Monday, November 25, 2013

The Desire for Results

Was listening to The Dan LeBatard Show last Friday for a short while and caught a brief visit by NBA Hall of Famer and commentator Charles Barkley.

Barkley was only on for just a few minutes. While I had missed the discussion that just preceded his arrival, apparently LeBatard and his co-host had been talking about Robert Horry, the power forward who had a solid, long career who happened to be on seven different teams that won NBA championships -- two with Houston (1994-1995), three with the L.A. Lakers (2000-2002), and two more with San Antonio (2005, 2008). (That is Horry pictured after winning his seventh title.)

The discussion had been focusing on Horry’s seven rings and the suggestion that players who perhaps had more individual accomplishments on the court but no titles might wish to swap careers with Horry. Barkley -- one of many great NBA players who never won a championship -- was then invited on to comment on the topic, primarily because Horry himself had made an interesting statement that he would in fact rather have had Barkley’s career.

I don’t want to get into comparing the two players’ careers, but rather I just wished to share something Barkley said during his comment, which reminded me a little of the oft-discussed topic of being “results oriented” in poker.

“Charles, if I give you Robert Horry’s career... seven championships... [would] you trade it for yours?” asked LeBatard of Barkley.

“I don’t look at it like that,” Barkley began. “I tell all of these guys, basketball is what you do, not who you are. I mean, to be honest with you, I think the championships are more for the fans.... I wanted to win for the fans of Philadelphia and for the fans of Phoenix. But I still tell these guys ‘Don’t you ever let these people tell you basketball dictates what you think about yourself as a person. It’s what you do, it ain’t who you are.’”

There were a couple of ideas overlapping in Barkley’s comment, I believe, one of which was this broader statement about self-worth and not getting caught up others’ standards of greatness when considering your own accomplishments.

The more specific point, though, was to respond in an indirect way to the suggestion that winning a championship represented a goal that transcended all others in sports. Perhaps never winning a title has encouraged Barkley to want to speak of doing so as only part of the picture for NBA players, not the entire picture. In any case, it struck me as interesting to hear him deliberately contradict the much-repeated mantra in sports that winning is all.

Also intriguing (to me) is this idea Barkley tosses out that “the championships are more for the fans” than for the players. There I think Barkley isn’t necessarily correct, as it’s obvious most players, coaches, owners and front office folks find championships especially important. But I realized when hearing him make that point that it evoked pretty strongly those discussions about being “results oriented” you often hear in poker.

One way of taking Barkley’s statement is to regard it as a claim that as a player he recognizes things about the game that the fans only partly know about or don’t understand at all. There are lots of ways of measuring one’s success as a player and teammate, says Barkley, that fans don’t necessarily appreciate, and in fact the winning of championships tends to eclipse a lot of those other evaluative measures for the fans when it comes to judging players and/or teams.

In other words, fans are (in a way) results oriented. (Which is absolutely fine, I think Barkley is saying.) Players, meanwhile, know better than strictly to judge an individual’s career based on how many titles he won.

Meanwhile in poker the complaint about people being “results oriented” usually comes from a similar angle, with the more experienced (or skilled) player being the one pointing out how less accomplished players or observers with little understanding of poker strategy are too easily swayed by outcome of a hand to realize it doesn’t always accurately reflect the skill with which it was played.

In poker, too, there are different ways to measure players’ worth than simply on the basis of their results. But again (to further the analogy suggested by Barkley’s comment), it takes a keener understanding of the game to appreciate that fact. (Here, I think, the criticism also often implies that those who make the mistake of judging players solely by results should learn more about poker and correct their ways.)

Setting all of this aside, though, it’s funny how the very fact that results do signify so heavily in poker and in sports is in fact a chief appeal of both. When one team wins and another loses -- or when one player wins a poker hand and another loses -- we have something very concrete and unambiguous to help us define the experience of playing or watching. We have “closure” (of a kind). So much of life isn’t so definite, with “winners” and “losers” and the whole idea of “results” being much, much more elusive.

It’s no wonder we get carried away with assigning importance to results in the games we play and watch. Results are something the games give us, something we desire, and something we have immense trouble finding elsewhere.

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