Keeping losing (and winning) in perspective during March Madness
Mar 21, 2019
March Madness officially begins today, and although I am still mourning my alma mater’s historic loss last year to a certain number 16 seed school in Maryland, I am excited to see where this year takes us. Even if we suffer another embarrassing defeat, following University of Virginia basketball has taught me a thing or two about what it means to lose (and win) with grace.
As a UVA fan, I am among the many people who admire the team’s coach, Tony Bennett, for more than the team’s athletic accomplishments. Bennett has integrity, acts as a servant leader, and teaches his players to do the same. When the other team’s players get knocked down, UVA players will always help them up.
Immediately after the crushing loss in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year – in which UVA became the first number one seed to ever lose to a number 16 seed team – Bennett said he always tries to tell his players that what happens on the court can’t define them.
"The adulation, the praise, it comes, and we got a lot of that this year,” he said in a post-game interview with CBS. “Then on the other side, there'll be blame and people pointing that out. That can't, in the end, define these guys and our team."
After a similarly disappointing tournament loss two years previously, Bennett’s post-game interview had paraphrased Psalm 30:6, when he said, “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”
I believe Bennett’s ability to have such perspective just moments after terrible losses comes from his strong Christian faith. The coach regularly prays for his players and has a “moment of silence” before each game where many members of the team join him in offering personal prayers. He leads the team based upon five biblically-based pillars, which hang in the locker room: humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness.
When Bennett found out that Austin Nichols, a transfer who two years ago was supposed to become one of the team’s star players, had been acting in a way that did not follow the team’s principles (the rumor is that it was a drug-related issue), rather than ignoring the issue in order to further boost the team’s status, Bennett kicked him off of the team. After doing so, he said he believed it was the right thing for both the team and the player.
“I love Austin,” he said in a press conference. “My hope is that this will be a turning point for him and he'll take the right steps.”
Bennett's humility and perspective has emanated outward into the lives of his former players, such as Malcolm Brogdon, who now plays for the Milwaukee Bucks. When he was nominated for NBA Rookie of the Year in 2017, the Bucks had planned to campaign for him by printing fake $1 bills with his face on them. Instead, Brogdon asked the team to donate the money they had planned to spend on campaigning for him to charity. They did, and he won anyway.
With that new notoriety, Brogdon recently founded a charity called “HOOPS20,” which recruits players from across the NBA to raise funds and awareness for clean water initiatives in East Africa. Two other UVA-turned-NBA players, Joe Harris and Justin Anderson, have joined him in the work.
Even though the world knows them for their success on the basketball court, Bennett and his players know it is not the most important thing in life, and don't let any desire for fame or power get in the way of doing the right thing.
“I have great things in my life—my love for my wife, my love for my family, my love for coaching, my love for basketball,” Bennett told Decision Magazine in 2014. “Those are wonderful things, but when you line them up in comparison to Christ and the relationship you have with Him, with what He’s done for you and with what He’s given you, they don’t compare. That’s the greatest truth I know.”
Though my thoughts immediately after last year’s NCAA tournament loss were not nearly as graceful as Tony Bennett’s, with his example I hope to remember this year that no loss we may suffer can change that “greatest truth” that we are preparing to celebrate at Easter. Christ has redeemed us all – even if He can’t fix our broken March Madness brackets.