Searching For It

Charlie Weis sat behind the microphone. His hair still wet from a September-Michigan rain. He proffered specific answers when referring to the significance of plays by Terrail Lambert, Jeff Samardzija, and Rhema McKnight. When speaking of his quarterback Weis lacked the same specificity: “He has it. I don’t know what it is, but he has it.” Maybe the fatigue of a rainy, night game got the best of Uncle Charlie. Maybe the rush of emotions as his Fightin’ Irish overcame a sixteen point deficit left the coach tongue-tied. Maybe it was something Weis wanted left for debate.It leaves much to one’s interpretation. Its meaning is so vague that dictionaries use up to one-half of a column to try and embody the meaning of this pronoun. It… in two letters one can sum up a history of sports.

Certainly on this night Brady Quinn possessed it when he led the Irish to a come-from-behind victory in East Lansing. As the network broadcast returned from the between-quarter commercials, the announcers described a gruesome scene for the Irish faithful: down 37-21 at the start of the fourth quarter to the Michigan State Spartans. Notre Dame would have to fight back going into a driving wind and rain storm. The Irish faced what seemed to be insurmountable odds. Quinn did not flinch. He stared down adversity and methodically orchestrated a 40-37 victory for the Domers.

This was not the only time Quinn demonstrated it. Against Southern California with his team trailing and defeat seemingly inevitable, Quinn stepped up in the pocket, tucked the ball in and rumbled for sixty yards. Quinn ran the ball sixty yards. That play represented the longest from scrimmage the Irish would have all day. Quinn, the passer, recognized his team’s need, and ran for it.

On the other hand Michael Vick presents a dilemma. He seemed to have it at Virginia Tech, and the Atlanta Falcons made him the first overall pick in the 2001 draft. Since then Vick has averaged 6.65 yards per passing attempt while gaining 7.3 yards per rushing attempt. What started out as a can’t-miss career has accomplished nothing more than breaking the single-season quarterback rushing record set by Bobby Douglas.

Comparing Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell provides an acute insight to the understanding of it. In his fourteen year NBA career the Big Dipper affected the game more than any other player in the history of the league. Because of Chamberlain we now have the three second violation and offensive goaltending. Upon retirement he held the all-time scoring record with 31,419 points, including 50.4 points per game in the 1962 season. He is still the all-time leader with 23,924 rebounds. He even led the league in 1968 with 8.6 assists per game. Chamberlain amassed an impressive statistical record.

His teams didn’t fare as well. Chamberlain’s 76er teams only won one title. After that he contributed to the Los Angeles Laker title in 1972. Chamberlain was the sixth man on the Los Angeles Laker squad with Gail Goodrich and Jerry West that defeated the New York Knicks to win the crown.

Conversely (wouldn’t it be great if we could somehow substitute Chuck Taylor as the transition. You know…Chuck Taylorly…anyway) Bill Russell’s individual statistics while nothing to sneeze at, kinda pale in comparison to Chamberlain’s. Russell scored 14,522 points in his 13-year career. He led the league four times on the way to collecting 21,620 rebounds. But Russell played on ten Celtic teams that won the NBA crown.

Detractors could argue that Russell played on better teams than his counterpart, Chamberlain. Those Celtic teams had among others the likes of John Havlicek, Bob Cousy, and KC Jones. Likewise Chamberlain was surrounded with greatness: Hal Greer, Chet Walker, and Billy Cunningham. In Chamberlain’s own words he proclaimed that team to be the best he had ever seen. Perhaps, Russell’s impact is best measured in what happened without him. After his retirement in 1969 the Celtics failed to qualify for the playoffs the following season.

Before his NBA success Russell led the University of San Francisco to back-to-back NCAA titles. That’s right the University of San Francisco. In case you are wondering, the University of San Francisco has only two NCAA banners, and they have only appeared in the Final Four one other time in the school’s history. Bill Russell had it.

Earvin Johnson and Larry Bird provide more understanding of it. Magic and the Hick from French Lick arrived on the scene when the NBA played second fiddle to all the other major sports. Rarely could a sports fan see a live television broadcast of an NBA game in the 1970’s. Even the epic battle between the Celtics and Suns in the 1976 finals was televised on tape delay (By the way-we need to have a discussion of the all-time greatest games-game 5, 1976 NBA Finals is in my top five). When these guys arrived all that changed. We can talk about the great shots that Larry Legend made, or the way Magic played center as a rookie in the 1980 finals. But when it comes down to it, the most important thing is that if you were a fan in the 80’s, you wouldn’t think of missing a Celtics-Lakers game. They were that good. (As an aside – these guys were given their nicknames. They earned them. Unlike athletes of the 21st century who give themselves nicknames. What is that all about? Cook all you want on the hibachi. Until you win some hardware, keep your trap shut and play. My goodness!)

After they revived the league Magic and Larry Legend passed the torch off the floor, off the scoreboard, off the bank board to Michael Jordan. I am not going to inundate us with MJ’s numbers. Just take a look around. How many UNC jerseys do you see? Before 1982 UNC was another ACC team. Now they are on par with the Evil Empire. Why is that? His Airness. Two plays stand out with Michael: one – the lay up…no the friggin’ lay up. Are there any coaches out there that have tried to show their kids how to drive the lane, draw the center, and then switch hands in mid-air? Then his swan song was a perfect ending. Many want to assert that he pushed off …fair enough. But I have heard one question repeated about his final shot for the Bulls: why didn’t the Jazz double-team Michael? Everybody knew who was going to get the ball. Why not keep him from winning the game? That’s just it. If the Jazz doubled-team him, MJ would have found the open teammate. That takes having it.

No discussion of it would be complete without Derek Jeter. He has done it his whole career under the brightest of lights. A couple of things set the captain of the evil empire apart from the rest. One is the play against the Diamondbacks. If he doesn’t make that play at the plate, no one notices. But that’s it. He made the play. For all of his star power and all the glamour and glitz that surrounds him, Jeter will probably be remembered most by picking up an errant toss in foul territory and making a play at the plate. He made an extraordinary play look simple. He saw his team’s need and filled the role.

Jeter continues to thrive in the Bronx. Many might have wilted when his team acquired the game’s best shortstop…at least on paper and in the category of salary. Instead Jeter has come out looking stronger. Jeter also respects the game. Ever notice when he gets hit by a pitch? Probably not, because he doesn’t make a big deal of it. He drops his bat and takes his base. He has it.

Lastly, Bobby Orr supplies maybe the purest essence of it. When he joined the Boston Bruins in 1966 the NHL consisted of six teams. One year after his retirement in 1979 the league increased to twenty teams. The NHL’s expansion was brokered on the back of the golden boy from Parry Sound. He had it. Bobby Orr, number four, coast to coast, man with the most. Consider this: Orr was a defenseman. He won the James Norris trophy as the league’s top defenseman a record eight times. In the 1969-1970 season Orr led the league in scoring. No other defenseman has accomplished that feat. In that one won season Orr won the Norris, the Art Ross (leading scorer), the Hart (Most Valuable-Regular Season), and the Conn Smythe while leading his team to the Stanley Cup. For an encore two seasons later Orr again led the Bruins to the Cup. During that season he again won the Norris, Hart, and Conn Smythe trophies. When many athletes perform at a high level during the season, they tend to linger during the post-season. Often they are drained from the rigors of a full-season. Some players coast during the regular season. They save themselves for the post-season. Not Orr. He did it all season long.

Whew! I didn’t realize it would take this much. Someone send this one to Charlie. I’d like to hear his take on it.

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