The Power of Getting There
January 10, 2017 by Jonathan Lowe • Print Story •
It's difficult to work your way to a championship event. The stereotypical blood, sweat, and tears that come with slogging through an arduous regular season. The will to fight through nagging injuries and the luck to escape major injury. The chemistry to battle through stretches where wins are difficult to come by. Then, working against, and getting past, the best of the best from your particular sport. It's difficult to make it to the top.
Now, add in the disappointment of making it all the way to the end, only to fall short of getting your hands on the trophy. Losing a championship game or series provides a lot of motivation for the runners-up to try for a second shot at glory. It doesn't happen a whole lot. But over the last few years, we've seen some teams fight their way through the biggest emotional letdown you can have in sports. They bottled their intense "revenge" and "redemption" qualities enough to get back to the place where they exited devastated, but returned triumphant.
We saw it in June of 2014. In 2013, the San Antonio Spurs were longer in the tooth than the Miami Heat. However, the championship veterans were just a minute away from capturing the franchise's fifth Larry O'Brien trophy. Game 6 heroics from Ray Allen allowed the Heat to walk away with a series-tying victory and, ultimately, a repeat title after winning Game 7.
After a season filled with "do they have enough in the tank?", the Spurs made a return trip to the NBA Finals. Standing in the way of their destiny was, once again, the Heat. LeBron James was in his prime. Dwyane Wade was still a dynamic force. Chris Bosh could create matchup problems. But the Spurs wouldn't take no for an answer. After splitting the series' first two games in San Antonio, the Spurs kicked it into high gear. They dominated the last three games of the Finals, winning two blowouts in Miami before returning home to close out their fifth championship.
We saw it in November of 2015. In 2014, after years of being in baseball purgatory, the Kansas City Royals found themselves in the playoffs after nearly three decades away. A stunning come-from-behind wild card game sparked an improbable run to the World Series. That run eventually ended by, ironically, a run. Leaving the tying run on third base in Game 7 of the series, and watching the San Francisco Giants celebrate on their field, left a bitter taste in the Royals' mouth.
Throughout the 2015 season, there was one goal — return to the World Series and finish a couple of runs better. They rolled their way through the regular season, winning a division title for the first time in 30 years. They faced adversity, down to their last six outs of the season against Houston. By the time the top of Game 4's eighth inning turned to the bottom half, the momentum of a comeback was able to propel the Royals through the rest of Divisional Series. Then, K.C. slayed two more juggernauts. The first was the offensive behemoth known as the Toronto Blue Jays. The second was the pitching power known as the New York Mets. Once everything settled, the Royals celebrated their first championship since 1985.
We saw it in June of 2016. In 2015, the Cleveland Cavaliers made it back to the NBA Finals. It was the first appearance for the organization since 2007, when LeBron James go to his first Finals. James returned to Cleveland with the mission of getting his area a championship it had been craving for more than 50 years. It wasn't to be. Injuries depleted the Cavs throughout the regular season grind and the postseason run. James willed the series to six games, but Golden State was too much to overcome.
One year later, the Cavaliers got their rematch with the Warriors. Now, however, Cleveland had all of their pieces healthy and effective. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love had impacts on the series. Even when the Warriors took a 3-1 series lead, the Cavs held strong. They were able to fight back to force a Game 7. Then, in the critical moments, a huge blocked shot (by James) and a gutsy triple (by Irving) secured Cleveland's first professional sports championship in more than five decades.
And now, we've seen it in January of 2017. One year ago, Clemson somehow worked their way to an undefeated season and the top-ranked team in the nation. They had everything, except for the national title. Mighty Alabama stood in their way. The blueblood of all college football bluebloods. This was new road for the Tigers, going up against a Tide program, and a coach in Nick Saban, that made this territory their personal playground. Unbeknownst to the lion's share of the viewing audience, Clemson stood toe-to-toe with the perennial power. Eventually, the Tigers ran out of time, losing by five.
Fast forward to September. The Tigers are a favorite to return to the College Football Playoff. Their quarterback, DeShaun Watson, was a favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. But it wasn't a smooth ride for Dabo Swinney and company. A major sweat in their opener at Auburn. A majorly underwhelming performance in their home opener against Troy. A prayer of a missed field goal to beat N.C. State. A loss to Pittsburgh which left Clemson's postseason hopes teetering a bit. They withstood all of it to get back to the CFP.
At the end, it was Alabama that stood in the way of the Tigers' moment of glory. The Tide went up 14-0 in the second quarter. Watson and the Tigers' offense looked out of sorts for the first quarter and a half, then they gave up a fumble on the first possession of the third quarter. After getting back to within three, Clemson nemesis O.J. Howard got behind the secondary for a touchdown (bringing back shades of last January). After finally grabbing their first lead of the game with 4:38 remaining, the Tigers couldn't stop 'Bama from rolling down the field and snatching the lead back with two minutes to go.
But somehow, someway, there was enough time. Watson, who hadn't lived up to everything he showed in last season's title game, quietly lived up to everything he showed in last season's title game. One year ago, he amassed 478 total yards of offense (405 passing, 73 rushing) and four passing TDs. This time around, Watson ended up with 463 yards of offense (420 passing, 43 rushing) and four total TDS, including the game-winning throw with :01 left on the clock. It took every second of the college football season, but Clemson got their revenge and redemption on a two-yard out route into the end zone.
The path to a championship takes on many variations. A lot of times, it means fighting through one roadblock at a time. Other times, it happens spontaneously through moments of destiny. But, sometimes, it takes an idea of how to just get close. Once you close in on that moment of glory, it only takes a step or two to reach it. That's the crazy things about sports — getting there can sometimes lead to getting through.