Instead of the usual highlights of last year and predictions for the next year, we are in the second part of a two-part series that looks at the unavoidable uncertainties in life. We’ve already established that sports experts are no better at making predictions than a well-informed fan, today we’ll look at the roll of luck.
Red Auerbach, Bill Russell and Bob Cousy were the cornerstones of the early Boston Celtics basketball championship teams. Auerbach won nine NBA championships – only Phil Jackson has won as many and he had the best NBA player of all time, Michael Jordan. Yet Auerbach, Russell and Cousy all landed in Boston with more than a touch of luck.
…people are unwilling to admit how big a role luck plays in life.
Auerbach managed to get one scholarship offer coming out of high school and that was from a junior college. In a scrimmage between his junior college team and George Washington College, the George Washington coach noticed Auerbach’s toughness and gave him a scholarship. Otherwise Auerbach would likely have been a career high school coach.
Russell was an awkward high school player with very little offense, but an alumnus from the University of San Francisco saw Russell score 14 points in his last high school game and the University gave Russell his only scholarship offer. By the time the offer arrived, Russell had already started work at the San Franscisco Naval Shipyard. In another stroke of luck, Russell’s roommate at USF was K.C. Jones, his future teammate on the Celtics.
Cousy was a star at Holy Cross College near Boston. He led the team to an NCAA championship and assumed that the Celtics would draft him, but Auerbach thought he was more flashy than effective so Cousy was drafted by the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. When the Chicago Stags folded, the Blackhawks had to give up Cousy in return for acquiring a Stags player. Including Cousy, that left three players who were still unclaimed. The commissioner of the league was so tired of the fighting over Tri-Cities star , Max Zaslovsky, that he put three pieces of paper in a hat with the names of the players and let the fighting teams draw from the hat. The owner of the Boston Celtics picked second and, you guessed it, Cousy became a Boston Celtic. You can read about this in John Taylor’s excellent new book, The Rivalry: Bill Rusell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball.
Woody Allen has no illusions about luck. In his new movie, Match Point, the opening scene shows a tennis ball move slowly back and forth in one direction then another before ticking the tape, lingering in the air, then finally floating over the net. Early in the film, the main character, Chris Wilton, a professional tennis player who has just retired from the tour, notes that people are unwilling to admit how big a role luck plays in life.
It’s not that Allen doesn’t believe in hard work, Allen is one of the hardest working filmmakers alive, he’s made 35 movies in the last 39 years. Isn’t that a record of some sort? Wilton is under no illusions either. He does whatever is necessary to ingratiate his way into the role of son-in-law in a very rich London family. Being born into a rich family is a form of luck after all and there’s no reason he shouldn’t share in it, even if he doesn’t love his wife.
There are those who think that God has a plan for us if we could just figure out what it is and, at the other end of the spectrum, those who think we are born with a clean slate and it’s up to us to make our way – there is no higher authority, only morals that we agree upon. At the end of the spectrum that thinks there is no higher authority, you’ll find an egotistical nihilist or two. If there is no higher authority, and if, as happens in Match Point, guilt goes unpunished due to a bit of luck, then why bother considering anyone else’s needs but your own? At one point in the film, Wilton goes to bed with a paperback Dostoevsky novel – Crime and Punishment is the obvious reference. When his marriage is threatened, Wilton decides that he must protect his gains at any cost. When faced with the fallout of his actions, he refers to one of the casualties as “collateral damage.”
Andy Roddick has been the recipient of bad luck the past two U.S. Opens.
Allen appears in many of his films and even when he doesn’t, one of his actors might just as well be a stand-in for him. At least two film reviewers have noted that Allen doesn’t have a surrogate in Match Point but I disagree. Allen falls near the nihilist end of the spectrum and though he’s nowhere near as soulless as Wilton, Allen has been known to do what he wants regardless of the consequences. He must have known how devastating it would be to his ex-girlfriend Mia Farrow’s family if he started a sexual relationship with her adopted daughter, but he did it anyway.
Just like the nature versus nurture debate – is our personality formed by our surroundings or do we arrive with certain personality traits? – the debate between those that think there is a grand plan and those that don’t has a boring answer: the truth is somewhere in between. Even if there is a higher authority, there’s still free will. If there is no higher authority, well, you are still responsible for your actions.
So where does luck come in? The higher the stakes, the more important its role can be. Roger Federer will beat Davide Nalbandian in a tennis match four out of five times, maybe five out of five times. But in the year-end Masters Cup final, Nalbandian beat Federer because Federer had injured his foot and hadn’t played for the previous six weeks.
You can’t win a grand slam without at least a bit of luck. Andre Agassi needed two opportune rain delays to change the momentum in matches that he was losing, including one in the final, to win the 1999 French Open. Andy Roddick has been the recipient of bad luck the past two U.S. Opens. In 2004, he lost in the quarterfinals to Joachim Johansson, who played the match of his life then lost easily in the next round. In 2005, Gilles Muller played the match of his life to beat Roddick in the first round before coming back to earth and badly losing his next match.
Still, there’s a reason that Federer has won five slams in two years and there’s reason to think that the years spent developing mental and physical skills are a good investment. Most of the time by far, the better player will win.
I once had a wonderful roommate named Lenor. When I’d get dressed up to go out to a party she’d say, “Good luck, ” meaning good luck scoring at the party. As I walked out the door I’d yell back, “Luck and skill, baby, it takes luck and skill.”