A few weeks ago I noted the tendency of well-regarded athletes to be exposed as heels, and asked for examples of the reverse, the widely despised guy who shows a classy side. I preferred examples that focused not on the personal side of things (that’s an old story, the jerk who gives to charity and has a soft spot for mom) but on the playing field. In particular, I was looking for athletes or coaches known to be cutthroat but who, in the heat of battle, revealed themselves to value something other than victory.
Call it the Reverse-Jeter. A few years ago, Derek Jeter, universally considered a class act, did something that disappointed some of his admirers: his dramatic mime at home plate hoodwinked the umpire into thinking he’d been hit by a pitch that in fact hit his bat. In subsequent days, responding to criticism, Jeter showed no remorse. To the contrary, he expressed pride in his dubious display of sportsmanship, essentially invoking the Vince Lombardi ethos: Winning is everything.
So how about the Reverse-Jeter, the guy who seems pathologically competitive and then shows us another side? Readers provided some examples that fit the bill perfectly.
A few decades ago, Jimmy Connors was tennis’s bête noire, a consummate winning-is-everything boor. Until his 1975 Australian Open final match against John Newcombe. In the third set (the first two having been split), Connors benefitted from consecutive controversial calls. The Aussie crowd voiced loud disapproval, and Connors, leading the game 40-15, proceeded to double fault intentionally. He went on to lose the game, set, and match, but expressed no regrets. Say what you will about Connors, he wanted to win clean or not at all. His deliberate effort to balance the scales, perhaps costing himself a major championship, was classic Reverse-Jeter.
A more unusual example involves Bob Huggins, long-time basketball coach of Cincinnati and now West Virginia. Huggins’ Cincinnati teams often managed the lowest graduation rate in the nation, and his courtside demeanor, replete with a belligerent expression and blistering tirades, isn’t for the faint of heart.
But on April 3, 2010, he showed a different side. Nine minutes remained in the NCAA semifinals, and Huggins’ West Virginia team was clawing back from a big deficit against Duke. Then the Mountaineers’ season and superstar, Da’Sean Butler, went down. With Butler writhing in agony, having suffered a serious knee injury, Huggins’ coaching career must have flashed before his eyes. Terrible misfortune had just effectively ended the chance for his first NCAA championship in 27 years on the sidelines. A feeling of “why me?” would have been understandable, but instead of responding with his usual display of disgust, Huggins rushed on to the court to comfort Butler. This picture counterbalances a thousand tirades. If you’re wondering what soothing words Huggins spoke to Butler, the player later passed that on: “He said ‘Don’t worry and I love you.’”
Can you imagine Bobby Knight rolling on the floor and telling a player he loved him? If so, it would have to be after the player won Knight a championship, not at the moment when the dream died. Truth is, it’s hard to imagine most coaches doing what Huggins did, including those regarded as the classiest, such as Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski. In a spontaneous act, the better angel of Huggins’ nature revealed itself.
In a vaguely similar moment, John Thompson responded to his Georgetown team’s heartbreaking loss in the 1983 NCAA finals by instinctively offering a consoling bear-hug to the player, Freddy Brown, whose blunder sealed the defeat. A lot of coaches would have chewed Brown out or stalked off disconsolate. Thompson, the man behind “Hoya Paranoia,” was hardly a leading candidate for grace in the face of heartbreak. Like Connors and Huggins, he was often a walking antithesis of good sportsmanship. But like them, in one unscripted moment he showed us that a dazzling light sometimes shines from the unlikeliest source.