As a competitor in a few sports, in league play, I have come to understand the winner vs. loser concept. However, I have always seen it in the first, second and third place format, instead of No. 1 and everyone else. Perhaps that's the perspective you need to be the best, but second place, to me, is a worthy consolation.
I believe it is different considering the circumstances. Is it a team game? Is it one on one? How does atmosphere and injury effect the outcome? And what is the perceived distance in quality between opponents?
If we look back to the 2007 New England Patriots, we find the greatest example of No. 1 or nothing else. Indeed many will remember the 2007 Patriots as one of the greatest teams ever, but fact of the matter is they lost when they had no other option but to win.
Then there's the underdog tale, in my view, a no lose situation. Take the 2008 Arizona Cardinals, where one playoff win was massive, two, a lifetime of waiting, but three and a trip to the Super Bowl? Yes, I was one of those people who believed the Cardinals had nothing to lose, and in the end, they didn't. Perhaps those players lost their one and only chance at Super Bowl glory, but really, they exceeded expectations and all boundaries.
So what is second place? Is it that bad?
And what if a team or player consistently take second place? Is their legacy tainted?
Take, for example, the Buffalo Bills won their Conference four consecutive years but failed to win the League Championship. Considering how the Bills lost, second place was a harsh negative to winning Super Bowl XXV and XXVIII.
Then we look at Ivan Lendl, the only male tennis player to have a losing record in Grand Slam Finals in the Open Era (with at least three victories). Lendl went 8-11 in Slam Finals, and although losing 11 Slam Finals, he also made the most Slam Final Appearances ever at 19 (now tied by Roger Federer).
To compare and consider how badly the distance was from first and second place, of
Lendl's 11 Finals losses, only two went to five sets. And this was one player against one player, not a team where you could hold someone else at fault.Still, would Lendl's career be seen as below that of Jimmy Connors?
Connors was never able to win all four Slams at least once, as Andre Agassi did, but
finished 8-7 in Slam Finals. Would the fact he did not make four Slam Finals be seen as a negative or a positive in that he didn't lose four Grand Slams when he was so close, as Lendl was?
And then, how many points is the runner-up prize actually worth?
I have often said winning is twice what losing is. With that in mind, I would put a one-time champion at the same level as a two-time runner-up, and put a three-time runner-up above a one-time champion. I've been told this is completely wrong and horrible train of thought, but is it?
In team sports as in individual play, there have been one time wonders, in some sports to a lesser degree due to the competition.
For instance in the NFL, it is largely expected for a different team to win the Super Bowl every year, so the 1985 Chicago Bears can never be judged as a one season wonder, however in the NBA a string of dynasties has been more common and extensive, such as the 1980s Lakers or 1990s Bulls.
Still, not many people are going to call the 2006 Miami Heat a one season wonder team, however I would say the Detroit Pistons have put up better consistency winning a title and making another Final. Some would disagree and say second place means nothing.
But then why do we have Hall of Fames for all these athletes? Are they only designated for those who have won? I do not look at it that way, and perhaps I'm in the minority.
In team sports, it’s usually hard to legitimately assess individual players, however in the NBA it is more justified as there are 5 players on the court, where one truly great player, can carry a team, but to only such an extent.
I then come to compare the careers of David Robinson and Karl Malone.
David Robinson was a 10 time NBA All-Star, One Time NBA Defensive player of the Year and One Time League MVP. He won two Championships with the Spurs, one in 1999 and another in 2003.
Karl Malone made 13 NBA All-Star Teams, was a two Time League MVP, made three Finals, and lost all of them as a member of the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers.
Who's career was better? Consider this, Robinson's second Championship came in his last season in the league, where he was much past his prime and his last All-Star appearance was in 2001. Also consider Malone played five more seasons than Robinson, and yet his PPG average was four points better.
In this case team strength should also be noted, Malone, with his teamate John Stockton largely carried those Jazz teams and made two Finals, ultimately losing to one of the best teams, and arguably the greatest player ever in Michael Jordan.
Then getting back to the NFL if we are to judge Quarterbacks by Super Bowl rings, as the Hall of Fame does, was Jim Kelly's career better than Troy Aikman's?
Certainly three Super Bowl wins to four Super Bowl losses makes Aikman look better, but Jim Kelly had a better regular season starter record of 101-59 to Aikman's 94-71, and a first Team All-Pro to Aikman’s zero individual accolades (except a Super Bowl MVP, a one game award ).
This is all subjective but the point remains, is second place such a sour note? And is
there no difference between second place and let's say, fifth place?
I often wonder, if I had to choose a career in a sport, for sake of argument, an individual sport such as tennis, rowing, or track, would I prefer to be on top of the world at one tournament and then suffer an injury or retire into obscurity, or enjoy a lengthy career and be a runner-up on numerous occasions?
I suppose it all depends on your drive and the difference between being content with not being the best, or coming to the realization that you can't be the best, such as athletes like Andy Roddick must have accepted.
Then again, individual sports and team sports are just too different. You can reshape a team, but you cannot reshape an individual athlete. I am sure Kobe Bryant knows this and understands he will never surpass Jordan.
So to conclude, whoever wins the 2009 Stanley Cup, I will salute the runner-up, for being second may not be as great as being first in a one time deal, but it's better than being the Chicago Cubs.
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