Monday, June 14, 2010

Making Ability Count

Don't measure yourself by what you have accomplished, but by what you should have accomplished with your ability - John Wooden

Almost lost in the hubbub of the NBA Finals and the opening of the 2010 World Cup was the passing of a legend: UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. I didn't know a whole lot of his life story and achievements until later in my teens, but I do remember him a lot because basketball, much more than excessive alchohol, raucous singing, or womanizing, was the family religion, at least among us men.

Before I was born, it was the main way my father and his brothers, my uncles, displayed their machismo and bravado. I heard once that one of the older brothers, my Tiyong Salvador "Badong" de Guzman, was a highly-rated player and was invited to the national team. During those days, basketball was just reaching the apex of its popularity and there was hardly any money in it. I suspect though, that my Tiyong Badong was making the most of his time as a Customs employee and the cost of paying for the expenses without a backer was hardly appealing (since this was post World War II and the college leagues were just growing, and no hint of commercial leagues yet.)

Anyhow, basketball filled our conversations. My oldest brother had the unique experience of playing basketball camp in his teens when our father was still working for the Goodyear company. My brother had a beautiful release on his jump shot - he was schooled by our father and an American employee at Goodyear encouraged him to develop it further - only when I was watching footage of Pistol Pete Maravich did I notice the similarities.

But this is not a case of "my grandfather had a bigger, better whatever."

In any case, even though basketball was a test of character, all of us kids were directed to hit the books - any fool can dribble a basketball, but not anyone can cure cancer. Or so it went. We went out and played, but we had to study.

We had a backdoor basketball court (roughly halfcourt) where I learned the game and watched others play. My other uncles, my mother's brothers, were far more often at our house and so were their kids, my cousins.

Basketball - and sport itself - are not analogies of life. Sports are life. They offer an insight as to how you approach life. You could guess at somebody's character as to how he conducted himself on the court - never mind his skill (as talent and coordination is unevenly distributed) - but how he relates with his teammates and his opponents.

We love sport because through our sports heroes we can live those values we hold dear vicariously through them. Courage under difficult circumstances, achieving harmony in reaching a goal, practicing continuously to perfect one's skills, playing by the rules and knowing when to bend them, oh-so-carefully-but-cleverly in your team's favor. How we perceive our players and the ones we relate to is also an indication of how well we understand the game, and in turn, how winning on the court, while not the end-all and be-all of our life, could come pretty close in achieving one's personal high-definition personality picture.

The spirit of this post following the first Boston Celtics championship in twenty-odd years still reflects my estimation for people and the game.

You respect talent but don't subordinate your goals or your personhood to it; you take the talent that you have and compete to the fullest of your ability; you dish out the punishment that you can take, and acknowledge that pain is part of the process of winning (or even losing for that matter); you shouldn't stop yourself from trying to win them all but when the losses come, accept that you can't get them all; and when the struggle is done and whether you win or lose, you shake hands with the guys on the other side.

And, one succinct lesson that should always echo for all of us (especially me) - don't settle, don't ever settle. A win is not a win if it was handed out to you. In the end, the prizes lose their luster when they come too easily. Find a challenge and keep to it, never flog yourself for wanting too much but rather for not appreciating the degree of difficulty in time. "A man's got to know his limitations," so says Dirty Harry Callahan. But don't let those limitations, on the other hand, define your lack of desire to do the best that you can.

John Wooden really had it figured out back then.

Just a small postscript since I avoided commenting on the present political situation in the Philippines ---

I may not like Noynoy Aquino, or even profess to have the least amount of admiration for him, but he won the presidency fair and square. He is not his parents and he can't lay claim to their achievements. Which is all the better for him - he has the opportunity to chart his own destiny, free from the "what-could-have-beens" of his father and the "better-times-than-what-we-remembered" of his mother. He may not have the abiliity or sincerity of either, but he does have a chance to make the most of his time.

And this is his time, not theirs. And if we are to make it worth his while, we should make it our time too.

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