The secret of sports

Throughout The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons writes repeatedly about The Secret, and identifies specific NBA teams like the Bad Boys Pistons, the Russell Celtics or the Duncan Spurs that knew it and gained success by it.

In recent weeks, I’ve seen the same thing on the soccer field with my veterans team. My first two years, we were the champions, I was the number five striker, and we simply overwhelmed our opponents by scoring five or six goals almost every single game. But then age and injury began to strike, and at one point, I ended up the number two striker for an entire season, and when the number one striker went out, found myself trying to carry the scoring load up front on my own.

We brought in a number of new players, but despite them being quite skilled, we found ourselves not only being beaten by the best teams in the league, but unable to defeat lesser teams we should have been able to beat without any trouble.

At the beginning of the spring season, things looked really bad as our second-best player and new captain had to have surgery on his hand that rendered him hors de combat for the entire season. Not only that, but our best player has been injured and we’ve only gotten one-half out of him.

And yet, somehow we managed to not only win our local derby two weeks ago, but trounce them 3-0, with all three goals coming in the first half. Last night, we were playing the league leaders, who feature one former international and a fast-paced, highly skilled attack that has scored twice as many goals as we have this year.

But what is different now is that we have a group of players who don’t quit and who don’t give up on each other. We went down 1-0, then 2-1, and were still down 2-1 when I got in at halftime. Their defense had been stifling our new top striker, who’d recently come up from the first team, but once I scared them with an otherwise useless run or two, they started putting two on me and giving the new guy more room to work. I did very little but pull defenders away from him, but that was enough to help him level the game at 2-2.

In back, the defenders were just about killing themselves as well as the faster, better strikers and midfielders from the other side. They gave up two penalties, but our keeper made brilliant saves on both of them to keep us in the game. I stole a ball from a defender, but then didn’t see a wide-open midfielder to my left, and passed instead to my off-side fellow striker, ruining what should have been an excellent chance. Overall, it was a pretty poor game for me… except on this team, everyone keeps encouraging you to keep running, keep working, keep trying, keep doing your job. My job isn’t to score, or even to make assists, my job is to stretch the field, occupy the defense, and create space for our better players.

So, despite all my screwups, our right wing didn’t hesitate to put a long through ball for me towards the corner with only a minute or two left. And I didn’t give up when the defender tried to obstruct me as I started to go by him, as when he put his arm across my chest, I simply pulled it behind me and fought my way past him. When I broke free, the referee finally blew his whistle and correctly called the defender for the initial foul, which he probably wouldn’t have done if I’d backed down. The right wing stepped up and put a beautiful 25-meter free kick in the upper corner. 3-2. Game over.

There was no way we should have won that game. They were absolutely the better team in at least 8 of the 11 positions. And they play together well too; there were several strings of 10+ passes where no one on our team even touched the ball. But they have too many skilled technicians and not enough petty role players. The secret of sports is that the team where everyone accepts his role and throws himself into it 100 percent is usually going to beat the better team where the pecking order and the responsibilities are not as firmly established.