Andy Murray aren’t sharing a bench after the first set. And it’s not because there isn’t a lot on the line at the Bee. A $30,000 prize greets the winner, not to mention the recognition and interviews that will occur throughout the following year. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime for these kids (many have spent almost that much time preparing for the Bee), and yet they seem to keep it in the proper perspective.

I am amazed at how often I hear a word I can’t even pronounce, and then a kid much younger than me rattles off the correct spelling without hesitation. They put in the time, the effort, and the passion toward accomplishing their goal. And if their journey ends when they miss a word, they say thank you and leave the stage with a smile anyway. That’s quite a way to carry yourself, win or lose. We can learn a lot from the way these kids compete every year. If you’re willing to look for a deeper meaning, you’ll surely learn more just than the definition of feuilleton (which was the final word this year by the way).  AN

Comeback Stories

I had the pleasure of attending with my father the first ACC basketball game at Notre Dame upon their move to the new conference. It was a Saturday afternoon game between the Irish and the Duke Blue Devils. Of course everyone was excited for the first-ever ACC game hosted at the Purcell Pavilion, and facing a team led by Mike Krzyzewski and Jabari Parker only increased the day’s excitement. Notre Dame had stumbled a few times up to that point in the season, and the dismissal of leading scorer Jerian Grant for academic reasons did nothing to increase the optimism for Notre Dame’s first season against tough opponents in the ACC. Nevertheless, the Irish faithful arrived in droves and cheered as loud as ever. Notre Dame played Duke close for the first half, trailing only by 2 at the break. In the second half, Duke opened up a 10-point lead, seeming ready to pull away. I remember thinking, “Well we played them close, it was a solid effort even if we come up short in the end.” But the Irish didn’t give up, chipping away at the deficit with defensive stops and the 3-pointers that Irish fans love to cheer on their home court. Down 7, down 4, eventually Notre Dame fought back  to tie the game, and then take a 4-point lead with 4 minutes left. Each basket was followed by the loudest cheers, and the crowed started to think we might actually pull this one off. After hitting free throws down the stretch, the buzzer sounded the 79-77 Irish victory over Duke, one of the most exciting college basketball games I have attended.

On the drive home, we turned on the radio which was broadcasting the NFL playoffs. Both my father and I are big Colts fans, and they were hosting the Chiefs in the first round of the playoffs. We heard the score: the Colts were losing 38-10, and we turned off the game, not really expecting much. But after a while, I inexplicably decided to check the score on my phone, and somehow the deficit was cut to 10 at the start of the fourth quarter. We turned on the game, barely believing our ears, as Andrew Luck led the most improbable comeback, capped by a long touchdown pass to TY Hilton, for a 45-44 win in front of the home crowd. Amazing. Two Indiana teams, two comebacks, two highlight wins.

I remember saying to my dad: “how many reminders do we need to prove to ourselves why we play until the clock says zero, until the very end?” I’ll admit it, my  faith was shaken twice that day, yet two times it was the efforts of those stronger than I that carried my favorite teams to victory. And that’s what is great about sports: no matter the odds, we keep fighting and the amazing can happen.

Yesterday, during the NBA playoffs, we were reminded again. Down 2 games to 1, the Clippers trailed the Thunder by 16 in the fourth quarter and rallied to win. Chris Paul guarded Kevin Durant. Darren Collison propelled the Clippers with 8 points in the final 3 minutes, and when Russell Westbrook’s long 3-point didn’t fall, the Clippers had sealed a 101-99 win, tying the best-of-7 series at 2 games apiece. “Desperate coaching” was what Doc Rivers called it, but sometimes that’s what it takes. Hours later, the Indiana Pacers found themselves trailing on the road against a resilient Wizards team. They were not shooting well, and they were down by 19. It seemed to be the resurfacing of every rumor of this Pacers team collapsing, leaving behind the dominant play that highlighted the first half of their season. Then the comeback began, led by a man on a mission named Paul George. Hitting 3-pointers, getting to the foul line, George brought the Pacers all the way back. Then the Wizards opened another 9-point lead, and George again rallied the Pacers, getting help from a resurgent Roy Hibbert and the rest of the starters. A costly turnover by the Wizards on their last inbounds play sealed the 95-92 win for the Pacers, who took a 3-1 edge in the series.

Sports give us a chance to see the passion and determination that make these great stories happen. It doesn’t always work, comeback efforts fall short, and that makes the ones that happen feel even more exciting. The crowd watches with bated breath. Players will their teams to win, for the fans, for their coaches, for each other, and for the love of the game. We get inspired by any number of sports cliches (It ain’t over ’til it’s over), but sometimes we need another real example of why should never, ever give up. So the next time the shots don’t fall, the field goal goes wide right, or your team is down in the 4th quarter, think twice before you turn off the TV. It might not happen this time or the next, but sooner or later there will be another come-from-behind that rewards our faith. So turn your rally caps around and cheer a little louder; this is why we don’t give up. We wait for next great moment, we wait to be shocked one more time; this is the reason why we keep believing. Just ask Hollywood; everyone loves a comeback story.  AN

Sterling Silver

Less than three months after assuming the role of NBA commissioner, Adam Silver was faced with a challenge that may very well be the defining moment of his likely long tenure as commissioner. LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling became the top headline across the country when an audio recording of his racist remarks were released to the public. Immediately the NBA clamored to respond appropriately amid widespread public outcry. Because this emotional issue affected so many players, coaches, and fans, the entire image of the NBA was at stake. Silver’s stance on what exactly the NBA would or would not tolerate would likely become the precedent for how these matters are handled. Silver understood that resolving Donald Sterling’s association with NBA will not automatically prevent future issues, nor could change an entire culture overnight. However, what is more significant than the magnitude of this issue, was the response by those in positions of leadership. The steps that Adam Silver would take to address this matter proved extremely important, and he responded to the situation in the best way possible.

Silver took this issue very seriously. By his own admission, he was disgusted with the comments made, and reiterated they had no place in the NBA. Silver could have flown off the handle, could have jumped to every possible conclusion. He could have tried to make sweeping changes too fast, could have allowed everyone’s opinion to shape the NBA’s response. But he didn’t. What did he do? He respected the process. No matter how confident anyone claimed to be that the voice was indeed Sterling’s; no matter how distasteful we found the recorded comments, Silver promised “due process” and a thorough investigation. Not just for the sake of fairness, but to preserve the integrity of the matter, lest an appeal be claimed on the basis of a lack of due diligence.

He was efficient. Silver emphasized that the investigation would be completed in a timely manner. Coaches don’t want to answer questions about owner’s comments; they want to address strategy for the next game. Players don’t want to think about boycotting games; they want to think about winning games. Off-the-court issues are even more distracting when a team is competing for a championship. In the first round of the playoffs, there are already some tremendous matchups and great games. Silver gave a timely response, allowing the focus back on basketball.

He understood that specific individuals were personally affected. Silver apologized to those targeted by any of the recorded racist comments. He stood up for the players and coaches, and understood that issues of race are extremely important and should not be taken lightly.

He recognized the limits of his power. Silver made a bold decision; any lifetime ban is a monumental move. But he knew the limits of the NBA constitution which set the maximum fine at $2.5 million. He did not try to personally remove Sterling as the Clippers owner, but instead called for the support of league owners to support him in forcing the sale of the team.

In making his decision, Silver affirmed that the NBA is bigger than the sum of its parts; that as an institution, the NBA can enforce expectations for its membership and association. Anything less would have weakened his support from players; anything more would have overstepped his role as commissioner. It will take more than this one incident to change the culture of sports and society, but we can learn how to effectively deal with these matters in the future. Fans, coaches, and players called for a fair decision presented clearly and effeciently. That’s exactly what Adam Silver delivered.  AN