To cope with loss and disappointment, sports fans tend to dwell on the supposed significance of events which seemed irrelevant at the time. We struggle to find specific reasons or justifications for the failures which, we rationalize, marked the pivotal point of the game.
The Patriots lost because of another lucky, implausible catch from a second-rate Giants receiver.
Tiger Woods has struggled because of the turbulence of his personal life during the last two years.
LSU lost the national championship because coach Les Miles seemingly formulated his offensive game plan for the title game on a napkin at IHOP a few hours before it started.
Ultimately, these justifications ignore the oodles of other factors which shape the course of a competition, as well as the inescapable truth that the teams and players have, in fact, failed. Fortunately, as an enlightened, mature sports fan, I thought I had recognized the futility of succumbing to the "what if" game and could embrace each loss as an inevitable part of destiny which none of my bleating could ever reverse.
But alas, judging from my reaction to the Virginia men's basketball team's heinous 54-51 loss to North Carolina last weekend, I still may have a lot of growing up to do.
The refs totally cost us the game when they unconscionably saddled Cavalier cornerstone Mike Scott with his fourth foul just eight minutes into the second half on a John Henson flop so egregious that I think even Cristiano Ronaldo would have cringed.
It was a worse flop than that garish debacle of a show Sunday night. Yes, I'm simultaneously mocking the Academy Awards and the All-Star Game.
David Stern giving a speech about avoiding conflicts of interest would be more genuine than Henson's shameless ploy.
I've depleted my reservoir of second-rate flop quips, but I'll leave it at this: Henson's gimmick submarined Virginia's chances of winning that game.
Admittedly, the Heels clearly enjoyed a staggering talent and size advantage and ultimately triumphed because they literally willed their way down the stretch while Sammy Zeglinski and Scott inexplicably decided the road to glory was paved by off-balance threes. But Virginia played some of its best ball Saturday without Scott on the court, outscoring North Carolina 26-23 without the ACC Player of the Year candidate in the game.
But it all comes back to Scott's fourth foul, which utterly eradicated the exuberance in the air through the first three-quarters of the game and left only poor Darion Atkins to fend off the nation's most formidable front line.
Clearly, the Tar Heels benefited from Henson's blatant exploitation of the referees and the injustice of it all compelled me to contemplate whether the rule book should de-incentivize flopping by charging a technical foul to culprits.
Some observers, many of them likely residing in Chapel Hill, would characterize Henson's histrionic spasm after Scott's "foul" as a manifestation of the blue-chip center's ironclad will to win.
Most flops lack the theatrics which Henson displayed, and maybe this is what so incensed us. Most coaches teach their players how to effectively draw charges on defense. Heck, Shane Battier fashioned an entire NBA career out of perfecting the art of the flop. If, to reference Herm Edwards for something like the 1,280,000th time, "you play to win the game," why wouldn't any competitive, intelligent player strive to hoodwink the referee every now and then to help his team's cause?
The problem, in my view, is that the flopping implicitly exalts the pursuit of winning over the pursuit of excellence.
Hyperbolic as it may sound to compare flopping to performance-enhancing drugs, both function to bend the rules to achieve, at any cost, a win.
Excellence requires the same thirst for winning, but also an unshakable respect for the sport at hand and the recognition that victory without integrity will never prove as rewarding as victory accomplished the right way.
As much as I value Edwards' quote for its priceless comedic value, I disagree with its content. You should play to be excellent.
Maybe that's why Henson's antics needled me so much. They came against a team which, led by coach Tony Bennett, exemplifies a commitment to excellence.
Certainly, the players aren't perfect. But as a whole, from their unflinching adherence to sound fundamentals on defense, to their unflappable on-court composure, to their steadfast refusal to ever count themselves out of any game, these Cavaliers have made their school proud this year. Take Saturday's loss for example. Not only did the team never allow its intensity to waver, but the players somehow managed to resist incessantly whining to the referees even as the crowd blew a gasket with each missed call.
Sure, Virginia's inability to consistently score will likely prevent the squad from winning a national championship. But Henson's antics, to me, made the Cavaliers' quest for true victory all the more admirable by contrast.
Every time a player gets away with cajoling the referees into a foul call, true excellence capitulates to soulless winning. Maybe not Charlie Sheen-esque soulless winning, but a hollow victory nevertheless.
So curb the dramatic flair, Henson. You may have won Saturday, but I'd still take Bennett's boys any day of the week.