You Mad at the World, Bro?

World Basketball Project

Defeating the world is not as hard as it sounds, particularly in March. In this awesome month of green beer, spring break and college basketball, the world becomes an opponent of many coaches and athletes, with nearly everyone involved in college basketball regularly declaring that “it’s us against the world.”

Yes, somebody has already said  and will continue to say those exact insufferable words during March Madness, or they’ll say something similar, perhaps explaining that nobody, and they mean nobody, believed in them. Or, if the timing is just right, they’ll say both.

“It was us against the world,” Louisville’s Peyton Siva said to USA Today upon making the Final Four last year. “Nobody believed in us.”

These teams and athletes celebrate this accomplishment by announcing “we shocked the world.”* And if they don’t formally do it then the media sure as hell will for them, as they have thousands of times for Florida Gulf Coast. In reality, the world probably hasn’t been all that shocked. Presumably it must be pretty damn busy trying to keep its polar icecaps frozen.

*The only team that should be allowed to say “we shocked the world” is Wichita State. The only entity that should be allowed to say “us against the world” is North Korea.

But at least Florida Gulf Coast has won games in which it was a serious long shot (and at least they did so by dunking the hell out of the basketball, which is somewhat anti-worldly, I suppose). Louisville, the scrappy, disrespected underdog coached by a future Hall of Famer, featuring NBA talent, was a No. 4 seed. In reaching the Final Four last year, the Cardinals played one opponent ranked higher than them. Siva added to the long list of favored athletes and teams that manufacture doubt and invent enemies, and college basketball isn’t the only offender in this category.

Rudy Gay has a “Me Against the World” tattoo for god’s sake. Last year, when the Miami Heat became a predictable NBA champion, Juwan Howard shouted, “We shocked the wooooorld” at the team’s public parade and then celebrated his proclamation by performing a far more shocking dance move best categorized somewhere on the dance-dance evolutionary scale between the Carlton and the Dougie.

What Siva, Howard and batches of other sports figures illustrate every year is that far too many of them bask in paranoia, deluding themselves into thinking the cards are permanently stacked against them. One textbook-ish definition of paranoia describes how some people who have it craft an ivory tower to separate themselves from the invented enemies they distrust. These athletes and coaches spend the majority of their time together in their plush locker rooms/weight rooms/practice facilities, closed off from the outside world, and then once they’ve completed what we actually all expected them to do they descend to tell us how unbelievable their victory was.

It’s pretty hard to find an official origin for this type of behavior. Notre Dame would seem an obvious choice given its long history of artificial motivational tactics stretching from Rockne to Lennay, but, digging through some newspaper archives, such attitudes were rarely used by athletes or in stories written about sports for most of the 20th century. Phrases like “shock the world” were used for events like the overnight rising of the Berlin Wall, events that actually did shock the world.

The paranoid mantras of “us against the world,” “nobody believed in us” and “we shocked the world” kicked up in the late 70s and 80s for athletes and have continued since. College basketball is particularly susceptible to hyperbole given the temperament of typical college-aged athletes and the hype surrounding the emotional upsets of the NCAA Tournament. Everyone who watches these games wants to cheer for the underdog and everybody who plays these games wants to assume the underdog role even when they are clearly the favorite.

In the early days of the modern tournament, the mid-80s, John Thompson proclaimed his perennially excellent Georgetown teams were playing against the world. Recently, Derrick Rose said Kentucky coach John Calipari “makes you have that mentality where it’s you against the world.”

Like any deeply set case of paranoia, it seems this desire to suspect and target doubt becomes imprinted on their brain, to the point where athletes become so obsessed with being disrespected that they don’t even realize or care when outsiders actually respect them. Take Kent State for example. In 2002, the Golden Flashes were playing Oklahoma State in the first round. They had won a game against Indiana in the tournament the previous year and entered the postseason on an 18-game winning streak (They also had Antonio Gates, though his name didn’t mean nearly as much back then). Oklahoma State, conversely, had gone 10-8 in its last 18 games. The Cowboys were assigned a seven-seed and Kent State a ten-seed. In the previous three years, the ten-seed had won 75 percent of those games.

Leading up to the game, ESPN bloviators intoned (they weren’t quite as loud back then) that Kent State was an upset specialist, with Dick Vitale crowing in particular about the greatness of Kent State’s Mid-American Conference. By gameday, Kent State was actually favored to win the game by oddsmakers. Predictably, the Golden Flashes did so, jumping out to a 15-point lead in the first half. After the game, senior Trevor Huffman said, “I don’t think anyone actually believed we were going to do it except us.”

At least Huffman was used to an underdog role, and, in his words, he was a “short white guy playing against better athletes.” It stands to reason that adult coaches of tradition-rich programs, say like Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, should know better. On one of his weekly Big Ten conference calls in February, Izzo was asked about the tactic of preaching the “against-the-world/nobody believes in us” message. He said he “didn’t like that attitude.” Hmmm. In January, he was quoted as saying, “That’s why I always say it’s us against the world, and you’ve gotta hone in here,” using the strong rhetoric for a discussion about Twitter. Two years ago, just before March Madness began, he said, “When you’re going against the world, you need each other.” He did the same in 2010.       

If we want to get all psychological, Craig Wrisberg can help us delve. He’s a professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee and has worked with numerous sports teams. He says a coach’s greatest fear is playing an inferior opponent. He frets that his athletes will turn complacent so he seeks a way to narrow their focus in hopes the team will expend optimal effort. Cutting an ulterior enemy from whole cloth is a simple way of accomplishing this task, and it helps the players bond – “me against the world” tattoos for everyone! In this sense, Wrisberg says, targeting the world is a good psychological tactic even if it seems cliché to fans or media.

From my own experience, I can say the media factors into this endless circle of doubt as well. I’ve been to more press conferences than I can count in which reporters prompt athletes and coaches to say “we have an ‘us against the world attitude’” by asking them, “do you have an ‘us against the world’ attitude?” The underdog, as much as the role is favored and sought by teams, is also a trope packaged into a forced narrative.

The story of Syracuse basketball, for instance, is relatively boring year in and year out. The Orange is either pretty good or very good. Sometimes a superstar like Carmelo Anthony or Derrick Coleman will grace upstate New York with his presence and pump life into the headlines. Usually that’s not the case.

For the 2011-2012 season, the Orange was very good. It featured first-round draft picks Dion Waiters and Fab Melo and earned a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament. Rather than hail Syracuse as a team that lived up to expectations because of strong talent and steady coaching by Jim Boeheim, the Orangemen were described as fighters against a world that hated them because of Bernie Fine, an assistant who had been accused of child sexual abuse months earlier and fired. A story considered fishy from the beginning and that probably wasn’t much of a distraction after the first couple weeks of the season was continually brought up again by the media, especially in March when the coverage of college basketball got ramped up. As a result you’d hear Syracuse players saying they had chips on their shoulders. You’d see columnists lapping it up. Boeheim, college basketball’s foremost curmudgeon, even appeared to get sick of this angle, cracking what must have been the first joke of his life: “I don’t think it’s the whole world. Three-quarters maybe. I think there are some people in China that aren’t upset with us.”

With ESPN and other media outlets overplaying and analyzing every sound bite, these messages become ubiquitous. So expect to hear the same phrases this March and every March, but maybe not in a scenario as perfect as one that unfolded two years ago.

Then, No. 1 seed Pittsburgh was preparing to play Butler in the second round. Butler was clearly a good team, having advanced to the national championship game the year before, but Pittsburgh was the consensus favorite. Of course, this fact didn’t preclude Pittsburgh’s Gilbert Brown or the media from concocting an alternate viewpoint. Here’s the conclusion to the Associated Press’ preview for that game:

  • Knowing that everyone loves Butler, the beloved little underdog, the Panthers have assumed an us-against-the-world attitude. “It may actually benefit us. We thrive being in an underdog role, when people don’t expect us to succeed,” Brown said. “It plays in our heads. We want to go out there and prove everybody wrong.”

The favorite had become the underdog because it was facing everyone’s favorite underdog. And with that, the enemy of so many college basketball teams was defeated because the world had just collapsed into itself. It wasn’t all that shocking.

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