October 31, 2012

Toledo | Winning Time: What Makes a True Legend?

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What is it that separates a great player from just a good player? What separates legends from losers? What separates heroes from the forgettable? What separates the names carved in stone from the names written in sand for the waves to wash away?

It’s a little thing I like to call winning time.

Winning time is not when you blow away an opponent and beat them by some ludicrous score differential. Winning time is not when your team dominates the game and pulls away early to seal the deal. Winning time is not when one team shows up and the other does not. Winning time is not when the starters are pulled out near the end of the game to allow the reserves to get some playing time.

Winning time is when the game remains even for its entirety, or at least towards the end. It is when neither team dominates but are evenly matched. Winning time is when both teams show up and match up in an all out sprint to the finish line to see who will emerge victorious. Winning time is when your superstars remain in the game with 15 seconds left in the fourth quarter and the game is on the line. Winning time is when against all odds, one athlete puts the weight of his team on his shoulders and says “Give me the ball, I want to take the last shot.” Winning time is when the stakes are at their highest; when a game or a season or even a championship is on the line.

Winning time defines greatness, because it is when all of this chaos is looming in the air that timeless legends show their true colors.

I can think of few better examples of an athlete thriving in winning time than Game 1 of the 1995 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Indiana Pacers trailed the New York Knicks 105-99 with 18.7 sec left in the fourth quarter in Madison Square Garden. For most, it would have felt like the game was over for the Pacers. A six-point deficit with less than 20 sec to play may have seemed insurmountable. However, entering the game was a lanky, 6’7” shooter who wanted nothing more than to beat the Knicks in their house and try to bring a championship to Indiana. The man I’m referring to is Reggie Miller. The Pacers had posession and Miller quickly made a three-point shot to cut the lead in half, which led the Knicks to inbound the ball. After a poor inbound pass from Anthony Mason, Reggie stole the ball and had the presence of mind to dribble back beyond the three-point arc and shoot another three pointer, sinking it and tying the game. After a Pacers foul against Knick John Starks, Starks went to the line and missed both free throws. Patrick Ewing then missed a put-back jumper, and Miller came down with the ball, getting fouled on the play with a chance to go to the line and take the lead. Miller sank both free throws, making the score Indiana 107, New York 105. The rest — as they say — was history.

Probably one of the most iconic single instances of a player living in winning time was during Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. With the Bulls down 86-85 against the Utah Jazz and with a 3-2 series lead, it was do or die time for the Bulls with just seconds left in the fourth quarter. Who else but Michael Jordan had the ball, and after a crossover and step back, he put up a twenty-foot jump shot and sank the proverbial dagger into the hearts of the Jazz and every Utah fan in the Delta Center. Could there possibly have been a better way for Michael Jordan to take his final shot as a member of the Chicago Bulls than a game-winner for his sixth NBA Championship?

Although this was well before my time, before MJ, Reggie, and some of the other guys I grew up watching, Magic Johnson was the standard for a basketball player who was at his best when the pressure was highest. If you disagree, look up Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals. It was Lakers against Celtics — one of the biggest rivalries in sports history. In the closing seconds, down 106-105, after setting a pick on Kevin McHale, Magic Johnson caught the inbound pass. With a significant speed advantage over McHale, a post defender, Magic was able to drive into the key and put up a sky hook shot that just cleared the fingertips of McHale and swished through the net to win the game. Although this shot did not clinch the series, it came at a time when his team needed it most.

My favorite “clutch” player, thanks to my own personal bias, has got to be the one and only, “Guard, 6 foot 6 inches from Lower Merion High School, number 24, Kobeeeeeee Bryaaaaaaaant.” I don’t think that I’ve ever seen another athlete who in winning time, for better or worse, wants the responsibility of winning or losing the game for his team more than Kobe. This is a guy who lives for the biggest stages. This is a guy who no matter what, when the stakes are at their highest, wants to shoulder his team and be either the reason why the Lakers lose or the reason why they win. Kobe has the confidence in himself to rise to the occasion when it matters the most. When I saw Kobe sink a game-winning three pointer over Dwayne Wade against the Miami Heat, I jumped up and down going absolutely nuts, screaming my lungs out because Mr. Clutch had done it again.

Being confronted with an intense amount of pressure is like coming to a fork in the road, but the route we take is not based on our own choice. Rather, this choice is made by the content of our character and our toughness mentally and physically. We can either allow this pressure to consume us and be overwhelmed by the situation, or we can rise above the pressure, thrive in it, and use it as a catalyst for our own spectacular performance. Those who are able to achieve the latter are those who not only live in the moment, but also transcend the moment.

When an athlete can be greater than the moment, and wants to rise to any occasion — regardless of the setting — over the course of his or her career, he or she becomes a legend. Being a legend is not about statistics, or championships, or anything solely tangible, it is about rising above the game and making a mark on the memories of fans everywhere.

Original Author: Juan Carlos Toledo