Broken Clutch

I’m still a Twitter novice, familiar enough to know how to use it to keep in touch with people but still new enough that I smirk at terms like “tweef” and “twitterverse.” As such, there is one hurdle of that I just can’t seem to get over. Twitter does a great job of giving credence to speculation and just plain old funny farm talk. It’s a jungle of reckless behavior and one of the main manifestations right now is the perpetuation of the sports clutch mythos.

Calling a player who hits a walk-off homer or ends a game on a 3-point buzzer-beater  “clutch” isn’t new, of course. But it’s a deeper conversation now, there’s more legitimacy attached to it now than anytime I can remember. Instead of people understanding that every game and moment is different, labels are now calcified. You make a shot at the end of the game? You’re clutch. You miss one? You’re not. We are talking zero nuance here. The way people talk about being clutch you’d think there would be a universal understanding of what exactly the word even means. I hear the descriptions all the time—“its just a gut feeling” or “ you know it when you see it” or — my favorite and half the reason why i'm even writing this column — “He has the clutch gene, it can’t be taught. Either you have it or you don’t.”  Really? Maybe he’s born with it? What is this Maybelline?

I get that there are some things that cannot be easily defined. But too many people say it as a cop out. There’s no science, there’s no math or anything concrete. It’s just a hustle to these jokers and they couldn’t care less who gets fooled in the end. So when “Clutchers” (ever since Birther became a word, I’ve been adding “er” to all kinds of things in order to group weak-minded people together) romanticize intangibles they can say whatever nonsensical things they feel will promote their agenda.  I can tell it’s starting to influence thought because I hear people regurgitate fecal matter material on Twitter or at bars all the time. This is a problem that demands a solution. So where does that leave us? It leaves us at the NBA playoffs.

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When people talk about clutch players they always bring up Michael Jordan. My response is always the same—Jordan was great regardless.  Him being clutch is secondary to the things that really made him special—his training regimen, his size, his continuing education in regards to advancing his skill set, his intelligence and his arrogance. I’ll admit to not knowing exactly what clutch is, but I do know what it isn’t. And it’s not God given.  Nobody has been clutch 100 percent of the time. Or 90 percent, or 70 percent for that matter. And nobody always blows it either.

After Game 2 of this year’s Eastern Conference Finals, my Twitter timeline flooded with talk about the specific non-clutchness of The Accused (aka LeBron James) and I’m like, “Hold up bruh, didn’t the Heat just win the game?” Why are people this hung up on how the fourth quarter ended, when the game went to overtime? When LeBron missed those shots in the fourth quarter and people were screaming that they were shocked he even had the stones to take them, I started counting down in my mind, wondering how long it would take before they dropped the C word.

Celtic fans made it happen almost immediately and I’m looking at them like y'all must have forgot. Just last year, LBJ sharted on them in a bunch of games with several game-icing, pressure-packed daggers. That just happened last spring not five years ago. Then in Game 4 the opposite happens, LeBron doesn’t take the shot and passes to Udonis Haslem, instead. In overtime, Miami loses on a Dwyane Wade miss (I guess D.Wade is gonna live off of ’06 forever, huh?). The response on Twitter varied from “I knew he wasn’t gonna take the shot” to “ He never shoots, only passes.” The term clutch gene popped up on the screen per the usual, dismissing the fact that LeBron carried the Heat in the first half when the Cs threatened to blow them off the court. There are plenty of moments throughout the 48 minutes of play when the game is on the line.

When Wally Szczerbiak crawled out from whatever rock he was under after Game 2 and went off on – you guessed it – Twitter about Kevin Garnett’s lack of clutch ability by typing “KG is another one who lacks the #clutch gene always has!” it was  shocking for two reasons. Most importantly, it was freaking Wally Scczerbiak. Secondly, KG has already proven that his tentativeness in pressure situations is a thing of the past.  KG and the Celtics are on their fifth run deep into the postseason, during which KG has many a plethora of crucial defensive and offensive plays at critical moments, effectively snuffing out any non-clutch discussions. Furthermore, Szczerbiak played with KG for several years in Minnesota and he certainly didn’t have the ability to carry the team. That’s why his rant was so quickly dismissed. Without KG, the Timberwolves weren’t ever going to be in position to be in those close playoff games, which brings to light the most important factor about being clutch—you have to be GOOD in the first place for it to really matter.

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While writing this piece I became interested in non-sports related examples of people stepping up when the stakes are high. I caught an episode of “Frontline” and learned about Mark Lewis and I'm certain that, recently speaking at least, there’s nobody more clutch than this guy.  Lewis is a lawyer from London and one of the chief figures in the NewsCorp phone-hacking scandal.  Long story short, he represented a former professional football (soccer) player seeking his services to stop the now defunct “News of the World from publishing an article wrongly accusing of him infidelity. During this process he became aware that his client was one of the celebrities whose name was listed on court documents as having their voicemail messages stolen.  After suing the London Police Department to gain access to some of the disclosed documents, Lewis became privy to records of transcribed dialogue. This proved that the phone hacking situation was widespread and not the work of a random rouge reporter (as was previously announced). His reward: News Corp paid his client more €700,000 and the recognition that his research opened the door for a lot of the investigations that have come forth since.  To succeed like that against a behemoth like NewsCorp is more than clutch, it’s amazing. It’s also real life.

Any high-level pro athlete has invariably had several real life moments of truth–times when they just had to perform, no questions asked, just get it done. It could have been in high school, college, pre-draft workouts, rookie season, leading their team to the playoffs for the first time or winning a playoff game or series. At some point they got it done, so the ability to perform under pressure has already been on exhibition. Even if you consider that the pressure escalates the deeper they go into the postseason that doesn’t mean this is the biggest moment of their lives.

If you came from a hardscrabble background then you already felt pressure that’s much more stressful than anything in a game. There are dudes out here who literally have come from do-or-die circumstances and the pressure to make the League is the difference between them being homeless. That’s real pressure. That’s the only sort of clutch that really matters.

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Here’s a list of guys who at one time or another have been accused of not being clutch—Karl Malone, Phil Mickelson, Philip Rivers, Chris Webber, Dirk Nowitzki, Donovan McNabb, Greg Norman, David Robinson, Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Howard, Barry Bonds, Wilt Chamberlain and Peyton Manning. That’s a strong list. That list just bench-pressed 350 pounds out this piece. Every guy on there is either a Hall of Famer or within argument shot. 

Manning is actually the best example we have of clutch not being the most important thing. Obviously Manning is an all time great, owner of 11 4,000 yard passing seasons, four MVPs, led the Colts to double digits wins for a decade straight, etc. He’s in everybody’s Top 5, but did you know that his playoff record is only 9-10? That would be surprising enough, except that in nine of those losses the Colts scored less than 20 points. That’s an amazing stat – an offensive juggernaut in the regular season, that comes so far down to average in the postseason. The Colts of the last decade sometimes underperformed in big moments, stymied by teams that honestly they should have run off the field.

Winning Super Bowl XLI put to bed much of the non-clutch questions directed at Manning, only to give way to an uptick after Super Bowl XLIV and the bad-read pick-six Manning threw late in the fourth quarter. Manning, for all his greatness, is not perfect. I’d still take Peyton Manning over pretty much anyone, though, because I know he gives any team a punchers chance. And obviously they think the same in Denver.

Juxtapose everything you just read about Manning with the guy whose job he just snatched. We know the Tim Tebow story by now. “He just wins”… or something like that. Tebow had some truly crazy fourth quarters for the Broncos last year, seemingly winning games by serendipity, each time one-upping his previous performance. He became arguably the face of the NFL and energized factions of the sports world while doing it.  He became such a brand name that guys like Rick Santorum felt obligated to kiss the ring. Few people were more clutch than Tebow, last year.

And John Elway still got rid of him as soon as he could to take a chance on a 35-year-old quarterback who just came off neck surgery. Elway (known as being undeniably clutch yet not winning a ring until his 14th season) must have looked at the situation logically and said, “Wait a minute. Are you saying that the only thing standing in my way of getting Peyton is Tebow? Done and done. Y’all playing games out here.”

Denver decided they needed an upgrade. This is remarkable when you consider that there’s no guarantee that this upgrade will even be standing upright come November. That’s as big an indictment on the importance of clutch as you can get.

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The pendulum has swung too far. If a guy makes a play, sometimes it’s just a play and not a window into his mental makeup. I subscribe more to the notion of there being clutch performances moreso than clutch players. David Ortiz in the 2004 ALCS, the Eli Manning/David Tyree catch in Super Bowl XLII and Robert Horry in Game 5 of the 2005 Finals come immediately to mind. I watched Horry go transcendent against the Pistons when he hit five 3-pointers in the fourth quarter and overtime. To this day, it remains the best live sports performance I’ve ever seen. He even had a monstrous left-handed dunk—it was a sight to behold. In the game, Horry was as clutch as you can be.  Do you remember who wasn’t clutch in that game? Tim Duncan. He missed six of seven free throws in the fourth quarter. Again, there is no clutch gene.  Just good games, bad games and suckers.

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