Winning So Much You Get Bored With Winning

There was a lot in the news on Monday, including the late-breaking story that President Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor has resigned in the wake of a scandal likely to linger a few more days, but that was all the more reason to take refuge in the sports pages. The big story there was the University of Connecticut Huskies women’s basketball team winning its 100th consecutive victory, and although we rarely comment on the sporting scene that seemed worth noting.
We’ve followed some remarkable winning streaks over our many years of sports spectating, but none of them approached triple digits. Back in the 2013-14 season our beloved Wichita State University Wheatshockers men’s team reeled off 35 in a row before losing on a missed buzzer beater to a powerhouse Kentucky University Wildcats squad in the second round of the championship tournament, and we’ll always love them for that, but that’s a full 65 games short of 100, and of course the streak didn’t include a couple of national championships. Way back when we were first falling in love with basketball the University of California-Los Angeles was dominating men’s collegiate basketball like no one had before and no has since, but their best win streaks were 47 in a row with the great Lew Alcindor, now better as known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was inarguably the best college player ever, and 88 in a row with the pivot manned by the great Bill Walton, who was arguably the second best college player ever. UCLA won five national championships with those legendary centers and another five without them over a 12-year span, which is as many the blue-blooded programs of the University of Kansas and the University of Kentucky have combined to win over their many years of play, but the Connecticut women have won 11 since 1995 and are almost prohibitive favorites to make it an even dozen this year.
The longest winning streak by a professional basketball team was 33, set by the Los Angeles Lakers in the ’71-’72 season, which we well remember following, being big fans of the Jerry West and Gail Goodrich backcourt and awed by the comic book superhero play of Wilt Chamberlain at center. That squad won the championship and is still regarded as one of the best ever, but it didn’t sustain that championship level for long. In pro ball there are 82 games and none of them are easy wins, so the most impressive streaks were the Boston Celtics’ nine consecutive championships, with 11 in 12 years, and the Connecticut women are in that territory even though they’re forced by college rules to completely turn over the team personnel every four years.
No other American team sport has seen such a streak. The longest winning streak in college football is 47, set by the University of Oklahoma’s Sooners between 1953 and 1957, which coincided with our beloved pop’s matriculation at the school, and of course his children were taught to faithfully await it happening again, which we still do starting with every win, including their impressive bowl to finish the past season. The Sooner’s streak started after a loss to the University of Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish, and ended with a loss to the same villains, and to this day our beloved pop and all his children still root against Notre Dame in any sport even if they’re playing against the Islamic State. Those darned New England Patriots have the longest win streak in professional football, having reeled off 21 in a row from October of 2013 to October of 2014, but that provided only one of their five championships to show for it. You have to go way back to 1916 to find major league baseball’s longest winning streak, which was The New York Giant’s 26.
Connecticut’s Hartford Courant has been following the Lady Huskies’ streak closely enough to compile an intriguing list of other streaks, which includes an amazing 555 straight by Pakistani squash legend Jahangir Kahn, whom we admit we’d never heard, and 252 wins in a row by Hartford’s Trinity College in women’s team squash. The University of North Carolina’s women won 103 soccer games without a loss, and the great Edwin Moses went 10 years and 122 400 meters high hurdles races without a loss.
Given how humans tend to have off nights, even the very best of them, one hundred straight games without being so off as to suffer a defeat against the toughest competition in the land is a laudable achievement.
There’s some grumbling among the fans that Connecticut’s dominance is diminishing the popularity of the women’s game, as if the great dynasties of the UCLA Bruins and Boston Celtics and New York Yankees and the recent sustained excellence of those darned New England Patriots wound up hurting the ratings and gate attendance, and some of the old school feminists who’ve long been involved in the game are sore that the very much male coach Geno Aurriema has been the one constant presence over the streak, but we’ll pay no attention. We turn to the sports to find excellence that can’t be found elsewhere, and refuge from arguments and resentments, and we’re glad that the Lady Huskies are providing both. Their 100th win was quite a joy to watch, too, if you like seeing the beautiful game played beautifully.

— Bud Norman


Freedom and Its Dwindling Supply of Champions

This year’s winners of the Presidential Medal of Freedom have been announced, and once again we have been overlooked. At this point in such a crazy election year we’re starting to suspect the system is rigged, but perhaps it’s just another sign of these desultory times.
The latest batch of honorees is the last to be chosen by the administration of Barack Obama, and it’s pretty much what you’d expect from that bunch. An award created by President John Kennedy to recognize “especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, or world peace, or cultural or other significant public or private endeavors” is this year being conferred on a couple of basketball players, a quartet of movie stars, a rock star and a soul singer, one of those modern architects and one of those modern artists, a sportscaster and a comedy show producer, an educator and a bureaucrat and a political activist, two wealthy and generous people, along with some scientists you’ve probably never heard of who have both significant achievements and politically correct personal histories. Given the current state of the culture, though, we suppose that’s about as good as it gets.
We have to admit that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan were two of the very best to ever play the great American game of basketball, but we an’t think of any other especially meritorious contributions they’ve made to the national security or world peace or American culture. Abdul-Jabbar has long been an outspoken activist, going from angry black nationalist to soft-spoken garden variety white-guilt-mongering liberal, and Jordan is now most visible as a pitchman for the Hanes undergarment company and Nike’s over-priced sneakers. Ellen Degeneres is a witty and likable woman by afternoon talk show hostess standards, we’re told, but we suspect she’s being honored mainly because she’s openly lesbian, which we have nothing against but don’t see as especially meritorious.
Of that quartet of movie stars, Robert Redford is overrated as an actor and an utter bore as an activist, Tom Hanks is also overrated but a better actor and less obnoxiously political, Robert DeNiro has had brilliant performances in great movies in the past but probably won for his recent videos threatening to punch Republican president-elect Donald Trump in the nose, and the last memorable role of Cicely Tyson’s slight career was as a civil rights martyr in the melodramatic mini-series “Miss Jane Pittman,” which apparently is enough for a Presidential Medal of Freedom. The rock star is Bruce Springsteen, an overrated self-styled workingman’s hero known as “The Boss,” and the soul singer is Diana Ross, who cut some nice records with the Supremes back in the Motown days but doesn’t quite crack our list of the 50 best women singers of recent decades.
The sportscaster is the venerable Vin Scully of longtime Los Angeles Dodgers fame, who was as good a sportscaster as you’re likely to ever hear but was otherwise not notable. Lorne Michaels is being honored as the longtime producer of “Saturday Night Live,” which provided a considerable in-kind contribution to Trump’s Republican primary campaign by inviting to be a guest host but has otherwise been impeccably liberal in its long and mostly undistinguished run. Frank Gehry, creator of curvy buildings that skateboarders will someday slide over in the post-apocalyptic world, is the modern architect, and Maya Lin, best know for that long slab of a Vietnam memorial on the Washington Mall, is the modern artist. The educator is Eduardo Peron, president of Miami Dade College, who is both widely respected by the other liberals in in his field and a Latino to boot. The bureaucrat is former Federal Communications Commission chairman Newt Minow, best remembered for declaring ’50s and ’60s television “a vast wasteland” and as the eponym for the S.S. Minnow that stranded those wacky castaways on “Gilligan’s Island.” A posthumous award is bestowed on Elouise Cobell, whose activism on behalf of traditional Native American tribes also imposed feminism on them, which earns double credits.
Bill Gates and his wife Melinda are also being honored, not for the pioneering role he played in the computer revolution that has transformed American culture but rather for their generosity in sharing the many billions of dollars he acquired along the way, which we think is well worth honoring. The mathematician and computer scientist is being honored for her work with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper gets the nod for her role in bringing computer technology to the Navy, and although both were leaders in their fields we suspect the fact they were far away and the most of the prominent of the relatively few number of women involved also had something to do with it. Richard Garwin is being honored for such a wide body of work in physics that his whiteness and maleness and politically-incorrect role in developing America’s nuclear weaponry were apparently overlooked.
We’ll be expecting something completely different in the first batch of honorees chosen by a Trump administration, but not anything better. There’s a limited supply of Americans making especially meritorious contributions to the national security and world peace and American culture these days, and Trump seems as unlikely to discern them as Obama. Both the outgoing and incoming presidents are pure products of a popular culture that esteems celebrity over achievement, group identity over individual excellence, and the latest fads over the lasting truths. A former pro-wrestling performer and reality show star who seems unembarrassed to admit that he’s never been much of a reader is unlikely to recognize artistic greatness, and Trump’s long career as a real estate mogul has repeatedly proved his poor taste in architecture, while his campaign rhetoric suggests a convoluted notion about what’s good for America’s national security and world peace, and despite his reputation for political incorrectness we wouldn’t be surprised to see the same sort of demographic quotas being used.
In any case it should be at least another four years before we find ourselves on the roster of honorees, and in the meantime we’ll be reading old books and watching old movies and listening to old records to console ourselves.

— Bud Norman