Walk this Way, Talk this Way

Last night, during the intermission between the 1st and 2nd periods of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals (GO BRUINS!), I flipped around my television channels until I came upon a documentary re-airing on ESPN (or ESPN2, can’t remember) about Reggie Miller. It was called “Winning Time” and per the description on their website, “chronicles the verbal, emotional, physical and basketball battles between Reggie Miller’s Pacers and the New York Knicks”. I’m a big fan of Reggie. I loved him as a player, as a personality, and now as a play-by-play announcer. In my mind, he reigns as THE guy I’d want to shoot the winning shot in any close game. No offense to Michael Jordan, who you’d be a fool to not pick for your team, I’ll stick with Reggie for the buzzer-beater. 5-4-3-2-1… Swish!

The part of the documentary that I caught last night focused on his battles with John Starks of the Knicks and in particular, the “head butt” incident that occurred in Game 3 of the 1993 playoff series between the Pacers and the Knicks. Reggie had a knack for getting under people’s skin. He was a trash talker extraordinaire. In the documentary, he claims that he did this 70% to motivate himself, 30% to get to his opponent. Regardless, he got to plenty an opponent, and arguably most famously, to John Starks in that game. Fed up with his yacking and his elbowing and his all-around better play, Starks followed Miller down the floor at one point and promptly gave him a little head butt. If you watch the replay, you see it’s a pretty harmless hit, but Reggie played it up well and Starks was promptly ejected from the game.

The newspapers crucified him. His teammate, Patrick Ewing, looked like he could have killed him. EVERYONE called Starks out for falling for the antics of Miller, losing his cool, and getting tossed from the game when they needed him most.

And this struck me as… well, as a bit of the pot calling the kettle black.

What was so wrong about John Starks’ reaction? What was so surprising about it? Really? We live in a society that hardly calls for people to walk away from confrontation. We pride ourselves on our “fight back” attitude. When is the last time an act of “turning the other cheek” was celebrated in the news media to the degree the bombing of Baghdad was? Yes, it’s unfair to compare murderous dictators to needling basketball players, but my point is that it seems illogical to, on the one hand, celebrate retaliation so much, while on the other accuse someone of being stupid, an idiot – to ask in dismay, “Did he really just do that?!” – simply for retaliating against a bully. And should you believe we don’t celebrate retaliation (because that would be so uncivilized), what exactly do you call fans at televised ballgames cheering in glee, “U.S.A.!”, over and over again after the death of Osama bin Laden is announced over the speakers.

We teach kids a lot about bullying. We teach them in school or church or scouts or home that it’s wrong. Bullies are bad, but they’re also sad. Sad and pathetic and lashing out because they feel inferior in some way. Pop psychology maybe, but that’s generally the lesson we formally teach. And because they suffer this malady, we shouldn’t indulge them by giving in. We should simply walk away. This disarms a bully. When John Starks let Reggie Miller get to him, rather than simply ignoring and/or walking away from him, essentially he let Reggie win. (Personally, I call the taunting of Miller “gamesmanship”, but for the sake of illustration, it works here.)

But we also teach kids a lot about bullying informally. In fact, we probably teach them way more this way than any other. For example, twelve individuals, inspired by a handful of others, led by one lunatic, got on some airplanes almost 10 years ago and inconceivably killed several thousand innocent people. We retaliate with war in at least three countries, tens of thousands dead and/or wounded, gazillions of dollars in debt, and utter intolerance for anyone who might question the acts of members of our military. Just what is the lesson here?

I couldn’t help but think of this last night. I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if our leaders and our country had said to the terrorists that day, “We will not fall for this. Fighting back is exactly what you want us to do. Starting a war means that you win.” I couldn’t help but think of newspapers running headlines the day after the bombing of Baghdad that read, “America is the Biggest Fool!” or “What a Bunch of Stupid Americans!”. That’s what they said of John Starks, after all.

And basketball and acts of terror may be far apart on the spectrum, but retaliation by violence makes a loser of us all. As Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), the priest in the movie “The Mission”, so eloquently put it, “If might is right, then love has no place in the world. It may be so, it may be so. But I don’t have the strength to live in a world like that, Rodrigo.”

What a very, very different world that would be.

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