INDIANAPOLIS -- Losing is underappreciated. It has a bad name. Do we really think it's harder to win than to lose? We train our eyes on the winners, when maybe the ones we should be watching most closely are the kids who pull their jerseys up over their heads to hide their faces. Losers. There are more of them. And they know more, too.
What Baylor's players can tell you is that the same amount of effort went into both winning and losing. Which was harder for them to handle, the winning, or the losing? Trust them: losing.
A year ago, Baylor lost in the Sweet 16 in one of the most excruciating ways anybody ever saw. With 0.2 of a second on the clock, a referee's call gave Tennessee two free throws and a 71-69 victory. Baylor has lived with it ever since. Losing, the way Baylor understands the term, is not like losing your car keys. A final score is not something you can find again, or replace. It's a cut in your soul.
A year later the mere mention of the game causes a sickish look to pass across the face of Baylor Coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson. She stops in a hallway of the RCA Dome and pushes out her jaw, and says: "You want me to tell you what I learned from losing? I hate it. That's what I learned. You learn you don't ever want to do it again."
But sometimes when you lose you really win, though it's not popular to say so. It's important to note that last year's biggest loser in the women's NCAA tournament has become this year's biggest winner. The fact is that losing appears to have been the making of Baylor. The Lady Bears are 32-3 this season, the Big 12 Conference champions, and they've achieved their first trip to the Final Four in school history. On Tuesday night they will meet Michigan State for the national championship. So it's worth examining just how much that loss did for the Lady Bears.
A year ago, the locker room looked like the site of a car wreck. There were kids scattered all over it, sobbing.
"That kind of pain -- that heavy, that deep -- there's nothing you can say to get anybody through that," Baylor point guard Chelsea Whitaker said. "All of us had to deal with it in our own personal ways."
Even their coach was speechless, utterly at a loss.
"What I told them was nothing," Mulkey-Robertson said. "I couldn't comfort them. They needed me to go in there and say something comforting, and I couldn't do it, because I couldn't comfort myself. I couldn't find the words."
But eventually, the coach and her players examined the loss more closely. Mulkey-Robertson watched the end of the game one time. Just once -- that's all she could stand. She was at home, by herself, and she slipped it into the VCR, and studied the last few minutes, cringing. "I thought it would give me some closure," she said, "but it didn't."
The Lady Bears eventually realized the final call hadn't cost them the game. They cost themselves the game. They had a seven-point lead over Tennessee with six minutes to go and couldn't close the door.
"We had a lot of jitters throughout the entire game, we kept making minor mistakes and those snowballed into bigger mistakes, and that's why we lost," Whitaker said. "The game shouldn't have been close. There's nothing to complain about; we just had to point the finger at ourselves."
If you go into a losing locker room and you hear a lot of talk about how the other team played dirty or the refs cheated them, you can be pretty sure that team won't win the next one either. The weakling on the beach who got the sand kicked in his face didn't lie there and complain that it wasn't fair. He joined Charles Atlas. And that's what Baylor did.
Every kid on the team signed up for summer school. They reconvened in June and went to work. They spent a desert-like summer in Waco, sweating in the gym and addressing their weaknesses, and deciding they didn't ever want to feel that way again.
"The fact that we were hungry and crying meant that we could make it further than we had," Whitaker said. "Nothing against Tennessee, I'm sure they're hungry and they want it. But there's nothing like someone who's starving to death."
What Rudyard Kipling really meant when he called winning and losing "those two impostors" is that sometimes we don't control outcomes. All we can really control is our effort, standard and comportment. And that's what the Baylor team learned.
We accord winners too much moral authority. We presume they know something the rest of us don't, and we buy their books and their videos in hopes of learning their secrets. But what winners know about winning is not always especially helpful, because winning doesn't invite a great deal of self-examination, it merely invites self-congratulation. Losing, on the other hand, invites a very candid conversation with the self.
"We had some loose strings, and it showed," Whitaker said. "We weren't quite ready to be a contender. We lost games in little ways. But it placed us where we are today."
Superiority is a pretty useless quality when it comes to coping with the everyday; it's nothing that can help you when you lose a family member or a friend, or your money in a bad investment, or even your eyeglasses. So when we overpraise winners and underappreciate losers, we make error in discernment. Winning teaches a kind of strength, but so does losing, and it also teaches -- if you treat it right -- a kind of conscience.
On Tuesday night, Baylor may win a national championship, or the Lady Bears may be the team with their jerseys pulled over their faces. But either way, they've won a kind of victory, and by that I don't mean a championship, but the kind of deeper victory they've found in the resignation and the determination to try again. The terms "winner" or "loser," for Baylor, will just be disguises for a bunch of kids who did something with their whole hearts.