By Clark DeLeon
I didn’t have the space yesterday to deal with one aspect of City Councilman George Burrell’s letter, the part where he asks, “Why did I think you had greater respect for athletes, athletics and the values they learn?” The fact is that anyone who has participated in serious organized athletics – serious in the sense of personal commitment; it doesn’t matter on what level – can tell you how important that experience is in developing and testing personal values. Team sports offer some of life’s greatest lessons, offer being the key word. Whether such lessons are learned, appreciated, acted upon and passed on to others all depends on the person.
To be tested, to be truly tested, that I think is what athletics is all about. It’s a test of body and spirit, of flesh and will, of focus and imagination, of finding out how much you want it, whatever it is. Discipline, sacrifice, persistence – these are characteristics of success, but they are not guarantees.
That’s because athletics offers other lessons as well: Life is not fair. The rich get richer. Good guys don’t necessarily win.
You can learn that no matter how much you want it, no matter how hard you work to get it, you can lose it to someone who doesn’t want it as much, someone who didn’t work for it as hard, someone who was simply better. Faster, smarter, stronger, taller and even lazier, but better.
Such a bitter lesson, such a challenge to what was learned from the finer lesson, such a test of the test itself. And the passing grade in this test is wisdom and character. Because it is then that awful truth becomes clear, when the cliche takes on the mantle of the profound, when you understand the personal responsibility behind the statement:
It’s not winning or losing that counts. It’s how you play the game.
Play to win. Play fair. Believe in yourself. Respect your teammates and your opponents. Be generous in victory and gracious in defeat. Don’t give up. Have a good time.
It’s how you play the game that counts.
VALUES II: THE TOWEL BOY AND THE STAR
While writing the item above, I was trying to think of an example of someone I’ve seen demonstrate the spirit and values I was trying to describe. And who leapt to mind but John Tucker.
Tucker is the all-time leading scorer for the Philadelphia Wings of the National Indoor Lacrosse League. He was a three-time All-America at Johns Hopkins and he has mom-and-apple-pie dark good looks. His teammates think he’s the greatest. Of course, it’s easy to be the greatest when you are the greatest.
Last April, I traveled to Worcester, Mass., with the Wings for the league championship game against the New England Blazers, and there I saw the true Tucker.
In the playoffs, Tucker had suffered torn ligaments in one knee, and he was doubtful for the championship game. He wanted to play. Oh, how he wanted to play. It wasn’t until the team meal the afternoon before the big game that the coach, Dave Evans, announced that Tucker wouldn’t be dressing. The team would play for the championship without their top scorer.
And how did the Wings star react? Did he rage? Did he sulk? Did he howl at the moon? No, he picked up a pitcher of water and started busing tables where the teammates sat. “Oh, boy, over here!” they shouted, holding up empty glasses as he dashed bowed and limping across the carpet to fill them.
Later at the arena, Tucker worked as a towel boy in the locker room. His teammates wrapped him with their wet towels as they celebrated their championship win. “Towel Boy!” they called, and Tucker laughed. It was one of the most genuine, humble and heartfelt acts I’ve ever seen from anyone in sports.
“Tucker the towel boy,” I thought to myself. “Now, there is a man.”
(Philadelphia Inquirer, October 24, 1990)