What is a Champion?

It is the day after.

Maybe a few couches are still smoldering on State Street. Our young men, who transformed into what it truly means to be a winning team, are either home or on their way today.

Their coach, John Calipari, handled questions, (inappropriate or not,) with the grace of a consummate ‘winner.’ A few fans are still flying their UK Wildcat flags from their cars. We are disappointed, but grateful (for the most part) that we made it this far.

Last night, on the news, I saw two young men who looked to be college students. They were interviewed about their reactions to Kentucky’s loss in the national championship game. The first said, petulantly, “I’m JUST SAD,” and stomped off in a toddler-like fashion, apparently to find some other malcontent poor sports to commiserate with.

The second, with the grace of a young Calipari, talked about how great the team played, how great UConn played, how no one expected UK to be in the place they were (national championship contenders) and how he was looking forward to seeing the Wildcats take on UConn next year.

Now maybe, just maybe, the newscasters encouraged the first young man to behave badly, and the second one to behave better. We don’t know.

However, I can tell you ‘straight up’ which one personified ‘winning spirit.’

We have heard the pet sayings: “Winning isn’t the main thing—it’s the ONLY thing,” “There’s no place for second place,” or worse still “The plaque for second place is hanging in the ladies room.”

But, you know, I have to wonder about the mentality of people who actually believe such things. Sometimes winning isn’t who has the highest number when the clock runs out. Sometimes winning is about how gracefully one handles a crushing defeat.

In our narcissistic, results-only-matter culture, it is easy to get a mindset of defeatism which labels anything but the top spot as unacceptable. However, history is full of examples of the folks who seemed to lose, be totally voted off the island—and then, ended up winning big.

For UK this season is done. There won’t be some miracle game recall that demands a re-play. Our guys did their best and this season is over. Now is the time to learn from mistakes, hold heads up high and be able to deal with those who want to play the blame game and be critical.

Such types aren’t really fans. Instead, they are people who want to be in the winner’s spotlight. People who would likely change loyalties if someone bigger and more successful were close at hand. For lack of a better term, I call such people “spotlight whores.” They are not the people who personify what is great about Kentucky athletics or Kentucky in general.

Such fair-weather folk will always be among us. Only time and seeing the consistency of their commitment—to whatever cause or person, and how long it lasts, can identify them for who and what they are. When times get hard, and championships are denied, such proverbial ‘fans’ will scatter like roaches when the lights come on.

I wonder at the petulant young man who stomped off. Could he have been a player of a team that got into a  championship? Or was it easier to make an ass of himself on television and offer criticism without solutions?

Look at the folks in our times who may have seemed to have lost. Lou Gehrig had to retire from baseball due to advanced neurological disease, which ultimately claimed his life. Yet, his departing speech to his team, the Yankees, still inspires many to strive to overcome their challenges and reach out to be the best that they can be.

Look at the many civil rights advocates who were felled by racist haters in the last 50 or more years. Seeming ‘defeat’—yet today our constitution provides for equal protection under the law, and we have (to my delight) an African American president who  brought our country out of a near depression and helped pass legislation to ensure universal healthcare for all.

Despite critical nay-saying, Barack Obama will go down in the books as a truly great HUMAN, not a simply a great BLACK man. He has proven every day of his two terms that standing strong against prejudicial criticism and doing your best counts. He is truly a WINNER.

Lastly, let’s look at the example of the Savior that Christians will soon be celebrating. Even if you do not share traditional Christian beliefs (or have no belief system at all), you have to admit Jesus was an amazing individual.

Lots of people have come and gone saying they were the messiah. There are all kinds of resurrection stories, if you dig for them. However, only ONE has stood the test of time. Only ONE is still celebrated by many people today.

Jesus went to the cross, after having been ridiculed, whipped, stripped and treated as a criminal. He was hung there between two ‘losers’ of that society, condemned to die a ‘loser’s death. Yet, three days later, where was he?

Whether you believe it or not, that body went somewhere. And all these years later, many people draw hope and new life from the belief that while Jesus died a so called, ‘loser’ he arose, three days later,  as the greatest ‘winner’ of all time!

Winning the right way can mean that we actually appear to lose. Walking away with dignity and self-respect means much more than having the right numbers at the right time.

Our Wildcats are in some really good company as they walk (not limp) away from the Championship that might have been.

They are champions in their hearts. And I celebrate them as Champions today.

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