Sports Editor’s Column – Timmy’s Return: Character in Professional Sports

Jonathan Lampert

During our youth sports careers, teams were all arranged in the same way. We all had a few extremely talented players on the squad; the ones who dominated the playgrounds, yet cried whenever they didn’t get what they wanted. There were always a handful of average players who tried hard, occasionally made some plays but really didn’t care all that much. Then there was little Timmy, who everybody loved for his personality and effort. This player gave everything he had on every play. The only problem was that Timmy couldn’t throw a beach ball into the ocean. This was the player who won the “Coaches Award,” which essentially meant we appreciate all your effort and love your attitude, but you are an absolutely atrocious athlete. After tough losses coaches would always say, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” The superstars on the team would roll their eyes, faulting those less talented for the loss. Yet Timmy would be listening attentively, constantly trying to improve.

As it turns out, a similar dichotomy between playground superstars and Timmy’s exists in professional sports. The superstars today grab all the headlines and receive the endorsements. Yet, it is these players who end up whining at postgame press conferences, pumping iron on their front lawns or shooting themselves in the leg (literally). Yet it is the Timmy’s of days past who turn out to be the glue holding championship teams together. These players will sacrifice anything for their coaches and teammates. They may not be the most talented, yet they are the most important. Perhaps more of us should have listened to our Little League coaches.

Sports are about character; they always have been and always will be. Time and time again, it is proven that teams built on character triumph over those built solely on talent. Take for example three of the wealthiest franchises in professional sports: the Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees and New York Knicks. For the past decade, Jerry Jones, George Steinbrenner and James Dolan have shelled out an inordinate of money to primadonna superstars, hoping that their talent would be enough to win championships. Quite frankly, compiling the list of free-agent failures of the Knicks and Yankees would be too depressing to view in full. However, the trifecta of Terrell Owens, Alex Rodriguez and Stephon Marbury can effectively serve as poster-childs for a decade of futility for these once proud franchises. Suffice to say, money and talent don’t buy championships. The Knicks have not won a championship since 1973, the Cowboys since 1995 and the Yankees since 2000.

Talent and character do not always share an inverse relationship. LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Peyton Manning, Larry Fitzgerald, Albert Pujols and Derek Jeter are among the best of their respective sports. These superstars serve as the unrelenting captains on the teams, who although are the best, do not act like the best. Coaches want to coach them, players want to play with them, and fans want to root for them. These players, however, seem to be the exception not the rule. For every LBJ, there is a Stevie Franchise; for every Manning there is an Owens; for every Pujols there is a Bonds. For every inspirational championship run in any sport, there is always a team that goes down in flames by the actions of one or two players.

As a passionate New York sports fan, over the past several years I have witnessed firsthand the illustrious Starbury era. I have watched A-Fraud, the ‘roided up misanthrope, strike out time after time on the Yankees misguided quest back to the top of baseball. Finally, I have watched the Giants Super Bowl repeat dreams disappear as their past season was derailed by the gunshot fired by the only bad-character player on their team.

During our youth sports careers, we all grimaced when players like Timmy heaved up a brick or stepped to the plate in a big spot. However, as often as we lost back in the day because of Timmy, it is now players like him, those who make up for a lack of skill with hard-work and character, that have earned and will continue to earn back those victories on the biggest stage. Back in the Knicks glory days in the mid 90’s, it was Charles Oakley, the offensively inept power forward who did all the little things that helped carry the Knicks on their magical playoff runs. It was Scott Brosius at third base, not Alex Rodriguez, who helped bring a World Series to the Big Apple. And it was Kevin Boss, the slow, brick-handed, backup tight end who ended up rumbling down the field in Glendale, Arizona to spur a second-half comeback for the Super Bowl XLII Champion Giants. It is no coincidence that former stars such as Terrell Owens, Stephon Marbury and Barry Bonds are currently searching for jobs. As the great collegiate coach John Wooden once said, “Ability may take you to the top, but it takes character to keep you there.”