Bill Self left me three voicemails one evening, and by the time I listened to them and called him back, I had realized he was asking me for a favor that I couldn’t believe he was concerning himself with. He thought a headline on one of my stories about a big recruit was misleading and he was asking me to change it, because the family of that recruit read everything, and he didn’t want them to be mislead, even though he was all-but certain KU wasn’t getting the kid anyway.
He was standing at the bottom of a 100-foot well, fighting for an inch.
There’s another story I’ve heard, which isn’t mine to tell. But you know that Vince Lombardi speech, “What it takes to be No. 1?” There’s a quote in there that says this: “I’ve never known a man worth his salt who in the long run, deep down in his heart didn’t appreciate the grind, the discipline. There is something in good men that really yearns for discipline and the harsh reality of head-to-head combat.”
I know that speech, and that specific part of that speech, means a lot to Bill Self. Remember when Self lost to Bucknell and Bradley in back-to-back years? And everybody was laughing at him? And everybody had their Self jokes? And Roy won the national title?And Self was still this Big Ten guy with his high-low offense who kept blowing it in the tournament? How would you have liked to be Bill Self in that moment?
Well, a friend of mine asked him. There’s something in the hearts of competitive men. That’s what he told him.
It seems like you can almost always say that a basketball team is a reflection of its coach. They all seem to adopt some major part of their coach’s personality. The team that won it all in 2008 had Self’s confidence. Those guys could be a little too confident sometimes. They thought they were the baddest mofos in the gym every time out, and they were usually right. I have a high level of confidence that if you caught Sherron Collins or Mario Chalmers in a genuinely honest moment on April 6, 2008, they’d have both told you they thought they were better than Derrick Rose. I think Self is quite a bit like that. I don’t think he’s ever met a room he didn’t think he could own or a person he didn’t think he could win over.
I think those teams with Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich adopted something of Self’s too. Self always said he and Collins had very similar personalities, and I think because Self was the coach and Collins was the point guard those teams had a distinct temperament. Stubbornness. Always with something to prove.
His teams always play good defense, and they’re usually unselfish and if you want to see Self’s personality in there, you can always find it.
This team has those characteristics, too, but there is something else. This is the one that fights for the inch at the bottom of a well.
“It seems like when it kind of looks like it’s not going our way the most is when they kind of rise to the challenge and play their best,” Self said Sunday.
There’s something in the hearts of competitive men.
These guys were down 19 points to the No. 3 team in the country with 16 minutes left, and won the game. They trailed by double digits against Purdue, NC State and Ohio State in NCAA Tournament games and won all three.
This is not to say these guys aren’t confident. With the game on the line against Purdue, the shooting guard threw an alley-oop to the point guard on a fast break. Confidence is not an issue with these guys. But it is not their defining characteristic.
I think we give athletes too much credit sometimes for not giving up. One of my favorite quotes is from Bill Snyder, who was asked one day to credit his team for not quitting in a game the Wildcats ultimately lost.
“They don’t let you quit,” he said.
No, it’s not that impressive. Most teams don’t quit. Most teams keep trying to make plays even when the game has gone far in the other team’s direction. Most college basketball players will keep diving for loose balls, keep taking charges, keep fighting for rebounds, no matter the situation. It’s what you’re taught to do. It’s practically all you know how to do. It is the central tenet of athletic competition.
But there is a difference between not giving up and actually believing you can win. You have to believe that this rebound will make a difference. Maybe it only increases your chances by one percentage point. Maybe even less than that. But you’ll take it. And then the next play compounds it. One percentage point becomes four, which becomes 16, which becomes 64.
When Kansas was behind by 13 against Ohio State in Saturday’s Final Four game, college basketball sabergeek Ken Pomeroy calculated the Jayhawks’ chances of winning the game at 12 percent. Now, why a person who just watched a thrilling basketball game would feel compelled to pull out his calculator and perform a math problem is something I’ll never understand, and I think sabermetrics are sort of the novelty gift stores of the basketball world — Of what value is this remote-controlled fart machine/clutch-shooting metric? Not much, but it sure is fun to play with. — but I suppose I trust that Pomeroy gave us a more or less accurate idea of just how bad of shape the Jayhawks were in at that moment.
Yet there is no way to measure the psychology of a basketball team. Those metrics are based on ALL the college basketball teams, and the outcome of that game was based on Kansas and Ohio State.
“Beware of geeks bearing formulas,” Warren Buffet once said.
Buffet, Lombardi and Self might have some things in common. Buffet once bought a company whose owner counted the sheets of toilet paper in a roll to see if he was getting cheated, which he was. He admired that.
“Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago,” he said once.
Well, the Jayhawks are sitting in the shade today. They may lose tonight. Kentucky is better. There is not much doubt about that.
But there is something in the hearts of good men that yearns for the harsh reality of head-to-head combat.