By Bill Buckingham
Some criticize the Association for focusing too much on the best and think we can do more to make the stories we tell more relatable. However, regardless of our field, surely we can all relate to what it takes to be excellent, whether we have achieved it or aspire to it. The sports news was dominated in early spring by the Miami Heat’s Basketball team’s effort to top the record 33-game winning streak of the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers. While the Heat ultimately fell short, their 27-game run was significant in another way. For the first time in recent memory, a streak was being appreciated while it was happening.
Though they are the defending champions, with two of the best players in the world on their team, it was made clear by the sports media, and rightly so, how extremely difficult what the Heat were doing was. Typically winning streaks, by nature, are most appreciated when they are ended and of course, more intriguing when there is a realistic chance of seeing them broken. Strangely, the longer the streak, the more it is taken for granted, until it is over. When UCLA, led by John Wooden, won seven consecutive NCAA basketball titles, coupled with an 88-game winning streak, in the late 60’s and early 70’s, instead of inspiring awe, there was much more of a “so what” attitude, as if those Bruin’s teams didn’t have to practice and play extremely hard every single day and every single game to keep winning, but that they were just “better” than everybody else. after watching the NCAA tournament recently, with all the close games and dramatic finishes, where just a bounce of a ball and fractions of inches decided many outcomes, the fact that UCLA did not lose a game for nearly four full seasons is staggering to the point of not being believable.
In squash, two historic winning streaks came to an end recently. Most famously, the Trinity College 292 dual match and 13 consecutive National Championships run ended in 2012. During the streak, when it seemed, at times, that it would never come to an end, the attitude, similar to the UCLA dynasty show up to each match and they would win. The impression was that they didn’t have to work as hard as other teams—they were better, and that was that. We all know, of course, this was not the case, and, that if anything, according to head coach Paul Assaiante, the pressure on these young men to keep the streak intact was an added burden that forced them to work harder due to the bulls-eye on their backs.
The other streak, which may have been the most under-appreciated by some, came to an end this past march when Chris Gordon won the 2013 Men’s U.S. Championship, stopping the remarkable 8-year run of Julian Illingworth. While streaks in team sports are impressive, individual ones are even more so, which is why Joe Dimaggio’s 56-game hitting streak still dwarfs all others. If you are having an off day in a team sport, teammates can pick you up, and vice-versa. Individual athletes do not have that luxury. Julian, while still a student at Yale, won his first U.S. Championship in 2005, beating Damian Walker. Over the duration of his 8-year run, he was pushed to five games only twice, once in 2007 by former champion Preston Quick and, more recently, in 2011, by Todd Harrity. In a sport where injuries and mental lapses befall even the best of players, to dominate at that level over such a long period of time is truly remarkable. With Gordon at the top of his game, wresting the S.L. Green trophy away from him will be very difficult. Not yet thirty years old, Julian surely still has a few championship efforts left, but it would certainly be remiss not to reflect and marvel at what he accomplished over the past eight years.
The confluence of the two aforementioned squash streaks will be on display when the U.S. Men’s team heads to France for the 2013 World Team Championships. Coming off their best-ever 6th place finish in Paderborn (Germany) two years ago, the U.S. squad will be led by coach Assaiante and feature Illingworth, along with Gordon, Harrity and Gilly Lane (who knocked off Julian in the semifinals of the U.S. Championship to officially end his run). This may well be the strongest squad the U.S. has ever sent to the World Championships. although the task of winning this prestigious title will be monumental, as Illingworth and Assaiante well know, every streak starts with one.