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Real Life Underdogs

by Jon Stonger on 6 April 2010


People often forget the thing that made the first Rocky such a great movie:  Rocky loses.

He knows he can’t beat the champ. Apollo Creed is too fast and too strong.  Instead he resolves to go the distance, to stand toe to toe with the champ and take all the punishment he has to offer.  In the late rounds, Rocky, battered and bloody, finally gets inside, and hammers Apollo’s ribs with everything he has.

But he still loses.

We know how the underdog sports story goes.  We’ve seen it a million times.  There’s a team of rejects and losers, and they all band together to go on a miracle run and beat the champions on a miracle play by their miracle player.  The crowd cheers, the team captain gets the girl, and everyone lives happily ever after.

There are so many movies about the underdogs winning, that as soon as you sit down, you know that they’re actually favored.  The true underdog in the movies is the dominant team, since they’re the ones who are destined to lose.

That’s the beautiful thing about sports.  If Butler and Duke were playing in the movies, then we could all comfortably relax, knowing that the scrappy team from a small school in Indiana would find a way to beat the well-funded giants of the ACC.  But in real life, you just don’t know.

Most of the time, when the small school runs up against the big one, they get crushed.  For all the talk of upsets, the reason they’re special is because they don’t happen very often.  The dominant teams are dominant for a reason: they almost always win.

If David had to fight Goliath in a best of seven series or a 12 round bout, David loses.  The slingshot trick might get him the first time, but he’d be ready in the second round.

Many people have compared Butler’s run to the movie Hoosiers, where a small Indiana high school wins the state championship on a last second shot (almost …).  Easy to see the parallels, but they had the wrong movie.  Butler was Rocky.  They didn’t win.  But they stood toe to toe with the champ.  They went the distance: 13 seconds left, down 1 in the national title game, with the ball in their playmaker’s hands.

And that’s really all we can ask for.  So many people say “I want to be champion,” but that’s not possible.  There can only be one champ.  The most we can ask for, maybe even all we can ask for, is just one shot.

To be standing on the field of battle in the Valley of Elah, facing Goliath, slingshot in hand.  To be facing the champ in the late rounds and finally get inside and start throwing punches to the body with all the power in your soul.  To stand on the court, 13 seconds left, down 1, with the ball in your hands.

Because in real life, that rock from the slingshot has a habit of glancing off the helmet.  The champ wins by split decision.  The last shot bounces achingly off the inside of the rim.

Underdog stories are usually fantasy.  Butler showed us something from real life.  Few, if any of us, will every get to be a champion.  But maybe, if we work hard enough, if we sweat and bleed and claw, we might go the distance.  Maybe, just maybe, we might stand on the court, 13 seconds left, down 1, with the ball in our hands …

Photo credit: Getty Images

About Jon Stonger

Jon Stonger is a novelist and short story writer. His first book, The Adventures of the Delineator: The Slimy and the Sentient, is now available. He currently resides in Suwon City, Korea.

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