Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Best Thing About Sports: The Ever Changing, Unpredictable Narratives

We thought that we knew the story. Mike Tyson was an unstoppable force, a knockout machine so fearsome that he seemed to win many of his fights before they even began as his terrified opponents stared at him through saucer-sized, fearful eyes. Then Buster Douglas came along and Tyson looked less like an all-time great and more like the neighborhood bully who finally met someone who was not afraid of him.

We thought that we knew the story. John Elway and the Denver Broncos could never win the big one. Elway had a rocket arm and nimble feet but he was destined to come up short in the Super Bowl. Then Terrell Davis arrived, Coach Mike Shanahan tinkered with the offense and Elway won back to back Super Bowls as a stirring coda to a Hall of Fame career. 

We thought that we knew the story. The 2007 New England Patriots seemed to be the ultimate team of destiny, a squad that had recently won three Super Bowls in four years, had just completed the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history and was now poised to finish 19-0 by winning a fourth Super Bowl. Then Eli Manning and the New York Giants pulled off perhaps the biggest upset in Super Bowl history.

We thought that we knew the story. Tiger Woods was destined to shatter Jack Nicklaus' record for major championships, while Phil Mickelson was a talented but flawed player whose reckless approach would inevitably lead to thrilling moments followed by baffling choke jobs. The same thing was true of Woods that used to be said of Nicklaus: He knew that he was the best, his opponents knew that he was the best and he knew that his opponents knew. Woods never came from behind to win a major championship but he never needed to come from behind because he usually had lapped the field by Sunday. Chess Grandmasters once spoke of "Fischer Fear," referring to the way that Bobby Fischer intimidated other great players to such an extent that those players performed far below their normal standard against him; for many years it seemed like golf's best players suffered from "Woods Fear," collapsing down the stretch of tournaments at the mere sight of Woods prowling the back nine. Then Woods' personal life crashed--literally and figuratively--and he struggled to regain his former dominance; Woods may still believe that he is the best (or he may doubt that at some level, which could be part of his problem) but it is clear that his competitors no longer suffer from "Woods Fear."

Meanwhile, Mickelson--whose personal life seems to be the steady and grounded opposite of his free-swinging playing style--has figured out how to seize the big moments on Sunday at major championships as opposed to shrinking from those moments. Mickelson has won more majors since 2004 (five) than any golfer except for Woods (six) and he seems to be getting better with age, while Woods' game does not seem to be aging well; Woods used to be the ultimate finisher but in his past several majors he has started strongly only to falter down the stretch and it is unclear if the problem is physical, mental or some combination of both factors. It is a tribute to Woods' former greatness that despite his recent drought he still has won more majors in the past nine years than anyone else (and more than Mickelson has won in his entire career) but unless Woods undergoes some kind of revival the narrative of his career--and of his rivalry with Mickelson--will be much different than anyone could have imagined as recently as that fateful Thanksgiving weekend in 2009 when Woods' private life became a source of public mockery and derision.

The great thing about sports is that competition is the ultimate unscripted drama. We may think that we know the characters and we may think that we know the stories but people can change their lives and write new, previously unimaginable tales.

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