In a classic NFL Films clip from the 1994 Super Bowl, an exultant Steve Young, his team assured of victory in the biggest game of his career, exhorts his teammates to remove the proverbial monkey from his back. Equipped with a championship ring of his own, Young had ensured that the “Yeah, but … Joe Montana” caveat that had hitherto accompanied mention of his name would disappear and that his career would be forever evaluated on its own merits.
Young broke free from the fetters of association and, no longer shackled by constant comparison, became his own entity. Like our Founding Fathers, who refused to be bound by the oppressive British and heroically shattered the yoke of subjugation in order to found a nation based on enlightened principles that would promote a more promising life for its citizens. Or like the Game when he left G-Unit.
Regardless of his individual exploits, an athlete is often defined in relation to another, a contemporary or a predecessor with whom his name is invariably mentioned. This tendency to associate individuals can irreparably detract from one’s own accomplishments.
Snowball II, no matter how many hairballs she coughs up, will always have to deal with comparisons to the original Simpson family cat, and she cries herself to sleep every night thinking she might not quite be able to hack it.
And no matter how many half-assed references and sprawling non-sequiturs I produce in this incarnation of my column, I may never be able to channel the inspired writing of my previous life. I apologize for the pun in the above paragraph … This obviously isn’t getting off to a good start. But my hiatus (my leave of lethargy, if you will) is, for the time, on hiatus, and if you’re still with me after all these years, I appreciate that. For those still on my jock, I salute you. Back to the lab again.
In recent months, many maligned members of the sports community have exorcised their demons and can now have their achievements considered without an asterisk.
Roy Williams mercifully moved beyond a self-perpetuated categorization as Dean Smith’s lackey by taking his alma mater to a national championship. Peyton Manning, his unfulfilled career marked by hollow ungodly stats, beat Bradyichick and did so in Foxboro but still has to get that Super Bowl ring to complete his three-fold task.
And pity Bob Stoops, who was surpassed by two people who view him as a measuring stick. Not only did Mack Brown finally get Texas past Stoops’ brutal Oklahoma team, but little brother Mike compounded the problems in Bobby’s World by spearheading Arizona’s dethroning of unbeaten UCLA last week, depriving Bob of Stoops Family Thanksgiving bragging rights for the first time in his life.
As usual, this rubbish leads me to our very own institution of international repute. Yes, there is a game to be played on Saturday, and a traditional foil stands between our valiant Elis and a .500 season. Yale’s recent record of futility in this encounter needs little further documentation, and the ramifications of the contest are understood. The Class of 2005 suffered the ignominy of an 0-4 run against the Crimson, and I will anoint myself spokesman of the Class of ’06 when I say it’s cool for ’05 to be unique. We promise not to be jealous if the history books say they have something we don’t.
Where I really meant to go with all this is Yale men’s basketball, which tips off Friday night against Louisiana Tech. The two major issues this team will contend with are comparative in nature. Not surprisingly, one involves a contemporary, the other a predecessor.
The first problem revolves around the team from Providence. At this point, I’m convinced you could dress a bunch of geriatric amphibious midgets in Brown uniforms, and they’d handle Yale with minimal trouble. Brown is 6-0 against Yale over the past three years and has been the primary stumbling block in any Eli push for an Ivy League crown. Not only have the losses been frequent, they have come at devastating junctures. In 2003 and 2004, Yale dropped both ends of the season-opening home-and-home set with the Bears. Last year Yale went 6-1 in home conference play, losing only to Brown on an innocuous Tuesday night. The loss came three days after the team had completed a galvanizing sweep of Penn and Princeton that had vaulted it into contention for a league title.
The other issue is much broader in scope. With each passing season, the 2001-2002 team that surprisingly captured a league championship increasingly appears to have been an aberration and not the dawn of a new era of success that Yale fans had once hoped for. The only on-court link to that magical team is Martin, and at the time he played for a Princeton team that Yale knocked off in the first round of a playoff to determine the league’s NCAA tournament representative. For better or for worse, that season created expectations for James Jones’ program, and expectations are often the most dangerous thing a team can possess.
Yale has lost its floor leader and its only player who could create his own shot and take over a game. Perhaps gone with the last vestiges of that team are also the irrationally high expectations. The 2001-2002 Ivy League championship banner looms in the John J. Lee Amphitheater. Whether it continues to hang over this particular team when time comes to render judgment remains to be seen.
Ben Feit is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.