Through the Trifocals

The Fighting Illini lost a game, but it was not due to some jinx. Illinisports reminds us to refocus ourselves for the task at hand rather than fearing some obscure evil power for our temporary setback.

Sports Illustrated dedicated its front cover last week to the great Fighting Illini basketball team. Halleluia! It's about time. The Illini are the top story in college basketball this year, and they deserve the recognition. We can have no more fitting tribute to the quality that is the University of Illinois than the sight of Dee Brown proudly displaying his Illini jersey for the whole world to see.

So fans, forget all these ignorant notions of a Sports Illustrated cover jinx. THERE IS NO SUCH THING! It is a blessing to be praised by a magazine as reputable as SI. And if you look at the entire history of the magazine, most of the people and teams featured on the cover have gone on to continued success.

Sure, we lost to Ohio State on Sunday. But we were great in our first game after the issue came out, and Dee Brown in particular was sensational. There are a number of reasons we lost on Sunday, but none of them had to do with Black Magic or other sinister force. We had less to play for, we had a predictable down game after an almost perfect victory and long celebration afterward, we had travel disruptions and an early game time with no chance to practice on the OSU floor, our three guards all had down days after several consecutive sensational efforts, it balanced our close win at OSU last year that gave us an undisputed Big 10 Championship, and Ohio State saw their "Senior Day" as their NCAA tournament since they are banned from play this year.

It has always amazed me how some people can blame inanimate objects and obscure behaviors of nonparticipants for their losses in life. We need look back in time no further than the Chicago Cubs two years ago. They lost a playoff, in small part because a fan may have interfered with a foul ball by catching it before the Cub left fielder could. Besides blaming the one interfering person, Cub fans also blamed the ball for their failure. This play was just one of thousands in a seven game series, but it became the ultimate enemy of Cub fandom.

This is a predictable response for anyone who has endured continuing failure, and it is not my purpose to criticize the Cubs or their fine fans. But animosities were so intense the culprit ball was sold at auction for a high fee, and the winning bidder chose to "exorcise demons" by exploding the ball to eliminate the jinx caused by it. Just recently, they cooked the remnants of the exploded ball so participating fans could more completely recycle it, in a manner of speaking, as an evil limiter of success.

The Cubs did not make the playoffs last year, and enthusiasm is not skyhigh in Cubbieland this year either. Did the ball in question really jinx the Cubs, or was their failure a continuation of the long-term mediocrity that is their history? Were they bad so many years because of some previous jinx, or was it the result of an ownership that made so much money from loyal fans it had no need to invest in a championship caliber organization until recently?

Boston Red Sox fans thought they were jinxed ever since the Babe Ruth trade, but they won the World Series last year. What great power counteracted the jinx? They have no idea. And when the Cubs make it to the World Series, and they will eventually, they will prove there is no jinx for them either. But those who believe in jinxes will continue belief in the power of their superstition.

Another example of jinx silliness is the announcers who take credit for stopping a string of successes by mentioning it. A basketball player, for example, might miss a free throw or three pointer right after an announcer brags about his outstanding shooting. Immediately, the announcer states, somewhat proudly, that he jinxed the shooter. That's absurd.

Imagine. Some guy sitting in the press box takes credit for making the shooter miss his shot. What egotism! Show me the energy he used to force the ball off its intended path. Demonstrate how he, among the thousands watching the performance, was so talented at mind control that he clouded the shooter's focus just prior to the shot. Granted, some announcers are saying this as a joke, or they are simply remarking at the frequency with which this happens. But some of his listeners believe it without question.

I know what is really happening in these cases, and so do some of you. It happens to me this way all the time. I often hear a thought pop into my head that is exactly opposite of what happens right afterward. For example, I will hear, "Boy, I am really on my golf game today," just before I shank a shot. Or, "Our team is playing great," just before it goes into a slump. These and many other examples are analogous to the frequency with which people get the bright idea to wash their cars just prior to a rain.

As a likely explanation, our intuitive brain is exactly opposite of our logical brain. Thus, it says things in indirect ways instead of direct ways. Our logical brain says, "This shooter is gonna miss." Our intuitive brain says, " This guy sure has been shooting well." Since the intuitive side is the one capable of sensing upcoming events, it predicts them with its indirect method. Our left brain must reverse the thinking to find out what is meant. This is exactly why we need dream interpretation books to help us understand our dreams. The books provide a logic for memories that are otherwise more indirect images than words.

So instead of us causing a jinx, we are really just predicting the future. We may not wish to know this, but it is much more likely to be true than some kind of jinx. If you watch a sporting event, and the announcer says something to brag about a player, watch to see if that player has a downturn in his success rate immediately afterward. It will happen often, but if you can find no proof of any Voodoo being performed by the announcer, and you cannot verify that his powers are more acute than all the fans shooting out their prayers of success or failure, then consider he is just giving a reverse prediction.

This is probably what happens to the editors of Sports Illustrated as well. They sense a growth cycle in a person or team, and they make the decision to exploit that situation on their front cover at the peak of the success curve. In other words, they wait for awhile to emphasize the situation, distrusting their earliest instincts, until just before that person or team is ready for its predictable downturn. They want to be on the cutting edge to maximize profits, so they have become really good at finding the proper moment for their front cover. This moment is as close to the absolute peak of performance as they can possibly get, which is usually just before the predictable downturn.

SI is famous for its front covers, but they don't always get them right. They wanted to advertise the Illini basketball team on their front cover in January, 1979. They sent reporters to follow the Illini leading up to their big clash with Michigan State and Magic Johnson. When we won that game, SI confirmed its desire to place us on the front cover.

However, we still had one more game to play before their next issue came out. When we lost to Ohio State in overtime, they changed focus and bragged about OSU instead. Our big chance, but SI was one week too late pulling the trigger on their great idea. If only they could have put us on the cover one week earlier. Then some could have used the SI jinx as justification for the loss to OSU!

Forgive the logic. After all, superstition comes from the indirect, intuitive side of the brain and not the logical, direct part. And it is created out of the fear of failure. People who live in a mental world dominated by fear and superstition will not appreciate my logic. They want to rationalize their failures by conjuring up an enemy so bizarre, so powerful, that they cannot be blamed for succuming to it. But there is an important consideration needed for those who utilize both sides of their brains.

Namely, those who believe in jinxes tend to give no credibility to those situations that don't fit their predetermined paradigm. In the case of the Sports Illustrated jinx, they make a list of those people anointed on the cover who lost or had problems right after the issue date of the magazine as proof of their contention. But they make no similar list of those who excelled right afterward. Thus, they have no way of measuring the veracity of their claims.

Perhaps they want no scientific study to prove themselves wrong or change their thinking. If they only consider the failures, each failure gets magnified in their minds and hearts, making their belief in the jinx more set in cement. What is worse, some will even use ANY subsequent loss as proof the jinx is accurate. After all, even the beautiful models who grace the swimsuit editions eventually become old and less attractive before dieing. Does this mean they are jinxed, or just normal?

Illinois may lose one or more games yet this year, but that doesn't mean there is a jinx. If they lose in the Big 10 tournament, it might be because they are less motivated than their rivals since they already have an NCAA tournament bid and Big 10 Championship locked up. And such a loss might be a blessing, giving them time to regroup and heal their tired bodies prior to the NCAA tournament.

If the Illini lose in the NCAA tournament, it will likely be because there are a number of good teams in the country. On any given night, any quality team might win. This has a reasonable chance of happening, whether we were on the cover of Sports Illustrated or not. Certainly, a loss is NO proof of a jinx. But mark my words, some will use it as proof, no matter what the circumstance.

"Who's Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf?" was first sung by the three little pigs in a Walt Disney cartoon. Did you know it was meant as a metaphor for helping Americans overcome their fear of Hitler's Germany in World War II? That is true, and a simple cartoon helped keep thousands of American citizens in balance through turbulent times.

Maybe we should modify that song for our own needs. "Who's Afraid Of The SI Jinx?" can be sung whenever we allow our fear of possible imperfection and failure derail us from our good, positive moods. I understand some people have already burned their collector's edition of the magazine in a vain effort to rid the Illini of the evil jinx that made them lose last Sunday. It is too late for them, perhaps, but maybe we can keep a few others from letting their fear of failure push them over the edge into emotional oblivion where no amount of success can ease their tormented minds.

The 2004-2005 version of the Fighting Illini basketball team has the most regular season wins in their history, and they have some more to go in most likelihood. They are breaking all sorts of records, and Illini fans have lived through one of their easiest and most enjoyable winters in their entire lifetimes. No one temporary downturn should detract from that, and no amount of fear should gain power over the upliftment and inner peace we have gained through watching this memorable season.

Our team didn't want to lose any game, but they did. Now, they have a chance to refocus on what brought them to this place. Against Ohio State, they had only an unbeaten record to play for. As OSU crept closer in the second half of Sunday's game, it was easy to see we were playing not to lose rather than to win. That is what happens when selfishness, greed and fear replaces teamwork and shared purpose. It was a one-time glitch.

Now, we know the trap we can enter if we are not focused clearly on our goals. Now, we remember the attitudes and behaviors that gave us our first 29 wins because we can contrast them with our recent loss. Now, we are reminded that we don't want to face losing again without giving our best effort. It is indeed likely our loss has been a blessing in disguise. We will be stronger for it.

So, even if you insist on a belief in superstitions and jinxes as a way of coping with the ups and downs of human existence, then see the Sports Illustrated cover story on the Illini as a gift of major proportions. It not only gave us great publicity, it also gave us an opportunity to learn lessons that will help us be stronger in the upcoming NCAA Championships, where our goals are lofty.

Personally, I am appalled that Sports Illustrated took so long to recognize us in the first place. We have captured the hearts and minds of both Illini and non-Illini fans all over the world from the beginning of the season until now. We should have been on the cover long ago. But just a few weeks ago, the best they could do was place a picture of Dee, Deron and Luther just inside the front cover. Shame on them! How many stories are more glorious than our own, this once-in-a-lifetime season?

We have a wonderful team. If they play in a unified way at a high level of intensity and focus, they will continue to make us proud. And they will go down in history as one of the best groups of young men ever to play the game of basketball. No jinx can change that. Period.

Go Illini!!!


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