Zak of All Trades: Thoughts on winning, losing and life

It's been a while since I had the chance to write an article about a sports game, as my change to editor some time back pulled me out of the sports realm and made it so that my schedule actually prevented me from attending most games.

Still, last Saturday, as I sat in the stands at the District IX basketball playoffs, I couldn't shake the constant urge to be looking for "the story" — and more importantly, the perfect headline — for the game as it unfolded.

Our sports writer, Chris, was all over the photos and the coverage, but cliche after sports cliche ran through my head, beginning with one I've known all too well in sports and in life: You can't win 'em all.

It really is true, isn't it?

I mean, on the state level, there are hundreds of high school basketball teams, and only one gets to be crowned PIAA champion.

Even as the champ, though, most teams don't go undefeated for the year. So, allowing for the rare exception, most coaches at one point or another think, or even say out loud to their teams, "You can't win 'em all."

So, over the past week, I've been thinking a lot about sports cliches and about what they've taught me, and it amazed me how many came to mind.

My favorite sports teams not "winning 'em all" has taught me that I, much like them, will not win at everything I throw my hat into.

There are ventures in life where we give it our all — just as those players on the court last weekend did — and yet our end result is still a losing effort when the final horn sounds.

Sometimes, the person lined up against us is just too strong for us to overtake.

Other times, the odds are just stacked against us from the start, and we can't overcome them.

Or, maybe we go into the game as the favorite, but something happens in between tip-off and that last horn that changes everything — maybe our star player goes down with an injury or the other team throws a new defense at us.

Regardless of what causes it — in sports and in life — we can't win every game.

No college coach, no NFL coach, no NHL coach — no coach with more than a few games under his or her belt — finished a career with a zero in the loss column.

Even with all the talk around the impressive streak the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks put on to start this shortened season, they still lost a few of the games in overtime.

The longer our winning streaks last, the more likely the end result of a loss becomes.

Another lesson that sports has taught me comes out of the result of the first. You can't win 'em all, and losing hurts.

Losing really does hurt, doesn't it? I've seen it in the faces of the high school athletes I've covered and known over the years in the minutes, hours and even days after their season-ending defeats.

There is pain in their eyes as they ask themselves a thousand what-ifs.

"What if we'd played man instead of zone?

What if I'd have hit that buzzer-beater?

What if we just could have pulled it off?"

With the calendar reading March, we know that the NCAA's Big Dance — the Final Four — is just around the corner (get your brackets out and ready).

And with that tournament come 64 "perfect shots" for the camera operators covering the games.

Only one of those "perfect shots" is a happy one, though, as the team declared national champion at the end cuts down the nets.

The other 63 come from losing causes.

The star player slumps on the sidelines, tears in his eyes, as he ponders his own what-ifs.

We see it in the pros, too, but more importantly, we see it in our own lives.

The star player — also known as the hot shot in town — falls victim to his own pride and crashes hard.

The bench warmer — the guy who has lived beside you your whole life — just found out his father passed away.

The cheerleader — the one who has always been there with a positive outlook for everyone she knows — has just been diagnosed with breast cancer.

We know that we can't win 'em all, but that doesn't stop the losses from hurting us — sometimes deeply.

So, we know that we can't win 'em all, and we know that losing hurts.

But to truly complete the cycle, we can't stop remembering the story at that final horn.

The movie never ends on the court, does it? There's always one more scene.

Maybe it follows the coach as he walks into the empty practice gym, where, next season, he'll give it another shot.

Maybe the cameras follow the star player, who lost the high school game but went on to marry his high school sweetheart, have three kids and really figure out what winning is all about.

No matter which character you played in that scene, though, the realization always comes: You can't win 'em all, and losing hurts, but we will play another day.

For some, their "another day" comes next year, as they have another year of eligibility. For others, their "another day" is learning to live outside of the glory of high school or college athletics.

My favorite final scenes from sports movies ­— remember, they don't end on the court — take us to the locker room, where the coach — a representation of those we know who are older and wiser — pulls his players together for one last "1-2-3, go team!" huddle.

Because really, what it comes down to is that living to play another day is realizing we're all a part of the team.

We won the games we won together; we lost the ones we lost together; and we'll live to play another day — whether literally or figuratively — together.

That star player who fell flat on his face? He needs someone to show him that all of his worth wasn't banked on hitting that one shot.

That bench warmer who you've known your entire life? He needs you more than ever to show him that he's a part of the team.

And that cheerleader? More than ever, she needs someone to stand in her corner and cheer her on in what's about to become her biggest fight.
Life is a team sport. We're in this together.

And while we can't win 'em all, and losing still hurts, we're going to live to play another day, together.

Zak Lantz is the editor of The Spirit and an avid fan of sports and life in general.