Those in and around the basketball community engage in debate on an incredible number of game-related topics. Yet in truth, most reasonable observers of the game share more common opinions than one might initially think. There are subtle differences — mostly relative ones discovered in the process of comparing one player or team to another — regarding skill and ability, but the most common source of debate and dispute lie in differences in rhetoric, even if those participating in said dispute fail to realize it. The sports world has become laden with particularly weighty jargon, and it’s those specific word choices that typically incite the fiery passions of die-hard fans. Those words reflect the values specific to sport itself: an ability to exceed perceived value, dominance over other competitors, and high-level performance under the most intense and extreme of circumstances.
That last aspect of athletic performance is held on a higher pedestal than all else; the “clutch,” are feared and revered, while the “chokers,” are turned into joke-a-minute punchlines in the over-diluted world of sports consumption and coverage. Any who seems to shrink from a late-game situation is put in the stocks for all to throw rocks and produce at, despite the fact that there isn’t anywhere near a universal understanding of what words like “clutch,” and “choke,” actually mean.
Case in point: a column from Mike Berardino of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel:
Just last weekend, we saw the U.S. women’s soccer team become the latest to succumb to the massive pressure that often accompanies our games. Two blown in the leads in the late stages of a Women’s World Cup final against Japan, a team that had never beaten the top-ranked Americans in 25 previous tries. Three straight botched penalty kicks by the U.S., which had gone 5-for-5 in that same situation one week earlier against Brazil.
They choked, right? Of course, they did. Just like LeBron James in the NBA Finals or Rory McIlroy at the Masters or Scott Norwood in the Super Bowl.
“I think it happens to everybody,” says former Heat great Alonzo Mourning, now a team community-relations executive. “We, as professional athletes, when we’re put in that situation, the public, the team, everybody watching expects you to respond at that moment because you’re a highly paid athlete.”
But these are human beings, not machines, so more often than anyone would care to admit our sporting contests are decided by who blinks first.
“There are certain pressure points where the sense of responsibility rises,” Mourning says. “Anxiety increases and people, for lack of a better word, get nervous. People tighten up. You do things that you would not do when you’re at a comfort level.”
That’s not just a sports phenomenon either.
“All choking is,” says CBS college football analyst Spencer Tillman, “is when external situations impact what has traditionally been routine and normal for you.”
If only it were so simple. Individuals let external factors influence their decisions and performance at all times. If we’re restricted to basketball alone, it decides what shots are taken, what passes are made, how the defense chooses to cover certain players, how the clock is used, how the coaches elect to use the resources available to them, etc., etc., forever and ever. More accurately, “choking,” is whatever the public consensus decides that it should be, which usually serves to confirm a widely held belief of a player or is sparked and sustained by a single and brilliant irrefutable play.
Hit a game-winning shot in a big playoff game, and your reputation is made. Miss a crucial free throw with the game on the line, and that same rep is sunk…so long as the adoring public is willing to let the visions of clutch greatness go. The memory of the basketball fan collective is astoundingly selective, and whatever evidence is deemed admissible is twisted and spun in a way that simultaneously creates a clutch résumé and amends the very fluid definition of the term itself. Then come the arguments based on such a malleable foundation, a discussion that pretends to be based on a shared notion but only remains bound by the most abstract of concepts.
“Clutch,” is whatever we want it to be. It’s a word so powerful in the sporting realm that it is defined and guarded by every sports fan with a mouth or a Twitter account. We can rifle through all of the data in the world with all of the qualifiers and filters available, but individual definitions (and the perceptions that stem from them) will always dictate the discussion in a way that inconvenient facts cannot.