Commentary

Glory in the journey, not the wins

In Los Angeles, it was a tough year for champions but a banner year for good feelings

Updated: July 11, 2011, 1:04 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

On the first take I had nothing.

BEST TEAM?

BEST COACH?

BEST GAME?

Umm, nobody won in Los Angeles over the last year. Not the Lakers or the Clippers or the Dodgers or the Angels or the Los Angeles Kings or the Anaheim Ducks or any of our major college basketball or football programs.

Really, nobody even came close.

In so many ways, it has been a year of loss, ugly endings and disappointment in Los Angeles: From the tragic beating of San Francisco Giants fan Bryan Stow in the Dodger Stadium parking lot on Opening Day, to the Lakers embarrassing 36-point Game 4 loss in Dallas in what would prove to be Phil Jackson's last game, to the continuing impact of sanctions at USC, which have punished the good men left behind (Pat Haden and Matt Barkley) for the sins of the departed (Reggie Bush, Mike Garrett and Pete Carroll).

And yet, now that I've been asked to look back and remember the best moments in Los Angeles sports since we last assembled for the ESPYs a summer ago, I don't feel disappointed or empty or even sad.

Blake GriffinNoah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesBlake Griffin's combination of strength and quickness is unrivaled among NBA power forwards.

This may not have been a year for championships and glory, or even a year to remember. But the best of sports very rarely has anything to do with any of that.

Winning, for those who are the best at sports, is simply the end point for the type of journey we all hope to take each time we play a game, or fall in love with those who play them.

So no, I don't feel disappointed by what has happened in sports here in Los Angeles over the last 12 months.

I don't feel that way because I had the good fortune of being in attendance for the beginning of Blake Griffin's NBA career, and the end of Pauley Pavilion as we know it, when John Wooden's great-grandson scored the final basket in the old house.

I don't feel that way because I got to see UCLA's Trevor Bauer pitch the way he wanted to, better than anyone else in the country, even if no one liked the way he liked to pitch.

I don't feel that way because I got to watch Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw blossom into two of the best young players in baseball every night, and, even better, listened to Vin Scully tell us how they were doing it.

I don't feel that way because a few months ago, I had a chance to meet a man named Stephen Hinkel.

You've never heard of him and likely never would if he didn't happen to be the sports information director at Caltech, one of the best science and technology universities in the world, with quite possibly the least successful athletic department in the country.

He came to Los Angeles to help the homeless on Skid Row, but ministry work didn't pay all of his bills so he took a day job putting out news releases for all 17 of Caltech's intercollegiate sports programs and got very good at finding silver linings where others saw only failure.

"It sometimes gets to be very interesting, and creative, shall we say? But the thing that's going on here, there are stories to tell," Hinkel explained. "We're breaking school records, we're getting listed among national leaders, in a variety of sports.

"So it's like, 'What is your focus going to be on? Is your focus going to be on the negativity, and the glass being half-empty, or is the glass going to be half-full.' You gotta hedge that line. But if you do it right, you can come out with a story that doesn't look as bad as the score may indicate at times."

The baseball team is currently on a 170-game losing streak, and has 412 straight losses to conference schools. Volleyball has lost 19 in a row and 154 consecutive conference matches. The women's basketball team went 0-25 last season.

I met him on the day after Caltech's men's basketball team ended its 26-year, 310-game conference losing streak with a 46-45 win over Occidental College.

Caltech vs. Occidental CollegeAP Photo/Damian DovarganesCaltech's victory over Occidental was an inspiring reminder of the meaning of competition. Here, Ryan Elmquist sits in front of his team's winning scoreboard.

The morning after, the entire team crowded back onto the court for a celebration and news conference that drew national attention. The president of the university sat in the bleachers. A Nobel Prize laureate stood in the back of the gym.

Every single one of them was proud, but not because Caltech had finally won a game. The win was simply evidence of everything Caltech had been doing right for a long time.

Which is simply to say: They kept playing.

These young men, superstars in the classroom and in so many other parts of their lives, kept putting themselves in a position where they knew failure had been a way of life for a quarter century.

Each one of them had his own reason.

Some said they just enjoyed the break from schoolwork and the camaraderie of a team. Others found inspiration in the noble struggle and the payoff at the end.

Mostly they just said they liked to compete. To play and keep playing.

Winning that last game was simply a great ending to their story. But you get the feeling other endings would've been OK as well.

I thought back again on what Hinkel had to say about his job. How he never saw finding silver linings for all of Caltech's losing teams as "staying positive."

He simply loved sports. All of it. The losing and the winning and everything in between.

The best in sports.

It's why Griffin is a such a joy to watch, even as his team floundered to yet another losing record. It's not often a city gets to watch a lion cub like Griffin grow and blossom into an animal that could very well rule the NBA for the next decade. It's rarer still for that player to be the type of guy who would donate his trophy and winnings from the NBA Slam Dunk contest to the family of a high school teammate who died of cancer.

Why Scully still sounds as excited and happy to announce that "It's time for Dodger baseball" every day, even as the man who owns the team and pays his salary seems determined to keep the Dodgers in a quasi-purgatory while his own mess sorts itself out in court. It's not just us who get to watch Kemp and Kershaw finally put their enormous potential together in the right way, Scully does too.

One of the best races of the year was held at Churchill Downs last October. Zenyatta, a horse for the ages, risked the perfect ending to her storied career for the thrill of one last come-from-way-behind victory. It was thrilling and epic and everything a great race should be.

Zenyatta lost by a nose.

In the end, the finish did not matter nearly as much as it seemed like it would, or even like we thought it should.

Everything else did.

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

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