John McEnroe, Red Auerbach and the Hindu

I feel like I’ve been in a coma and woken up in a foreign, foreign land. After a severe case of the flu, an eighteen-hour flight followed by a four-hour flight with a one-day layover in Singapore sandwiched in between, I am in south India in the city of Chennai. The American flu has morphed into an Indian version accompanied by a cough and a weak voice. I have written a note in my travel file to avoid all people, no matter how much I love them, if they are contagious with the flu while I am preparing for a flight to the other side of the world.

My news is limited to the newspaper left in my room each day. The Hindu, India’s national newspaper since 1878, reflects the chaos in the streets. Congressional members accuse other members of hatching plots to kill them, they accuse the government of tapping the phones of party leaders, and the government coalition may lose one of its party members. On the front page there is a headline saying, “Temple Priests Seek 50% of Offerings.” What is the world coming too? Pretty soon the priests will want their own labor union.

Even the sports pages are disturbing. Roger Federer has lost another match and it’s only his second tournament of the year. He should withdraw the next time he plays Tommy Haas In Australia. Haas has beaten him every time they’ve played there.

There is no more important sports event in this part of the world than a cricket match between Pakistan and India. The current version, the Allianz Test, starts on Friday. The Hindu reports that the Pakistan captain may have influenced India’s team selection by suggesting that Pakistan was installing an extra long layer of grass on the pitch. The longer grass impedes the ball making it harder to get four run hits – balls that roll over the boundary of the field without being touched. It turns out the grass is normal and the pitch may, instead, be faster than slower.

The Pakistan captain was trying to throw his opponent off, even if only the slightest bit. He wants to get any edge that he can. Let’s talk about two American sports figures with a similar point of view.

While I have been recovering from illness, I’ve been reading The Rivalry by John Taylor. It’s the story of the rivalry between basketball players Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. It’s an excellent book and I will review it later but there is an interesting comparison between Russell’s longtime Boston Celtics coach, Red Auerbach, and tennis player John McEnroe.

Auerbach made a conscious decision early in his career to bait, push and cajole referees after every single call they made against his team. He thought that if he kept on the referees throughout the entire game by demanding the correct interpretation of the rules, he might get a favorable decision at the end of the game that would make the one or two point difference that was the winning margin in the seventh game of many a championship series. Auerbach paid for it. Fans threw objects at him, flicked ashes in his face and shouted obscenities at him. But Auerbach, along with Phil Jackson, the current coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, holds the record for most NBA championships with nine.

McEnroe was the same. He knew the rules very well. He knew exactly how many warnings he could take from the chair umpire before losing a point or defaulting. He wanted to make sure that he got every benefit of the doubt from a linesperson. If his ball landed so close to the line that it was hard to tell if it was in or out, he wanted to get the “in” call and win the point. Critical calls at critical times are common in sports events. McEnroe was going to kill himself doing everything else he could to win and he didn’t want doubt to influence a critical decision.

If tennis wanted to change McEnroe’s behavior, they should have changed the rules. Enforce a loss of point for fewer warnings. Default a player more easily. But they didn’t because tennis was never more popular than during McEnroe’s and Jimmy Connors’ playing days.

You can’t blame McEnroe. He was playing within the rules and getting any advantage he could. You can expect that from an athlete with an extreme desire to win.

I haven’t spent all my time in the hotel here. By day I go to classes at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram and before I got the Indian version of the flu, I made it to the only ATP championship in India – the Chennai Open. I’ll report on that as soon as possible.