Louisville men's basketball coach Rick Pitino bathes in bliss this week because his team captured the national title on Monday night. Though on a much more modest scale almost to the point of ridiculousness, I can relate.
Eight years ago when my daughters were in sixth grade, I masterminded their school team to the league championship. In the town where we live we became the darlings. I did interviews with local papers. We had a school ceremony at which we cut down the nets. I gave a speech at the awards banquet explaining to the other coaches what it took to be great.
"You have to want it more than the other coach," I told them. "You have to make the whole thing personal between you and the guy who leads the other team. You have to make it a mental game of chess, a battle of who can prove they are smarter and, by extension, a better athlete when you were a kid. It's all about winning and that's all that matters. Championships are the only thing. Second place is for losers. There is no such thing as being happy with making it to the title game and losing. There should be no rationalizing that the team played as hard as it could but just came up a little short. None of that."
During the ceremony I felt like the king of the basketball coaching gods. Other coaches who didn't win the championship revered me; at least I perceive it that way. I had them awed, or so I thought. Ours was the first team to win a school basketball championship in more than two decades. We had made our mark and soaked in the adulation. In my mind we deserved the praise. It was all about me, the coach, brainstorming the plot to beat that team from the nearby town that had won the title a bunch of years in a row. We were not supposed to steal their dominance. We did. They were thwarted and bummed. A paradigm had shifted.
There was a parade down Main Street at which little kids tossed confetti at us. The local fire department tooted its siren. Coins got hurled our away.
"We are the best there is," I remember thinking while riding in a black convertible Corvette. "Being a coach of a championship basketball team surpasses anything I've done in my life."
In the offseason I plotted how we would win the next season. Like Pitino, everyone figured I had the secret to bringing more attention to our little grade school. I was building a dynasty. Other towns now knew we could play hoops. There would be more championship parties in our future, pizza and sodas.
Then a few things happened. I didn't see them coming. Parents of some players evidently didn't like my act, or my intensity, or the way I had the players practice quite often by normal standards, or were miffed about something I said to their daughters, or were worried about how much playing time I would give their daughters. Working behind the scenes, they plotted my downfall. I could hear them saying: "He thinks this whole basketball team is all about him when it should be about the girls. The guy has an ego the size of Mexico and the personality of a wart. He's unbearable. We're going to get him out of here before he wins another championship-which he will no doubt fight like mad to achieve. He wants to gain more power and stature in the community. We can't have a jerk running amok being all center stage. He's got to go."
I kept on being my nauseating self. I gave inspirational speeches to the town Rotary Club and Cub Scouts. I signed autographs there but limited those to three per session. I cut people off. My time was my money. Impressed with my coaching achievement, the town mayor had me mediate squabbles percolating about commercial real estate development and widespread quibbling about easements.
"My advice to you all is to compete with all your mental acumen to get what you want," I said. "Don't give in. Your opponents will pull all sorts of maneuvers to annihilate your will. Never let them do that. Compete. Win. Winning is the only force in life that sustains human beings. Get the other guy to cave. Stay up all night preparing your arguments. Out want victory from the other guy."
The next day while leaving my house I noticed toilet paper strung through the trees in my front lawn. My family had been rolled.
"Jealousy, that's what that is," I thought. "They're jealous of me because I'm the biggest winner in this town. People can't handle me because I remind them of their inadequacies. They don't have the fortitude, skill and moxie, like Pitino and me, to figure out how to be a champion. They are weak. We are strong. They are envious."
When the season began, a scandal erupted. Word spread around town that I had a drinking problem even though I hadn't had a drink in more than fifteen years and have never been diagnosed as an alcoholic. A local newspaper quoted anonymous sources saying "That guy thinks because he won a championship he can say and do anything he wants. He abuses his stature. He's a constant reminder to everyone else that they are not champions. He's leveraging that title to the hilt. He's abusing his power. It's already being rumored he's got a head coaching job making six figures at a local college. It's all about money and power to him. He is not loyal to the school and the girls. He is loyal to his well-being. He should not be coaching at that school anymore. We need a coach who cares more about the players and less about himself."
This is a not really what happened in my life, as you might imagine. I didn't say this stuff; nobody does if they have any sense of decorum. I'm not this much of an egomaniac and jerk. In fact, I'm a reasonably nice guy, and not cocky-I don't think. I know I inspired my players to achieve a championship none of them thought imaginable. But I admit to having been a practice-obsessed and intense coach who did not like to lose and got caught up sometimes in out-strategizing the other coach especially if he was acting like our team wasn't any good compared with his.
The basic theme illustrated factiously above, that I coached girls to a championship and the next year everything fell apart for our team, is basically true. Parents of players meddled too much in the team's affairs and were main reasons for the downfall. I made a few minor disciplinary and slight political mistakes involving the athletic director and school principle. The masses turned on me.
I learned from this that the price of winning a championship, of being the best, is that people start to dislike you or, at least, view you differently. They seem to become more suspicious of you. They wonder how you got where you are. They figure you cheated or have impure motives.
To be great, to be a champion, sounds great conceptually and is a satisfying feeling in the moment. But it's fleeting. Staying on top is the hurdle and it's an even more arduous undertaking. More paranoia sets in. People watch you more carefully.
I resigned from my coaching position after coaching that second season. From then on I wondered how many more championships we could have won had I stayed on, how many more people would dislike me, and why being the best is not as enjoyable as it seems to be when you are not the best on the outside looking in.
I was the best basketball player in the entire Washington, D.C. area in eighth grade. I remember being paranoid that someone was better than me. I didn't really enjoy the feeling of being number one. I worried. It was nice to receive awards for being the top player, but I was overly humble to avoid seeming cocky to my friends. I wanted them to like me. They did like me, I think, because I wasn't a jerk, didn't make them feel below me. But that humility probably tempered the intensity of my pursuit to remain on top. I wanted to continue to have friends more than I wanted to continue to be the best at what I did.
I have regrets for not having continued to pursuit greatness by not coaching the next season. But I am glad I didn't alienate my town friends any further-at least as far as I know. But maybe the damage done is irreparable. My reputation was stained in the community and I sense no one will ever see my quite the same way as before we won that championship. Of course no one will ever say this to me. People don't like to confront other people to tell them they don't like or trust them. They do that on the sly. They gossip to their about this but they often tell you.
I believe one of life's most vexing challenges is figuring out how to balance being the best with being liked. They two are frequently incompatible. Consider Tiger Woods. He has won many golf championships but is not well liked nor trusted.
Consider Pitino. Would you want to be his friend? I wouldn't. A person that consumed with being the best couldn't be the most enjoyable person to be around because he would be, be definition, too worried about himself and what he wants. I am suspicious of how he got where he is. He seems to like himself and be too impressed with himself. With his lofty ambitions, you don't really think he has much time to be concerned about you, do you? You don't think he's as concerned about his friends as he is about winning, do you? He is great at what he does. He got there, I suspect, but being less concerned with friends than with himself.
Some people who make it to the top have lots of friends and are likeable such as, arguably, Lebron James. Many people like him and he has lots of friends. Yet how many are really his friends and how many act like his friends because he is rich and powerful? Most, I suspect, are in the latter group.
I ask you this: Do you want to be the best at what you do more than you want lots of friends? Most normal people want both. The melancholic reality is that it's very difficult to strike a balance that will fulfill them.