The rector ("headmaster") of my seminary, at the beginning of my final year, hung up on one of the hallways 5 metal 1 foot high letters - ARETE. ARETE is Greek for excellence. Being a fan of the "Jumble" game in the newspaper, I had planned to rearrange the letters on my last day so that they said EATER, but I forgot!
ARETE...excellence...it is what we are supposed to be about in all things and in all situations. I've tried to live by that in all things, and the idea that working hard and well at whatever I am working on goes back a long way. As Catholics, we join a long line of cultures that have held up "ARETE" and have believed that working on any virtue, working to be excellent at anything, makes a person better in all other phases of their life as well. Without straying into perfectionism and obsession (which both have pride at their core), I should work to do my best whether I'm cleaning my room or cutting the grass, preaching for 10 or preaching to 10,000, playing a game with family or playing in front of a crowd - excellence in all things.
That brings me to Kentucky Men's Basketball Coach John Calipari's recent comments. Coach Calipari, I should note, is a daily communicant. A priest friend in Bloomington noted that "Coach Cal" was at Mass on a weekday morning the day Kentucky played IU, and he seems like a really good guy.
Unfortunately, he made a comment recently that I think flies in the face of ARETE. Coach Cal recently noted about all the conference tournaments that are the capstone for every basketball team in the U.S.:
“I couldn’t care less. They [my players] know that. So they go in and know it’s not a big deal."
This also took me back to 2008 when the Calipari-led Memphis team was in the national championship game. Calipari had said in the weeks leading up to the game that his team "makes free throws in the final four minutes when we need them...I'm truly not worried about it," Calipari said. "My concern in this tournament is toughness and rebounding. That will have more to do with us than anything to do with free-throw shooting."
Calipari was making the statement that he didn't feel free-throw shooting was worth much practice time, and wasn't worth the effort that other teams put into it.
Free throw shooting is a "little thing that becomes a big thing" as any basketball coach or player will tell you. It is one of those things that takes the discipline of someone who is seeking ARETE, excellence, to refine. The great players have all been excellent free throw shooters (Bird, Magic, Reggie, MJ, Karim...), with the possible exception of Shaqueille O'Neal who was great mostly because he was so massive that he basically couldn't be guarded.
Anyway, the same year that Calipari made his statement about the triviality of free throws, as fate would have it, Calipari's team was winning the national championship game by 9 with 2:12 to go, but missed 4 of 5 free throws over that time which allowed Kansas to tie the game, and then, in overtime, go on to win the national championship going away. It was a historic collapse on the part of Calipari's team and it was centered completely around free throws.
The Greeks and St. Thomas Aquinas and countless others continue to urge us to do whatever we do with excellence, putting our best effort forward in the little things in life.
I feel bad for Kentucky's team this year because they are young men being told by their coach that the games in the SEC tourney this week don't matter much, and that free throws aren't a big deal. They are some of the best athletes in the world, but, as my rector tried to impress on me so often back in the seminary...excellence in the small things equates to excellence in the big things!
UPDATE 1: Kentucky just lost the SEC Championship game, registering only their second loss on the year
UPDATE 2: Thinking back to last year, the two teams that played in the National Championship Game (Butler and UCONN) both were teams that needed to win their season-ending tourney just to make it into the NCAA tourney. UCONN had no shot at making the field of 68 unless they won the Big East tourney, and Butler was not a lock either unless they won the Horizon League tourney. Both teams got hot (Butler's streak went back a few weeks before the Horizon tourney) and teams who were much higher seeded were upset along the way in the NCAA tourney. ARETE! Excellence!
UPDATE 3: The Colts are another example of the importance of ARETE. The Colts had four legitimate Super Bowlesque years, but the only year they won the whole thing was the year they had to fight and play hard every game of the season. The other three seasons they were able to rest their players the final few games and not play to win. In each of those three seasons where the Colts let up, they did not win it all.