Winning the Championship of Life

In a recent conversation with a good friend (with whom I’m sometimes privileged to share this page), I remarked on several successes I had with my children; namely, that all four liked Peter, Paul, and Mary, and that three out of four did the New York Times crossword puzzle (almost) daily. Indeed, we even have a Crossword Buddies text group among the four of us — Sharon and one daughter, as much as we love them dearly, haven’t been admitted. (Oops, I misspoke; there’s now a fifth member, my almost 15-year-old grandson Ezra, who was recently admitted upon completing his first Wednesday puzzle. Welcome!)

But since I was talking about my successes, I felt I also had to mention a failure. I therefore admitted to one: not being able to help my children understand why Mel Brooks is one of the funniest people on the planet. (Watching some clips from King Charles III’s coronation brought to mind “it’s good to be the king,” and I then giggled through the YouTube clip from History of the World, Part I.)

This conversation was, of course, in jest. Shortly thereafter, however, I came across a more serious discussion of failure arising out of the 2023 NBA basketball playoffs that gave me pause.

I haven’t been a serious fan of professional basketball since the days of New York Knicks teams led by the likes of Willis Reed, Bill Bradley, Jerry Lucas, Walt Frazier, and Dave DeBusschere. But even now, I keep half an eye on what’s happening when the playoffs come around. And this year, the Milwaukee Bucks, who had the best record during the regular season, were eliminated in the first round.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks’ premier player and a two-time league MVP, was interviewed after the elimination, and the video of that interview went viral. In it he was asked if he viewed the season as a failure. In a serious and thoughtful answer he said, in a word, no. He explained to the reporter that he — the reporter — doesn’t get a promotion every year but rather works toward a goal. Not achieving that goal while working toward it, he argued, is not failure; rather, it’s “steps to success.”

He further noted that you don’t always win in sports. For example, Michael Jordan, arguably the best basketball player ever (before you jump on me with names like Bill, Wilt, Kareem, Magic, Larry, and others, note the “arguably”), won an incredible six championships. Now let’s do the math. Jordan played 15 seasons, which means that nine times in his illustrious career he didn’t win the championship. Were those years failures, Antetokounmpo asked rhetorically. His implied answer was no, though, interestingly, Jordan answered that question differently. (If you have time, listen to the interview; it’s so very different from most banal post-game interviews we’re subjected to.)

Not everyone agrees with Antetokounmpo. Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, a well-known and well-respected Modern Orthodox (though he eschews the term) rabbi, who grew up in Teaneck pretty much around the corner from me and was a classmate of one of my daughters, wrote an article titled “Failing to Recognize Failure — What Giannis and Frum Influencers got Wrong.” And what they got wrong, R. Goldberg argues, is, in brief, not fully understanding that recognizing failures, rather than downplaying or minimizing them, is essential to generating success thereafter. (His column, like Antetokounmpo’s interview, was much more fully fleshed out and thoughtful than I capture here. I therefore urge you to read it after you watch the video to better understand both positions.)

I side with the player rather than the rabbi. And I do so based, in the main, on the meaning of the word failure. Thus, while “fail” often means, in common parlance, neglecting to do something — “I failed to take out the garbage this morning” — “failure” has a stronger connotation. It’s used to convey not doing something critically important or doing something below basic minimum standards, against your values, or that results in a stain on your character.

In this understanding of the word, is a season in which Antetokounmpo guided the Bucks to a league-leading 70.7% won-lost record really a failure? Is a season in which Giannis had a game average of 31.1 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 5.7 assists one? Or, to ask these questions more broadly, if not winning the championship makes the season a failure, does that mean that once the playoffs finish, the NBA will consist of one success and 29 failures?

I understand that some people may answer these rhetorical questions with a yes, thus agreeing with the theologian and not the athlete. But my answer is no. Even though I’m an ardent Yankee fan who grew up in the 1950s and early ’60s, when the Yankees won the World Series almost every year, I don’t agree with George Steinbrenner, who felt the need to apologize to New Yorkers and Yankee fans when the Yankees lost the 1981 World Series to the Dodgers four games to two (with three of the losses being by one run). Indeed, I even disagree with Derek Jeter (whom I like and respect much more than Steinbrenner, whom I neither liked nor respected), who said “if you don’t win, season’s a failure.”

In short, I don’t believe in the adage “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” erroneously attributed by many, including me, to Vince Lombardi, when it was really said originally by UCLA football coach Russel (“Red”) Sanders. There’s a lot more to a sports season, and to life, than winning.

There was a lengthy comment thread discussing R. Goldberg’s article after he posted it on Facebook. And interestingly, one point he made in that thread convinced me even more to side with Antetokounmpo on this issue. He noted, in the context of school exams, that tests have a failing grade, and when students get below that grade they fail the exam and need to acknowledge that failure.

My reaction to that was — exactly! There is, indeed, an F — failure — on exams, usually a grade below 65. But there are lots of grades between 100 (perfection/the championship) and 64. Getting a 95 (excellent), or 90 (very good), or 85 (good), or 75 (fair), or even 65 (barely passing) are all different things — excellent, very good, and so on. But the one thing they are not is failure. The same is true with not winning championships.

Getting back to the sports world, let’s examine this example. The time difference between the gold and silver medalists in the men’s singles luge at the 2018 Winter Olympics was just 0.026 seconds — that’s twenty-six thousandths of a second. (For comparison purposes, a blink of an eye is between a tenth and half of a second.) I don’t think that a time differential of four to 19 times shorter than the blink an eye amounts to a failure. Winning silver and being the second fastest man in the world on luge is something the medalist should cherish for the rest of his life, rather than being made to feel it was a failure because he didn’t get gold.

R. Goldberg, as is appropriate, used Jewish texts to support his position. So let me do the same with a text that is known to many. “Ben Zoma teaches: Who is rich? Those who appreciate [or are happy with] what they have.” (Ethics of the Fathers, 4:1.) Unlike Malcom Forbes’s aphorism, “he who dies with the most toys wins,” Judaism teaches that it’s not the most toys or money or gold medals or championships that constitute success. And, conversely, it’s not lacking them that constitute failure. Rather, it’s enjoying and appreciating what we have, what we’ve done, and what we’ve accomplished, that define success for us and help us understand what failure truly is.

R. Goldberg is right that it’s important to learn from our failures. But before we do, we must first accurately identify true failures and differentiate them from situations where we merely missed snatching the gold ring. Not everyone can grab the ring and earn another ride on the carousel. But as long as we enjoy our ride, as long as we are same’ach be-chelko — appreciative and happy with what we have and what we do — our afternoon in the park is not a failure. And we can always return next Sunday to try again.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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