April 7, 2014Vol. 44, Issue 4

Refusing to Yield

As the last frantic, glorious minutes played out in this year’s NCAA West Regional men’s basketball championship March 17, a single phrase from Don McLean’s epic song, “American Pie,” kept running through my head:

The marching band refused to yield.”

McLean’s song, as many of you may recall, is an extraordinary tour de force chronicling a quarter century of American political and musical history from the late-1950s to the early 1970s. It covers events from the deaths of early rock and roll stars Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper in an airplane crash on Feb. 3, 1959, (“The day the music died”) to the lost innocence of the Woodstock generation and Vietnam (“The lovers cried and the poets dreamed”).

The line in my head, though, was from the fourth verse of the song, where McLean acknowledged the genius of the Beatles and their monumental album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In this verse, McLean listed several of the challengers to the Beatles’ supremacy on the music charts and as interpreters of contemporary culture (Bob Dylan, the Byrds, the Rolling Stones) but sang how “the marching band” (the Beatles) “refused to yield” the stage to any of them.

That line came to mind when the Wildcats were down by 18 to Cal State Stanislaus with 12:09 left to play in the second half. Then trailing by 13 with 2:48 left on the clock. And still down 7 with barely a minute left.

“The marching band refused to yield.”

With 1.9 ticks left on the clock, senior guard Amir Carraway sank two free throws, giving the Wildcats an 81-80 advantage. It was the first, and only, time the Wildcats had taken the lead in the entire game. One last desperation heave by Stanislaus fell short, and Chico State was the champion of the West.

Well, of course, it was not a perfect ending to the season because we lost a week later in the Division II Elite Eight round March 26 against South Carolina-Aiken. But, in fact, only one team, the eventual tournament winner, goes away with a perfect ending.

But there was no more beautiful ending to this season. And that’s what Coach Greg Clink and his players, especially the five graduating seniors, reflected upon after the game. Joyfully and, yes, a little tearfully, they recalled what they had accomplished:

  • 25 wins in a season, matching a school record
  • 69 wins over the last three seasons, the most in any three-year run in school history
  • The first men’s basketball CCAA conference championship in 2012
  • The first men’s basketball team to reach the NCAA Sweet 16 and Elite 8
  • Their three NCAA tournament wins this year were more than the combined total of NCAA tournament victories in the program’s previous 98 years.

No, not a marching band, but a band of brothers who dug deep, discovered something wonderful in the process about themselves as individuals and as a team—and refused to yield.

The men’s basketball team celebrates after winning the NCAA West Regional Championship title March 17.

The men’s basketball team celebrates after winning the NCAA West Regional Championship title March 17.

They affirmed what, I believe, is the essence of education—self-discovery. And finding out about one’s self is as much a journey of discovery as it is an expression of will. Yes, it occurs in a myriad of ways. Whether reading, thinking, making friends, meditating, volunteering, or exploring foreign cultures or unfamiliar experiences, we are caused to look at ourselves in different ways. But, no less so, observing how we do in moments of stress when we are pushed to our mental and physical limits reveals much about who we are and of what we are capable.  

Sport provides an infinite variety of these moments. Down by a point with only a few seconds on the clock, the outcome of a basketball game rides on your pick or pass or shot. Seeking to extend the deciding set, you’re serving your second serve at 30-40. A match all square on the 18th green, you face a slippery, side hill five-foot putt to halve.

Can you keep your mind functioning clearly enough so that you can perform at your best in these tense moments? That is a real learning experience, a lesson in self-discovery and self-mastery, for every contest is also about not yielding to the doubts, fears, and indeed, the adversary, within us. For if one of the reasons we play sports is to help us find out what kind of person we are, another is to help us become the kind of person we aim to be. Sports participation is both revelation and rehearsal.

The success of our basketball teams this year—for the women also made it to the NCAAs—offers important lessons in teamwork, too. For the real joy of teamwork occurs during those iridescent moments when the existential loneliness of our fate is transcended by nine, or five, or even two individuals who have subordinated their egos to achieve a common goal. They work not only for victory, but also to chip away at the wall that separates individuals from one another.

In the post-glory world of softball, half-court basketball, golf, tennis, and other activities that allow adults of my age to maintain some contact with competitive athletics, there is not much call for a crisp trap block in putting together a math lesson plan and “reading the defense” takes on new meaning as a prosecuting attorney.

But there is enduring educational value even in the more limited competitive arena to which all intercollegiate athletes eventually graduate. It accrues through the benefits of fair, hard play and the ability of colleges and universities to teach this lesson well. If these lessons do not always produce championship seasons and All-American performances, they should never fail to foster respect for opponents and integrity in the conduct of the game. There is no firmer basis for a life of continued self-discovery and meaning, or a surer purpose of the academy. As our athletes and coaches demonstrate in every sport, and every season, our intercollegiate athletics program is aligned with these values and we are a better University as a result.

Go, 'Cats!

 

Paul J. Zingg  

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