The Problem With Losing

Let's not even talk about Ron Artest and Andrew Bynum this series. Bynum on a flagrant foul at the end of game four: "He was breaking us down, we was getting embarrassed, so I just fouled somebody." Oh, and I stopped watching the game and started writing this post before the Bynum flagrant.

Today the Dallas Mavericks swept the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round of the playoffs, a consummation much to be desired, but not expected.

Leading in to today's game four, the Mavericks had dominated the Lake Show, particularly in areas that showed they were a superior team (in the "there's no I" sense): assists and bench play. At tip-off, the Mavs had all the respect in the world for their opponents, that is, they wanted to throttle them early. The Lakers came out dispirited, and Kobe wasn't a factor after the first quarter, which was shades of 2006 and a game seven in which he took three shots the whole second half.

Throughout the series, there had been general under-the-bus throwing, focused around Pau Gasol, but splashing on a lot of Lakers.

So L.A. was feeling a little bitchy, and then they got -slapped. This apparently gave Lamar Odom the license to slam Dirk Nowitzki to the floor in the fourth quarter. Just a straight up blind-side body check on the star player of the other team, the guys who'd been wearing you out for four games.

You can see the play in the video below. Mike Tirico said it just fine, "you've got to lose like a champion".

Lamar Odom was frustrated, sure. Most athletes experience times of great frustration. Several of the Mavs went through the great NBA Finals "choke" of 2006, when the surrendered a 2-0 series lead to the Miami Heat. There were no blind-side body checks.

A code of honor seems like a very old-fashioned thing these days. If there is such a thing now, it is at best a personal code of honor, one whose demands you can't project on anyone else. And while in the past there has been room for personal elements to one's honor, it has historically been understood as something that is relational, subject to the judgment of other human beings.

In Christian-influenced societies, we enjoy stories of men and women who endure shame, but that is always with the expectation of vindication, either in this world or the next. And the vindication is important. If another person, in this case the judge of last resort, does not vindicate your honor, you have none.

Flash back to this game four. Lamar Odom was a bit of a punk in college (transferring from UNLV to Rhode Island after receiving payments), but has in recent years solidified his reputation as a hard-nosed and multi-skilled player. This year he won the Sixth-Man of the Year award. After the hit on Nowitzki, he was ejected from this game. The announcers tut-tutted. Dallas fans will excoriate him, L.A. fans will mumblingly defend him. Columnists will scold him. Some might even acknowledge that his reputation might be tarnished for a while.

I'm making a big deal out of this, but I don't want to seem like I'm making too big a deal out of this (psh...too late). The problem's not the one incident. The problem is the scale by which honor is measured. The judge, the broader context, just isn't there. So maybe I'm making this thing a huge deal.

Lamar Odom is part of a society that, in descending order of gravity,
  1. allowed God to live as long as he agreed to be a hearth god to the heart, and not to influence or judge public behavior.
  2. has decided that we may not condemn behavior as being wicked, dishonorable, or even in poor taste.
  3. snickers quietly, but relishes, bad taste. Family is one of the few things Americans are still allowed to consider sacred (see 1), within certain parameters. Still there's enough contempt for the institution that a show like Keeping Up With The Kardashians could be a success. The home of Lamar and Khloe Kardashian Odom is not sacred.
  4. Considers winning to be more important than, well...everything. See Vince Lombardi, Snoop Dogg. This is inevitable given that the atomic human being is the only human being recognized by our society.
Our only really valuable standard of judgment is individual. I am most successful, I am most happy, I am most influential. Except now I'm losing. I don't think about "losing like a champion". My only real honor has been stained: I am a loser. There's no second place. There's no "well played". There's no excellence for its own sake.

Update: Lamar Odom apologized after the game, Bynum did not.