Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Why Bill Belichick's Aunt is Not His Uncle

"If" is the dirtiest word in sports, not to mention the most useless. Above all "if" is a word that separates those who participate in big-time athletics from those of us who merely observe them.

Celebrated jocks are different from thee and me in more ways than can be listed, but if forced to pick one dividing line between us, it'd be the following. Fans and commentators try to maximize the number of ifs in sports. Players and coaches try their damnedest to eliminate the word, or at least to ignore it altogether.

The insiders have wisdom on their side. Reflection on the past and speculation on the future are part and parcel of fandom and mediadom, but are almost always overdone to the point of absurdity. As a rule, the more "ifs" are contained in a statement on sports, the more pointless and silly it is.

Sports talk radio, of course, is the capital of Ifistan. On one local station, a host recently made the observation that IF the Red Sox continued to fade and IF the Yankees won the AL East by a considerable margin THEN the baseball writers would vote Derek Jeter MVP ahead of David Ortiz.

Stack all the explicit and implicit ifs in that statement atop each other and the pile would reach to Jupiter. And its foolishness can be seen from other galaxies. Glenn Ordway, here's a proposition for you with only one if. If both Jeter and Ortiz remain healthy for the rest of the year, I got $100, a sum you can afford but I cannot, that says Papi finishes ahead of Jeter in the MVP voting come what may.

The above paragraph shouldn't be seen as ripping Ordway. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, and without speculation and silly arguments, WEEI's on-air talent would be spinning polka platters for a living. Talk radio represents the extreme point of the if-love spectrum, but let me assure you that daily columnist runs a close second. Readers demand guesses, if only to ridicule them.

As the absolute zero of if-denial, we present the head ooach of the New England Patriots. Jerry Garcia never lived in the now as much as Bill Belichick tries to. The Bible verse that describes his approach to football goes "sufficient to the day is the evil thereof."

Training camp brings out Belichick's hatred of ifs like no other part of the football season. The coach views each day as a blank slate to be filled, analyzed, filed, and forgotten by the next dawn. Each moment is an end in itself, each detail, no matter how mundane, absorbs Belichick's complete attention.

For reporters and fans, the whole point of camp is how it helps them peer into the regular season future. These cross-purposes make Belichick's August press conferences delightful exercies in absurdist dialogue Samuel Beckett would've been proud to write. The smartest coach in the business spends hours seatching for different ways to say, "how the hell would I know yet?"

Belichick, like all sports insiders, hates ifs because he knows they rule his life. In a racket where everything begins at 0-0, consideration of life's possibilities would lead to total paralysis. There are too many of 'em. Spend one second daydreaming about the Pats' October roster, and he might not see the discarded wad of tape in locker room Tom Brady might trip over on the way to the shower. Coaches all go nuts anyway. Ignoring ifs at least slows the process.

For Patriots fans who'd like a revealing glimpse of their coach's work habits, I recommend an article in today's New York Times. Look in the food pages, not the sports section. There's a portrait of Joel Robuchon, France's most celebrated three-star chef, preparing to open a new restaurant in New York as the latest addition to his worldwide culinary empire.

The reporter tried to draw Robuchon out on his plans, past, and deep thoughts on cuisine. The chef's responses were the polite non-answers any Pats' reporter knows by heart. Robuchon was totally absorbed in the present, his mind and all five senses occupied by details ranging from the waiters' uniforms to making sure the ice cream was soft enough to suit a dessert.

As far as I know, Robuchon and Belichick have never met, 0r even heard of the other's existence. They do, however, share a common principle, the guiding idea of both pro sports and haute cuisine. Each starts anew each day. The table is bare, the score is 0-0, and that's all that matters.

To oversimplify, success in banishing ifs is why Belichick's Pats remain favorites to make the playoffs this season, and why dinner for two at Robuchon's new joint will cost a minimum of $300.


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