In sports as in life, happy endings are rare
Just ask any Olympic athlete or Hollywood star
When my daughter was a little girl, I’d hear her crying over the twists and turns of one children’s television show or the other. At last, after the cold cereal and hot toy commercials had paraded past her, the television princess, the latest incarnation of Cinderella, would prevail. And my daughter could gleefully exclaim: “Happy Ending.”
In those days, before adult life taught her otherwise, my daughter Lauren was a steadfast believer in happy endings. Always. It’s the American way; our society believes in happy endings, especially when it comes to big-time sports and Hollywood movies, which often borrow storylines from each other.
But, as Orson Welles, the director of Citizen Kane, once said, a happy ending depends upon where the story is stopped.
Had Malcolm Butler’s New England Patriots story ended at Super Bowl XLIX with his interception that preserved a victory over the Seattle Seahawks, the defensive back would be hailed forever in Boston. Instead, it’s likely his Patriots story ended with him being benched at Super Bowl LII, his eyes filled with tears, his heart bursting with sadness.
Or suppose Halle Berry’s Hollywood story had ended in 2002 when she became the first and only black woman to win a best actress Academy Award for Monster’s Ball? Wouldn’t she be hailed as a bright and enduring star? Instead, since 2002 she’s made a raft of forgettable movies. Her star has dimmed. The door Berry thought she’d kicked wide open 16 years ago with her Oscar stands ajar today, not just for herself but for other actresses of color who seek powerful and meaningful lead roles in Hollywood movies.
Oh, please don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those people who seeks to warn that happiness can’t last or that failure lurks around the corner from every successful turn.
But sports and Hollywood do teach us to revel in the magic moments when we reach the top of the mountain. No matter how many there are, how endless they seem, magic moments are fleeting. Consequently, when our sports and entertainment stars climb to the top of the mountain, they deserve to breathe the rarefied air that swirls at the peak with pride and a great sense of accomplishment. They deserve a moment to reflect upon their journeys and the hard work and determination that drove them to success. They deserve a moment to remember the elders who paved the way, just as Berry did on Oscar night in 2002: “This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll.”
During the Winter Olympics, Lindsey Vonn became at 33 the oldest woman to ever win an Olympic medal in Alpine skiing. Still, some have written and said that her bronze medal in her downhill race is an emblem of failure, a talisman of disappointment. Having overcome horrific crashes and injuries, Vonn holds the record for most career World Cup Alpine wins for female skiers. She won Olympic gold in the downhill in 2010. He greatness is unassailable.
After her penultimate 2018 Olympic race, Vonn wrote on Twitter, “Today I won a bronze medal that felt like gold,” evidence that she won’t allow others to define her success, a lesson that sports stars and entertainers learn and teach the rest of us, again and again. In an act of triumph, she scattered the ashes of her beloved grandfather in South Korea, where he’d served in the American military.
Unfortunately, in sports and entertainment, the better one is, the more cruel and ingenious the chattering classes are in inventing new categories of failure.
If you don’t believe me, just ask LeBron James or the producers of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. In each of the past seven years, James has taken his teams to NBA Finals, winning two with the Miami Heat and one with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the star forward’s current team. A four-time NBA MVP, he’s used his money and influence to help countless others. Nevertheless, James endures an annual head-banging from some pundits for being the de facto coach and general manager of a team that’s destined to fail, until it doesn’t.
Despite grossing more than a billion dollars worldwide, the latest Star Wars movie has been assailed by some for not doing as well as it might have, especially in China, an important market for American blockbuster movies.
Further, both James and the latest Star Wars film have come under fire from some right-wing pundits for expressing a world view that differs from theirs.
The Winter Olympics have ended. On Sunday night, the Oscars will begin. The winners will come and go. The fans and pundits, the scribblers and talkers, will travel with them.
Everyone will hope for a happy ending. Depending where the story stops, whose hand controls the roulette wheel of fate, some will get it.
Until the next spin.