Editorial: Playing the ‘What If’ Game

(Roger Grossman/News Now Warsaw)

One of the best part of sports is that it, generally, has no eternal significance.

Nobody is going to heaven, or hell, based on their ERA, field goal percentage, or the number of penalties or technical fouls called on them.

It IS just a game, right?

Unlike wars or events in human history, sports allow us to play the “What If” game free of charge.

I mean, do you ever wonder what would have happened if Paul Revere had been captured before he could warn the New England countryside? What if J.W. Booth or Lee Harvey Oswald’s plots to assassinate presidents had been foiled? If Pickett’s Charge would have worked at Gettysburg would you need a passport to cross the Ohio River? Or, even deeper in your thoughts, consider what would America be like had the slave trade not brought people here from Africa against their will?

Sobering, isn’t it?

But in sports, we can pretty much claim a lighter load because the outcome of sporting events does not define us as human beings.

Sure, Dan Marino is ‘the greatest quarterback to never win a Super Bowl.’ But that does not define him, only his career. Dan Marino, the person, is viewed as a great guy who is well-respected in every area of life he has come in contact with.

So this “wondering” I am doing today is strictly about the ramifications of sporting events on sports itself.

For example: What would have happened if Lou Brock had not been traded from the Cubs to the Cardinals? Might the Cubs have won the World Series in 1969? If they had, think about how differently the world of sports would be looking at the Cubs organization right now. All of the pressure that was piled upon the teams in 1984 and 1989 would have been non-existent. The travesty of Steve Bartman would probably have never happened in 2003, right? That poor guy could just be a regular guy again.

What would have happened if the USOC had hired someone other than Herb Brooks to coach the hockey team that beat the Soviets in Lake Placid in 1980? There was more than one high-ranking official who didn’t want him to be the coach in the first place, and there was certainly a lot of people who were clamoring for a change after the way the team started in their exhibition matches leading up to the game. Now we look back on that, 37 years later, and it is part of the improbability of the story of the “Miracle On Ice.”

What if Al Rhodes had remained the boys basketball coach at Warsaw? It’s impossible to know. The years that immediately followed his departure were very messy for the program and the community. It’s hard to imagine those years not being navigated much more smoothly had Rhodes stayed, but would the program have won more games and more championships?

We could debate that (and I have no doubt that several of you will do that after reading this). Certainly, it would be hard to argue that the last eight or nine years under Doug Ogle have been very good years and he has rounded into a very good and well-respected coach.

What if the IHSAA had not instituted class basketball? For more than 20 years, I have been hearing from many of you (exclusively from the larger town and communities by the way) that “class basketball ruined Hoosier Hysteria.” Looking back on it now, it changed it, but it did not ruin it. Maybe it ruined it for you! That I cannot dispute. But I feel quite confident that had the governors of high school sports not done what they did, there would have been a revolt by the smaller schools in the state.

They would have broken away and formed their own association to serve and protect the interests of their corporations. One needs only to watch the four games of the basketball state finals each year to see the stark difference in size and athletic ability between the 4A champ and the 1A runner-up. That would be unfair enough. Then take a public school like North Miami and pair them with Carmel in the old single-class system. No thank you.

One last one for you to chew on today: What if that young man had just kept walking past Bob Knight and not engaged him that day on the Indiana University campus in Bloomington?

The student so famously said to him “Hey Knight!” The legendary coach reacted as you could imagine, and he was out of work hours later. What would have happened is that something else or someone else would have tripped his trigger and Mount Knight would have erupted anyway, spewing ash and fire down on everyone around him.

It should be noted, that you won’t find too many kids on campuses that would treat a famous figure with that kind of disrespect these days. They have Twitter for that. You are more likely to find hundreds of students walking by a famous coach and have no idea who he or she is than to have one make a snarky comment to their faces. It was bad form by that student and I hope they take no pride in the moment.

After that, Knight’s inability to lead a college basketball program was exposed. He moved on to Texas Tech, and that went nowhere. Truth is, the end of his tenure at IU was very lackluster and Hoosier fans who still hold him dearly in their hearts are blind to the reality that it was “over” long before it ended.

“What ifs” are fun sometimes. Of course, you can’t live there because then you would never get anywhere out here in the real world where the rest of us live.

But sometimes, if we do it right, we can learn a lot from the exercise. It can make us better, because we appreciate what we have and what has happened to us – even the bad things.