I don’t care how brilliant you are, losing every game for 11 years running has to smart. No one gets a better physics education than Caltech students. After all, the great Richard Feynman was a professor there for many years and Albert Einstein would deliver guest lectures. But the physical education program falls a little shorter. They have been fielding a basketball squad that went eleven consecutive seasons, 207 games, without winning a single contest in NCAA competition. The futile system has finally ended, with an 81-52 victory over Bard College last Saturday. Time to break out the champagne, although the pain which preceded it was no sham.
The school does not offer athletic scholarships. This limits the coach’s recruitment pool to young men cerebral enough that he can passably assist them with an academic scholarship. Perhaps surprisingly, very few science geeks are adept at calculating the manual pressure requisite for propelling a spheroid object in a 20-foot arc through a circular rim. The team has more valedictorians (8) than kids who played on their varsity high school team (6).
Think of what it takes to go out there eleven years in a row without a prayer — or, if you are one of those scientist geniuses who are smarter than God, without a formula. An incoming freshman in 1997-2002 would experience an entire four-year college career without ever hearing the final buzzer in exaltation. How grim it must have been to trudge out there time after time, knowing the score before you know the score. What’s the name of the mythological guy who was doomed to roll the stone up the mountain without ever reaching the top? Mick Jagger or something.
Sure, things are different when you are in Caltech. You are a big achiever in areas which have real meaning, so you don’t have to look to basketball to fill your whole life. You can be a big shot without being a big gun. And maybe if you don’t need it so bad, you don’t fight for it so hard. Thus, the interplay between motivation and emotional investment makes for an anomalous equation of the sort that would engage a Caltech type of mind. The less deeply you care the less defeat hurts; the less deeply you care the less likely you are to reap any result other than defeat. You need to invest higher emotional stakes, to risk more on the downside, in order to generate the energy and persistence essential for triumph.
Here the margin comes into play. Had the long-awaited victory been by just a few points, the joy would have been undiluted. When they won by 29, the message had to ramify retrospectively. A team that could win by that much could have won before. The ecstasy becomes tempered by doubt and regret: what took so long? Sure they only beat a 1-9 team but plenty of those had dispatched them handily over the years.
This seems to be the trajectory. First you still care a lot and the losses hurt a lot. You respond to the early losses by trying harder to win. Somehow you keep falling short, mostly by desert, sometimes by luck. The glamour goes but a glimmer remains. The glimmer goes, leaving glumness. Finally, glumness out, in its place total gloom. Rock bottom. Only by ceasing to care can the pain be assuaged. But once you don’t care, your last chance at winning is gone.
Applying these lessons will give us a sense of what it was like to be a Republican in Congress in the 40 lean years from 1954 through 1994. To lose 20 elections in a row erodes the spirit, making victory seem impossible; the exercise turns into alchemy instead of science and the object turns into a chimera instead of a desideratum. No one was more surprised by their victory in 1994 than themselves. Yet they responded by tacking on five more wins and becoming a credible force in the American electoral sweepstakes.
What happens next? Well, the important part is not to buy into any fanciful scenarios that predict a new Democrat realignment. Both teams have won often enough that neither can be tarred anymore as a perennial loser. We can imagine what the Caltech coach is telling his team before the next game: “Boys, it is not about streaks anymore. No more jinxes. Gone are the gray clouds. Now we know the simple truth. If we play hard and work as a team, we have a real chance to win every time out.”
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