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On “clutch,” “choking,” and ships passing quietly in the night

Jul 25, 2011, 8:22 PM EDT

Miami Heat v Los Angeles Lakers Getty Images

Those in and around the basketball community engage in debate on an incredible number of game-related topics. Yet in truth, most reasonable observers of the game share more common opinions than one might initially think. There are subtle differences — mostly relative ones discovered in the process of comparing one player or team to another — regarding skill and ability, but the most common source of debate and dispute lie in differences in rhetoric, even if those participating in said dispute fail to realize it. The sports world has become laden with particularly weighty jargon, and it’s those specific word choices that typically incite the fiery passions of die-hard fans. Those words reflect the values specific to sport itself: an ability to exceed perceived value, dominance over other competitors, and high-level performance under the most intense and extreme of circumstances.

That last aspect of athletic performance is held on a higher pedestal than all else; the “clutch,” are feared and revered, while the “chokers,” are turned into joke-a-minute punchlines in the over-diluted world of sports consumption and coverage. Any who seems to shrink from a late-game situation is put in the stocks for all to throw rocks and produce at, despite the fact that there isn’t anywhere near a universal understanding of what words like “clutch,” and “choke,” actually mean.

Case in point: a column from Mike Berardino of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel:

Just last weekend, we saw the U.S. women’s soccer team become the latest to succumb to the massive pressure that often accompanies our games. Two blown in the leads in the late stages of a Women’s World Cup final against Japan, a team that had never beaten the top-ranked Americans in 25 previous tries. Three straight botched penalty kicks by the U.S., which had gone 5-for-5 in that same situation one week earlier against Brazil.

They choked, right? Of course, they did. Just like LeBron James in the NBA Finals or Rory McIlroy at the Masters or Scott Norwood in the Super Bowl.

“I think it happens to everybody,” says former Heat great Alonzo Mourning, now a team community-relations executive. “We, as professional athletes, when we’re put in that situation, the public, the team, everybody watching expects you to respond at that moment because you’re a highly paid athlete.”

But these are human beings, not machines, so more often than anyone would care to admit our sporting contests are decided by who blinks first.

“There are certain pressure points where the sense of responsibility rises,” Mourning says. “Anxiety increases and people, for lack of a better word, get nervous. People tighten up. You do things that you would not do when you’re at a comfort level.”

That’s not just a sports phenomenon either.

“All choking is,” says CBS college football analyst Spencer Tillman, “is when external situations impact what has traditionally been routine and normal for you.”

If only it were so simple. Individuals let external factors influence their decisions and performance at all times. If we’re restricted to basketball alone, it decides what shots are taken, what passes are made, how the defense chooses to cover certain players, how the clock is used, how the coaches elect to use the resources available to them, etc., etc., forever and ever. More accurately, “choking,” is whatever the public consensus decides that it should be, which usually serves to confirm a widely held belief of a player or is sparked and sustained by a single and brilliant irrefutable play.

Hit a game-winning shot in a big playoff game, and your reputation is made. Miss a crucial free throw with the game on the line, and that same rep is sunk…so long as the adoring public is willing to let the visions of clutch greatness go. The memory of the basketball fan collective is astoundingly selective, and whatever evidence is deemed admissible is twisted and spun in a way that simultaneously creates a clutch résumé and amends the very fluid definition of the term itself. Then come the arguments based on such a malleable foundation, a discussion that pretends to be based on a shared notion but only remains bound by the most abstract of concepts.

“Clutch,” is whatever we want it to be. It’s a word so powerful in the sporting realm that it is defined and guarded by every sports fan with a mouth or a Twitter account. We can rifle through all of the data in the world with all of the qualifiers and filters available, but individual definitions (and the perceptions that stem from them) will always dictate the discussion in a way that inconvenient facts cannot.

  1. gridirongoon24 - Jul 25, 2011 at 8:57 PM

    Kobe and Lebron pictured above in an article about clutchness (Kobe) and choking (Lebron) … Clever lol

    • musilly - Jul 25, 2011 at 10:37 PM

      No, it’s clever because Kobe chokes more than his reputation for clutch-ness suggests, and Lebron is more clutch than his reputation for choking would allow.

      • icelovinbrotha215 - Jul 29, 2011 at 12:01 PM

        Say what????

  2. musilly - Jul 25, 2011 at 10:39 PM

    And in keeping with the tone of the article, whether one “buys” my comment will likely have more to do with how you feel about Kobe and Lebron respectively and how you feel *I* feel about them.

  3. Off The Backboard - Jul 25, 2011 at 11:32 PM

    But here’s the thing though – Lebron DID choke. People aren’t overhyping it because they dislike Lebron – he legit disappeared in the Finals the moment Dallas put up a fight. Like much of his career, when another team has been able to stand up to his, Lebron folds. When the other team is weak (regular season), he’s “clutch”, etc. Well, even Vince Carter is clutch during the regular season (check his numbers), its what you do when it counts the most that is most important. When the stakes were the highest, Lebron folded. You can badmouth Kobe all you want, but when the stakes have been the highest (2000, 2001, 2002, 2009, 2010), he’s been strong enough to lead his team to victory WHEN IT COUNTS.

  4. diablito0402 - Jul 25, 2011 at 11:35 PM

    Funny, i see one guy taking over games and taking over 4th quarters in the finals, and i see one guy year in and year out fading and just plain dissapearing in the most important moments in 4th quarters in the post season, i wonder which is lebron and which is kobe,,, CLEVER!!!!

  5. Off The Backboard - Jul 25, 2011 at 11:37 PM

    I’m not trying to suggest that Kobe is ALWAYS clutch – of course he’s not. But clutchness is not defined by advanced stats like guys like Henry Abbott want you to think. When you actually watch the stretch of games in the Finals, you can easily tell if a player is folding under the pressure or living up to the pressure, and minus 2004, Kobe Bryant has risen when his team has needed him (Game 7 in 2010 was an anomaly compared to the other 6 games). On the other hand, Lebron disappeared before our very own eyes in almost every season that he’s played high-stakes in the playoffs and he was not the underdog.

    And please don’t blame it on his supporting cast, even in Cleveland. I loved how people praise Lebron if Cleveland won, but blamed the supporting cast if they lost.

  6. diablito0402 - Jul 25, 2011 at 11:39 PM

    @musily
    Your right, lebron can be clutch sometimes, just in meaningless games mostly,, kobe is just plain second to jordan in history of being clutch in post season, period.

    • secdominance - Jul 26, 2011 at 12:26 AM

      you mean meaningless games like the Eastern Conference Semis and Eastern Conference Finals which decided who gets to the Finals?

      Where was clutch Kobe when he was getting swept in the 2nd Round?

  7. involvement82 - Jul 26, 2011 at 1:41 AM

    Yea yea Kobe got swept in the second round.. Reason being cause of the five championship rings he has weighing him down but this season he will take them off b4 the game so he can earn his sixth and be tied with my man Jordan!!

  8. Off The Backboard - Jul 26, 2011 at 2:22 AM

    @secdominance

    Kobe is 33, Lebron is in his prime – its unreasonable to expect an old Kobe to carry the Lakers through an entire series at this point in his career. Its not 2006.

  9. david8726 - Jul 26, 2011 at 4:14 AM

    LeBron definitely has it in him to make it back to the finals and be clutch in that setting.

    In the Eastern Conference playoffs, he was as clutch as it gets in beating Boston and Chicago. Those were pressure packed, meaningful games. And he came through.

    But then he couldn’t do it in these finals.

    But that doesn’t mean he CAN’T do it in the future.

    Dirk Nowitzki famously failed in the 2006 finals, and laid a huge egg in the 2007 playoffs whne he got bounced as a #1 seed. And what did the guy do? He licked his wounds and came back 4 years later, being clutch as hell in the 2011 finals.

    If Dirk could do it, LeBron can do it too.

    • metalhead65 - Jul 26, 2011 at 12:21 PM

      wasn’t this his second finals he came up short in? I seem to recall him being there with cleveland one year and failing also. oh wait that wasn’t his fault because he did not have a supporting cast right? some things never change.

  10. diablito0402 - Jul 26, 2011 at 9:53 AM

    @secondominance
    Anything other than a championship is meaningless to kobe ask him if lakers last season was a success, he will flip out, but ask sorryass lebron and he will most likely say it was a great season.. Thats the difference between the two mental makeups you understand.

  11. diablito0402 - Jul 26, 2011 at 10:07 AM

    One got 5 rings and the other is 0 for 2 choking down both times, how about that

  12. diablito0402 - Jul 26, 2011 at 10:11 AM

    The reason kobe got swept in the second round is because the nba tryed to let lebron win his first title with the heat since they are trying to pawn him off as the face league,, nba told the lakers to cut the league a break and take a summer off this one time for lebron,, and what does lebron do,,,,,,CHOKE!!!!!!!

  13. mrblazino - Jul 26, 2011 at 11:35 AM

    I seem to remember kobe failing time and time before winning the first championship. Airballing potential game winners, hogging when he should be passing. Hell, even JORDAN had years of failure before winning his first of six. So you lebron haters, just stay tuned. I know you will.

  14. dirtybird2020 - Jul 26, 2011 at 12:38 PM

    You guys are idiots if you think lebron is clutch, that guy since highschool hasnt been clutch! Kobe is fading but that man had it, second to jordan, and maybe miller and bird! Lebron is a bum, and still needs jordan to get a ring!!! Lebron is a bum reguardless of being clutch or being who he really is” lechoke”, the guy joined wade, enough said!
    In the nba where ” lechoke ” happens!

  15. diablito0402 - Jul 26, 2011 at 12:39 PM

    @ meathead..
    Good point, agreed..

  16. diablito0402 - Jul 26, 2011 at 3:57 PM

    Yeah kobe struggled his first 3 years and jordan too, lebrick still been in the league 8 years and still using the same lame excuses,, the guy just dont have it, thats why he left his team to hide behind wade..he just cant take full responsibilty for his horrible play down stretches.

  17. david8726 - Jul 26, 2011 at 10:19 PM

    Metalhead,

    I don’t see how you could possibly deny that his supporting cast wasn’t good enough when he made it to the finals in 2007. That was a very weak year for the East and San Antonio was a dominant team. That was very similar to when Allen Iverson led the 76ers to the finals. It was a case of one great player being able to carry his team almost all the way because the East was so bad.

  18. dexterismyhero - Jul 27, 2011 at 2:05 PM

    Lebron didn’t bang any chicks in Colorado did he?

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