In honor of the upcoming NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, and to the venerated basketball coach whose legend the Tourney is so inextricably tied, I thought I might take a different angle on reviewing the San Jose Sharks absolute bloodletting last night at the hands of the “Seem Just Fine” Chicago Blackhawks.
Full disclosure, I am not a fan of UCLA. In fact, as a proud California Golden Bear, I honestly find the plastic, satellite university to the South wholly repellent, and their basketball fans in particular, truly some of the worst winners in the history of organized sports. No, not all of them…just all of the ones I have ever sat around…or seen on television… or heard about.
For any UCLA fans reading this, you act in basketball like “USC Fan” acts in football if that helps paint the picture.
Personal vitriol against the smoggy Southland aside, you cannot refute the fact that UCLA’s John Wooden was the greatest college basketball coach in the history of basketball, college or otherwise. His rightful status in the basketball pantheon is something that cuts through any school affiliation or regional differences, and is one which is chronicled and retold in various vignettes each year around this time during coverage of March Madness.
Like the sky being blue (unless if you’re in the “Outer Sunset” or Dayton, OH) or the San Francisco Muni making you late to work every day, this is just a fact. Try as you might to combat Wooden with allegations of paid off players off by UCLA boosters (100%), you simply cannot taint a man who led his teams to 10 National Championships, including a never-again-to-be-repeated seven straight titles.
For those of you who didn’t catch the CSI Sharks episode last night on television, the final score at the United Center was a gaudy 6-3 decision in the Hawks favor, and marked the Sharks third straight loss and fourth defeat in their last five games. For a team looking to hit their stride and fine tune their Stanley Cup Playoff machine, last night’s performance by the Sharks was a disappointing setback, and Sharks skipper Todd McLellan could learn from the legendary UCLA basketball coach’s teachings as he works to get the Sharks ready for the postseason.
“…losing is only temporary and not all-encompassing. You must simply study it, learn from it, and try hard not to lose the same way again. Then you must have the self-control to forget about it.”
Yes, as Coach Wooden references here, as much as it’s easy to get wrapped up in losing streaks and awful losses, especially as the Sharks bear down on the playoffs, this recent bad run by San Jose is only temporary and the team must keep perspective. For as fun as clamoring for heads can be after such a beating, the Sharks have played worse than last night, and have had worse losing streaks than a few in a row. Wooden’s call to action is that it is incumbent on the Sharks now to study and learn from this game, so as not to repeat the same mistakes in the playoffs when every game’s importance will be magnified.
Mistakes such as surrendering the slot to an opponent like you’re playing in a Celebrity All-Star Game.
Of the six goals that Chicago buried last night, five of them consisted of unchecked and unmarked Blackhawks players either setting up shop in the slot, or waltzing between the faceoff circles like franchise QBs wearing orange “don’t-hit” jerseys during contact drills. The only Chicago tally where this didn’t apply was on a 3-on-1 breakaway, which in and of itself carries great teachings to learn from, such as the fact that when four of your players are on the other side of the rink, defending can prove more difficult.
On that breakway goal by Jonathan Toews, the Sharks players found themselves wishing, like every fan watching at home, for a miracle that wouldn’t come from Antti Niemi, but last night’s assault was not on the shoulders of the Sharks netminder. Niemi did not have his best game, but point black shots by opposing players, while your own entire defense is bunched in front of you (again, five of the Hawks six goals) and blocking your vision can make it a little easier on the other guy.
You give me Martin Brodeur in his prime versus five, unmarked bantam level opponents coiled up five feet in front of him and you’ll get a couple goals–do it against the defending Stanley Cup Champions and you get six of them.
In all fairness, to make the comparison more reflective of Niemi’s actual experience last night, you should also add four to five tree trunks jammed into the ice directly in front of the young, plucky Marty.
“Adversity often produces the unexpected opportunity. Look for it. Appreciate and utilize it. This is difficult to do if you’re feeling sorry for yourself because you are faced with adversity.”
John Wooden calls for more perspective here. The Sharks silver-lining from their recent humbling at the hands of opposing teams might be that it grounds them with a gentle reminder that they are still mortal, even after their epic run of 14 out of 17 wins took them to the top of the Pacific Standings. Great run there…phenomenal run, but the work is just starting and nothing has been won yet, except perhaps some of the respect that might have been missing from the rest of the NHL.
Hard to blame the Sharks if they began to think they they were a little invincible during this stretch, as they absolutely played out of their minds, and any team might be feeling their oats a little after terrorizing the NHL as the lads did for over six weeks.
“Work creates luck…focus all your effort on what is within your power to control.”
In this kernel, John Wooden implores the player to focus on controlling what you can in your destiny, and to not be bothered by that which fate alone holds dominion over. In the coming games for the San Jose Sharks, there will be bad bounces and awful calls that will lead to San Jose losses, but the Sharks will also most likely benefit from some of these same things. They cannot control the odd bounce, but they can control not being bunched in a pack in front of their goaltender, they can control fighting for every faceoff, avoiding brain dead defensive lapses and finishing every check. They can control outskating the opponent, keeping shifts short, digging it out of the corners and standing up for their teammates–that’s all Coach Wooden would ask for.
If the Sharks can mind these teachings starting with a bounce back game tonight in Dallas against the Stars, they can use these last few losses suffered to simply problem solve what needs to be fixed for the playoffs, without emotion or concern and make the team better. Fix what can be fixed and have a short memory for everything else.
“Be persistent. Be determined. Be tenacious. Be completely determined to reach your goal. That’s intentness. If you stay intent and your ability warrants it, you will eventually reach the top of the mountain.”
“If your ability warrants” it is the takeaway from this last Woodenism, and for the Sharks to reach their goals this year, they must be able to say, without equivocation, that they worked their tails off both mentally and physically right until the final horn.
Everyone in San Jose would like to see the “top of that mountain”, and with only a handful of games left, now is the time for the Sharks to decide where exactly on that mountain they will be when the dust settles.
Quotes from “Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court” by John Wooden with Steve Jamison (McGraw-Hill, 1997) available at Amazon.com.
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