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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

ESPN's Tim Keown - How to win in the midst of a loss

How to win in the midst of a loss
By Tim Keown

Updated: April 9, 2008, 6:43 PM ET

I don't know John Calipari. I don't know much about the way he runs his program at Memphis, although being the coach of a team (UMass) that had a Final Four appearance completely stricken from the record is not a particularly resounding endorsement.

Say what you want about Calipari, but he is gracious in defeat.

I don't feel qualified to judge Calipari as a basketball coach. He coached his Memphis team well enough to convince a lot of talented players to play together. He installed a system that minimized him and maximized the players, which is an upset of sorts in the world of big-time college hoops.

Monday night wasn't his best moment, I'm sure, given the near-total meltdown of his team in the final 1:55, when it led by nine. He didn't call timeouts when he could have, and he didn't make sure his kids fouled at the right time.

From where I sat -- a long way from San Antonio -- it looked like the game got away from him. He became a spectator instead of a participant, and that's probably the biggest mistake a coach can make.

It's understandable, though. A lot of stuff happened in a big hurry, and he went from being sure he was going to win to not being able to get a handle on what was going on. The game went away before he knew it had any interest in leaving.

That's not the point of this. Blame Calipari, blame free throws, credit Kansas -- it's your choice. For the next 48 hours, a lot of people will do every one of those things.

But I'll say this about Calipari: I've never seen a better loser.

That's not snide or sarcastic. It's sincere. The art of losing is a lost art. As often as coaches preach "win with class, lose with class," it's always easier to win with class. Mostly because it doesn't involve the losing part.

Calipari's postgame graciousness was masterful. (For comparison's sake: Belichick, Bill.) He made eye contact and said insightful things and gave credit to Kansas. It was a pretty good game, but Calipari's performance was the most impressive thing that happened all night.

There was a perspective at work that isn't always on display from a winner, much less a loser. He talked about the missed free throws without blaming his players. He saw the bigger picture -- the pressure of the game, the youth of his players, the intensity of the moment. He discussed the situation late in the game -- up nine with less than three minutes, up three with less than five seconds left -- and took his share of the blame.

He even admitted he said a little prayer with Derrick Rose at the line with 10 seconds left in regulation, saying if he made two it was meant to be, but if he didn't it wasn't. You might accurately consider that somewhat defeatist, and it certainly opens the possibility that Rose's miss on the first shot caused him to stop coaching, but that's all beside the point.

It's not the kind of thing too many people want to be known for, but Calipari came up big in defeat. Maybe you can win for losing.

This Week's List

• Final thought on Calipari: You absolutely have to call timeout to make sure everyone knows you have to foul after Rose made the second free throw with 10 seconds left.

• The obligatory question that shouldn't be asked because you already know the answer so please wait for another day but oh I know you just can't: Within the first few questions of the postgame press conference with the Memphis players -- probably right after everyone exhausted every single variation on the "Why did you miss those free throws?" question -- someone asked Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts whether they were returning or going to the NBA.

• Just a wild, foolish guess, but: I'm thinking Rose is gone.

• For those of you watching the men's and women's Final Fours, I know you're wondering the same thing: What, San Antonio couldn't spring for an orange on the floor?

• Trendy stat of the first week of the baseball season: No team has won the World Series after losing its first six games.

• Meaningless stat of the first week of the baseball season: No team has won the World Series after losing its first six games.

• For something that might actually mean something, and might provide some perspective on the Tigers' plight, how about answering this: How many World Series winners over the past 20 years have lost six straight at any point during their championship season?

• Advice for Kevin Love, completely unsolicited: One more year in school.

• His outright mastery of his profession at his age might be the most astounding sight in sports: Greg Maddux on Monday, beating the Giants by allowing just one run on three hits over seven innings, and along the way retiring 19 of 20.

• Just for the heck of it: Greg Dreiling.

• Yeah, but Memphis knows what it's like to lose the Civil War: As soon as overtime started, Billy Packer informed us that Kansas "knows what it's like" to be in an overtime championship game, since it happened to the Jayhawks in 1957.

• Yeah, I know: It only feels like yesterday.

• And finally, the New York press just went to Threat Level Red: Derek Jeter left Monday night's game with a quad injury.

Tim Keown is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Sound off to Tim here.

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