Let me preface this post: I love the underdog. Rudy made me a Notre Dame fan, Rocky damn near brings me to tears, and Hoosiers, well, I know every single line. When my favorite football team (Florida St.) isn’t in contention (are they ever anymore?), I cheer for Boise St. to win the BCS title. I was *this close* to rooting for Butler in the national championship game, even though I’m the type of Duke fan who owns a J.J. Redick Orlando Magic jersey and a Jay Williams (Don’t call me Jason) Chicago Bulls jersey. I have a classic case of underdog-itis.
You’ve probably noticed by now that I give an inordinate amount of coverage to the Tony Gaffneys, Stephane Lasmes and Matt Jannings of the world. Maybe that’s because I was always the underdog myself. I never had blazing speed (or any speed whatsoever), stand no taller than 6’2″ (on tip-toes), and couldn’t jump over my living room rug. I wasn’t a classic point guard (think Eddie House’s ball-handling skills and lack of elite quickness), but didn’t have the size to stand out as a shooting guard. There wasn’t a single physical skill I possessed that anyone would want. I wasn’t very strong (read: I was weaker than a piece of spaghetti), I wasn’t very fast (read: I was slower than Mount Rushmore), and my wing span would make Jay Bilas say I had downside. Everything I acheived in basketball I earned through hard work.
When my friends went out drinking in high school, I stayed home so I could wake up in the morning and work out. I’d lift at 6:00 a.m. before class on some days, and then work on my jumper and handle after school. Then I’d sprinkle in some pickup games on top of all the individual work. My friend D.J. once told me, “If I had your work ethic, I’d probably be on my way to the NBA.” Umm probably not, D.J., but I understood the point. He was far more talented, yet far more lazy than I was. He was the type of player I routinely surpassed, but not because I was any more physically gifted. I just flat out worked harder.
Long story short (okay, not too short), I eventually realized my dream of becoming a college basketball player. Three years later, during my junior year, I quit the team. It took my coach completely by surprise. I was always the player who cheered the loudest, who dove on the floor most often, who improved by leaps and bounds on the strength and conditioning tests every year, who was the first off the bench to offer a high five. I showed no signs of being disgruntled, but being the underdog was exhausting.
Scrapping and clawing and permanently wearing floor burns had carried me as long as it was going to, and I came to understand that I’d never earn a significant role on my team. I like to say that I quit the game when I realized my heart far outweighed my athletic ability, but that isn’t the truth. I’d always known that. I quit basketball when I realized my heart was no longer enough.
But enough about me. There’s a point to this story, and it’s about underdogs and Von Wafer and Mario West, and it’s especially about Stephane Lasme. Wafer can’t qualify as the underdog. He was gifted with supreme athleticism — an electric first step, gravity-defying hops, and lightning quickness. He has every gift God could ever grant to a shooting guard – ideal size, shoots lights out, and, when he’s not out of control and throwing turnovers, possesses great court vision. If anything, Wafer has squandered his God-given talent. There’s no way Von Wafer should be battling for the final spot on an NBA roster. He’s too talented for that.
On the other end of the talent pool stand Lasme and West, two guys I can identify with, two underdogs in the purest sense of the word. They both have physical gifts, but God wasn’t as gracious when fulfilling their attributes as he was for Wafer. Most of what Lasme and West have accomplished in basketball has been because they wanted it more than their competition. Just watch West in his opponent’s chest, defending close enough that the opponent can feel his breath. Just watch Lasme contribute in every conceivable way, despite offensive skills that couldn’t even scoff at Ben Wallace’s. Lasme and West work hard, they do things right, they play basketball with a chip on their shoulders and something to prove. Yet Wafer was the one who made the Celtics, while Lasme and West both got cut.
Just like I did, Stephane Lasme and Mario West learned that there’s ultimately a ceiling to how far your heart will take you. You can maximize your limited talents all you want, but at some point talent wins out.
From an analyst’s standpoint, a basketball standpoint, I understand why the Celtics kept Wafer. He’s simply a better, more well-rounded basketball player than his competition could offer. But from a fan’s standpoint, a fellow underdog’s standpoint, there’s something dissatisfying about natural talent beating out heart, grit and determination.