A WORD ON GREATNESS (Occasional Sports Moment #21)

Connecticut’s Breanna Stewart blocks a shot attempt by South Florida’s Ariadna Pujol, left, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the American Athletic Conference tournament finals at Mohegan Sun Arena, Monday, March 7, 2016, in Uncasville, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Of course, I was rooting for the other Huskies at the women’s Final Four (for reasons I explained here). But since they were eliminated in the semi-finals, I decided to go ahead and root for history in the finals.

The history was made.

I don’t actually watch more women’s sports than men’s but for a number of years I’ve tended to watch them with greater interest. Women haven’t reached their limits yet. And, for me, watching minds expand and expectations of exceeding limits defied and redefined is the best reason to watch a sport. Any sport.

The University of Connecticut just finished an unprecedented run: four straight championships. In the last three of those years, they lost one game. They won each of the other 122 they played by double-digits. Of course, this has led to the latest twist on Martina Navratilova’s old formula for the difference in perception regarding men’s and women’s sports: When men dominate, it’s about how great they are. When women dominate, it’s about how weak their competition is.

I’ve been following women’s basketball pretty regularly since the early eighties. The sport has grown by leaps and bounds in that time. Believe me, UConn isn’t dominating weak competition. They are dominating for the same reason any player or team dominates: They’re better than everybody else. They’ve set incredibly high expectations  for incredible talent and sweat blood to meet them. That formula never changes. And in any sport, that’s bound to breed resentment, even hostility.

But it’s only when women do it that it invites condescension. Heck, I root against UConn most of the time myself, and for the same reason I rooted against the UCLA men when I was growing up, which is the same reason people have always rooted for any David against any Goliath. It doesn’t have to be rational. To tell the truth, UCLA played the game I wanted to see played. And UConn plays that same game, just as well. I don’t care much for their coach, Geno Auriemma. From the outside, he seems like a typical autocrat, by turns nasty or obsequious as the moment requires.

But boy do his teams play beautiful basketball. And boy can he coach. He plans every game around choking off your strength and exploiting your weaknesses, Kind of like John Wooden used to do back in the old days…at UCLA.

It’s true he can recruit like nobody’s business. Nobody wins without players, and Breanna Stewart (pictured above), who just finished her college career by winning the Finals MVP for an other-worldly fourth time, is the most complete player I’ve ever seen of either gender. I generally hate comparing women to men (a sports commentary device that is always designed to deliver a reminder that men are better–see the Navratilova formula above–and is used by female reporters, who should know better, even more than men). But regarding Stewart, the best descriptions I can think of are these: Imagine if Lebron could shoot. Or if Bill Russell and Larry Bird had been the same guy. Imagine that the next really transcendent male player we see, really should be compared to her. If he can’t dominate the paint at both ends, throw every pass in the book, rebound like a demon, run the floor like a greyhound and shoot threes, we should keep looking.

I won’t hold my breath on any of that coming to pass. But I’d sure like to see that guy, whoever they compare him to.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the burning question on ESPN chat shows for the last month has been whether UConn’s dominance is “bad for women’s basketball.”

That’s where we’ve come to and I talk about it more than occasionally around here: The relentless drive for mediocrity and acceptance of same. Greatness is just an illusion, after all–or else a cheat.  It must be, because nobody’s ever really better than everybody else at anything, ever.

Having failed the fairness test everywhere it counts, in economics, politics, culture, we’ve decided to impose artificial “fairness” on whatever’s left and to question the validity of anyone who defies the formula. Everywhere but “fringe” sports, the endless celebration of conformity and coloring within the lines is universal.

UConn just lost three All-Americans. Their run of good old fashioned excellence-beyond-measure will, like all such runs, end soon enough.

It’s fine to keep rooting for David.

But we should never forget to celebrate true greatness while we can.