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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Saturday, December 03, 2022

Sports lit explores the lessons behind competition

I’m not a sports fan. I never have been and I probably never will be. Not for lack of trying though because I tried for half of my life to either excel at some sport or really fall in love with one. I couldn’t do either and never do I feel that loss more as when I witness the love and devotion for a sport by thousands, if not millions of people during sporting events

Do not get me wrong though, I cheer and applaud. I scream and throw out profanities. I also jump around without abandon. But all the while some small part of me feels like a fraud because I didn’t follow the season nor do I know the players. It feels like it’s not my place, as if I do not have the right to do so. And yet there I am, screaming the house down with the most ardent of fans. It occurs to me then that I can’t be the only one. I’m neither a born and bred Badger, nor a Wisconsinite. 

It’s not in our blood to scream for the Badgers, rather it’s an acquired taste. It’s not in all of our nature to flood the streets as a mob over a sport, but it’s a learned tradition. The sport brings you there. Even those who don’t belong, who haven’t felt it in their blood, haven’t wept for it and haven’t given their time to it. Even those. Because that precisely is why sports exist. They exist to give us something to believe in together, something bigger than us. 

Talking about literature, right on the heels of the Badger’s win at Final Four and with the championship tonight, would feel incomplete without sports and athletes (just basketball though to be brutally and gleefully specific). Intriguingly enough, it is a niche genre that does not get enough attention as it is anyway. Since that’s right up my alley, I would be a fool to pass up such a historical opportunity, and a fool I most certainly am not. 

Sports have always been a focus of obsessive fandom and just as much criticism. Why do we need them? What purpose do they serve? If the answer for some is still not apparent in the lives and games of the many great athletes to walk amongst us and before, then perhaps words and stories may provide a new vision. 

Rick Telander’s “Heaven is a playground” is a well-known classic and wonderfully apt for the Badgers. Tracing the roots of today’s inner city basketball to this story, it shows us the world of those that love the game and dream of nothing but playing it. The kids in this book already know something we all spend a lifetime chasing, they know what they’re meant to do. They know without a shadow of a doubt that they belong on a court, with a ball in their hand. 

But that knowledge is also harsh and comes at a price. We’re given a glimpse into a world where living this dream practically and realistically is not possible for many. It comes as fleeting opportunities that even those that manage to grab it rarely ever manage to hold on. It shows us the paths all legends would have had to walk on and struggle through at some point. 

It is hard for many to imagine what the world of an athlete really must be like. Their team has to become their family and the coach their god. In many ways, an athlete’s entire identity as a player is honed by the coach. 

Championships are won and teams are shaped by what a coach teaches them. “Season on the Brink” by John Feinstein is one such story about a legendary coach who, to this day, is purported to have walked a very fine line between genius and madness. Feinstein takes you much further than just an entertaining look into the basketball season of a brilliant coach, but  also offers you insight into the psychological workings of a man who was unrivaled in teaching his players how to play. This is a highly complicated juxtaposition of a man who was heavily criticized as well as worshipped and yet knew what he had to do to make his players perform like champions.

For some, sports is an expression and an outlet for all that they have within them. For everything that they’re unable to share with the world. It is their version of beauty in motion and what allows them to breathe. Pat Conroy’s memoir about his career as a self-proclaimed mediocre point guard, “My Losing Season,” is one that that echoes all those sentiments. 

He writes about basketball and what it means to college athletes while they are all struggling to find their place in the world and their individual identities. Trying to fathom who we are and actively being that person is a daily struggle for all of us, we live and breathe that war. But these were men who had made basketball a part of them, as it is for all athletes, in a way that there was no them without the sport. Conroy repeatedly begs the question of whether ,at the end of the day, we learn more from winning or losing and, either way asserts that we are left with a hell of a lot more than just a trophy or defeat. 

Sports has never been just about winning, apparent in the above mentioned pieces of writing. Do not ever let anyone tell you different. The ones who live and breathe the game, those that see role models in the athletes, and all those who come together because of it, they truly understand the spirit and soul of sports. 

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Every war is waged with the dream of victory, and victory is what the Badgers will bring home. In the words of Muhammad Ali, the athlete I find unrivaled in brilliance, “Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them - a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have last-minute stamina, they have to be a little faster, they have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”

What is your favorite sports novel? Are there any other books you think would be relevant in response to the Badger win? Let Maham know at

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