Final Four: A Lesson in Losing Well

Commentary

By , Senior sports columnist of The Christian Science Monitor

At major sporting events - and the men's collegiate basketball Final Four here is one of the most major of all - it's too easy to focus on what seems to be the big picture but is not.

For example, at this year's Final Four, where the championship game will be contested tonight and witnessed in 186 countries on all seven continents with a potential audience of more than 500 million households, most are dissecting how Kentucky beat Stanford 86-85 in overtime Saturday night and how Utah beat North Carolina 65-59 to arrive at this pinnacle. The answer is the two winners figured out a way to score more points than the two losers. Is everyone keeping up? And then they prattle on about which one will prevail this evening.

Enough of this baloney.

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The real story - behind the obvious story - is that athletes and coaches and, in fact, all of us are best judged not at moments of victory but in the despair of defeat.

So meet Stanford's Mark Madsen and North Carolina's Makhtar Ndiaye. Losers?

Madsen is one of 10 children in a Danville, Calif.,

family. He spent two years on his Mormon mission before accepting his Stanford scholarship.

There's a lot of room for athletic softness as a result of this background, the wait-your-turn attitude from being in a large family and compassion as a result of religious conviction. Conversely, college hoops demand a steely and selfish resolve and a healthy streak of nastiness. That's Madsen, too, a rock hard competitor, strong and furious. Whined Arizona coach Lute Olson of Madsen, "The guy's just relentless.'' Says Stanford coach Mike Montgomery, "He's tough."

But on Saturday at a late, crucial juncture, Madsen - who had a brilliant all-around game including 16 rebounds - unveiled his true self.

Kentucky's Scott Padgett drove for a slam dunk as Madsen defended. The ball hit the back of the rim and bounced crazily out of bounds. There is plenty of evidence that Stanford was going to get the ball, run down the floor, score and be set up to win the game. But officials ruled that Madsen had touched the ball as it ricocheted and thus belonged to Kentucky. Stanford devotees went nuts in opposition. Several hoops junkies who watched the replays declared that the Cardinal had been victimized by a horrendous call.

Yet, later, Madsen said that, yes, he thinks he probably touched the ball. But regardless, he was certain he was guilty of an illegal play because he had his hand over the cylinder of the basket and thus he should have been nabbed for goal tending. That call, had it been made, would have been an automatic two points.

Because Madsen felt as if he violated the rules twice, he says he was "pretty happy'' when officials called one of the infractions. Madsen desperately wants to win, but for him, it must be fair to have meaning. He's obviously a whacko.

Later, far from the maddening crowds, Madsen stood in the bowels of the Alamodome and was genuinely dismayed when asked how come he told the truth. He stammered, "Why not?''

Why not is that athletes just don't. It's not the American way. Way more than 95 percent of the players - and 99.9 percent of the losing players - would have denied culpability.

He says honesty was a value stressed at home, an expectation. Madsen continues to be baffled at the line of inquiry. "It's important to tell it like it is,'' he says. His attitude clearly is that this is such a basic, such a given in life, that everyone does it and so it is no more worth analyzing than why the wind blows across Texas cattle ranches. Would that that be true.

AND then there is North Carolina's Makhtar Ndiaye, a senior and a Tar Heel leader. He fouled out early in the second half after playing just 14 minutes, whereupon he spent the rest of the game brooding on the bench. He had nothing to do with his teammates, all the rest of whom were fully involved.

He not only had hurt his team with an inordinately poor effort on the floor - no field goals in three tries, no free throws on two attempts, no assists - but then he doubled his sins by becoming a petulant, insolent blight on the sidelines.

Regardless, Carolina coach Bill Guthridge said later that if he had to go to war he'd be glad to have any of his team members at his side. That presumably includes Ndiaye. That needs rethinking. Who wants to be in battle with someone who may quit and go mope just when the incoming barrage is at its peak?

Madsen and Ndiaye. Both losers?

* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is looneyd@csps.com

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