Being thrashed is no excuse for whining

Let's understand this and understand it well: Dan Issel, head coach of pro basketball's Denver Nuggets, is one terrific person. In a time when terms like the "whole package" and the "real deal" are thrown around too loosely, Issel exceeds these superlatives.

Issel twice was an all-America basketball player at Kentucky, where he set 23 school records. He averaged 33.9 points per game his senior year. Then he played six years in the old American Basketball Association where he was the league's leading scorer three times. He moved along to the Denver Nuggets, where he averaged more than 20 points a game six times.

He's currently the seventh all-time leading scorer in the pros with 27,482 points. In his 15 professional seasons, he missed only 24 games. That's why he is still called "The Horse."

Dan Issel is bright, compassionate, funny, respected, the whole package, and the real deal. He's in the Hall of Fame.

And he did all of this with an inordinate lack of talent. Among his shortcomings as a player were he was not quick, not strong, too short (6 ft., 9 in., is inadequate for a center), had a poor vertical leap, and possessed an awkward head fake. He did have a decent outside shot.

But what he really had was an all-out devotion to the game, a blue-collar mentality to grab his lunch pail and go work as hard as possible every day, and then come back the next day and do it again. Any athlete - any human - can learn volumes from Dan Issel. In the world of sport, he is a rare prince among many frogs.

All of this said, the other day Issel took a stand, and he was dead wrong. But given Issel's character, nobody will be surprised if he doesn't admit it down the road.

As coach of the so-so Nuggets, Issel was understandably unhappy as his team was being thrashed by Utah. As the margin grew, eventually to 35 points, Issel became furious that Jazz coach Jerry Sloan left in his starting players and seemingly kept running up the score.

Finally, Issel yelled at Sloan, "I'll remember this." Indeed it is always good to keep in mind one meets the same people going up that one does going down, and payback can be brutal. Sloan, also enormously respected around the league, shrugged it off.

Coaches for years have groused when they are hopelessly behind, then turn apoplectic when they perceive the opposing coach is pouring it on.

The losing coaches are wrong. It's not up to the opposing coach and players to worry about inferior opponents. The winners need only look at how things are going and feel good. It's the losers who need performance enhancement.

That means the size of the victory for the Jazz wasn't Sloan's problem. It was Issel's. It's up to the Nuggets to get a lot better so this kind of humiliation doesn't befall them again. Whining, not only about getting beat, but about how much you get beat by, only emphasizes the ineptitude.

A further problem often occurs when coaches try to keep the score down - either by freely substituting for starters or by making no attempt to do any further damage - because the losers take it as a sign of belittlement. It's a no-win for either side.

Of course, not all lopsided scores are run-'em-ups. Last weekend in the NFL playoffs, Jacksonville whumped Miami, 62-7. This was second in postseason play only to the 73-0 defeat Chicago hung on Washington in 1940. Yet, in the current case, nobody accused the winners of excessive scoring.

That is because it was not so much a case of the Jaguars being wondrous as the Dolphins being not wondrous. After all, starting Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell played less than two quarters. By the time in the second quarter when the Jags were up 38-0, Miami's Dan Marino already had thrown two interceptions, fumbled (which was turned into a touchdown), and thrown no completions. Ultimately the losers had seven turnovers.

The surprise was that Jacksonville didn't inadvertently win 100-7.

To strive not to win by too much isn't a demonstration of sportsmanship but a contrived ploy. The winners should be rewarded by basking in the glow of a dominating triumph. The losers should dust themselves off, then rededicate themselves to achievement.

In what always has been, the winner will laugh and tell stories and the loser will say, "Shut up and deal."

Dan Issel knows all this. He just forgot.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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