Chasing Immortality

Weighing the drive for perfection against the desire for a championship

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Some years ago, I started a game by bowling six strikes in a row. I’m not that good a bowler but I was raised on the sport as any good son of a Cleveland factory worker would be. My father and I watched bowling every Saturday — Mark Roth! Earl Anthony! Marshall Holman! — and Dad was the anchor bowler for his Sunday league all of my childhood. He had a closet of bowling shirts and a few trophies on his dresser. So, yeah, I fully grasped the enormity of the moment. I was halfway to a perfect game.

And, I clearly remember the excitement — I had never even bowled a 200 before — but I also recall this odd feeling that you might call “anticipatory disappointment.”

Deep down I knew that any score I put up, even though it would undoubtedly be the highest score of my life, would be something of a letdown. And so it ended up. I bowled a 220, still the highest score of my life. But it wasn’t close to perfect.

This is the trouble with perfection — you are bound to fall short.

And yet, what is the point if you don’t at least TRY for perfection.

Right now, two undefeated teams in pro sports are capturing our imaginations. The Carolina Panthers are just the ninth team in the Super Bowl Era to begin a season 12-0. They play Atlanta on Sunday.

And the Golden State Warriors are the first team in NBA history to start 23-0. They play the Boston Celtics on Friday night.

They are both undefeated but I sense that they are in very different mental places about it. In Charlotte, I can tell you, there’s a giddy nervousness about this team, not unlike the feeling I had after bowling those six strikes in a row. It’s so unexpected. Yes, the Panthers have won the NFC South the last two seasons, but last year they won with a losing record. And even with Cam Newton making magic and Luke Kuechly leading a ferocious defense, you can bet that nobody saw 12-0 coming.

And, more to the point, nobody is especially interested in the undefeated part of the experience. Sure, it’s better to win than lose, but at more or less every holiday party, you will hear people say something along the lines of, “I’d like to see them lose before the playoffs start so they don’t have that extra pressure on them.” That’s a reasonable thought in the NFL. Look, four of the last five teams to fly this close to the sun ended up not winning the Super Bowl.

The 2011 Green Bay Packers started 13-0 before losing at Kansas City. They finished off a spectacular 15-1 season and promptly got beat up by a 9-7 New York York Giants team that needed to win its last two games just to squeak into the playoffs.

The 2009 Indianapolis Colts started 14-0 and made the conscious decision to lose the last two games by resting their starters. They lost to New Orleans in the Super Bowl, though to be fair, those Saints started the year 13-0.

The 2008 New England Patriots, of course, went 16-0 but lost to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl. Those Giants made it into the playoffs as a 10-6 wildcard team and had to win three straight road games against division champions just to get to the Super Bowl.

And the 2005 Indianapolis Colts started 13-0, lost two of their last three games regular season games, and then lost to Pittsburgh in first round of playoffs. It was certainly one of the most depressing losses of Peyton Manning’s life.

That’s all recent history … and it’s a reminder that nothing is yet won. The Carolina Panthers have never won a Super Bowl, but even more significantly, Charlotte as a city has never been quite at the center of the American sports universe (unless you count the Final Four Charlotte hosted or some of the early Great American Bash wrestling cards). Charlotte is now a major American city, an international banking center, the site of the last Democratic National Convention and so on. But in sports, it has little history and no championships and the one and only goal is to win the Super Bowl.

In other words, if you gave people in Charlotte this choice:

Choice 1: Lose final four regular season games but win Super Bowl.

Choice 2: Let it play out.

I’m guessing just about everyone would take the first choice. The undefeated season would be incredible, but it’s too much to dream. The Panthers, of course, do not get that choice … but it will be awfully hard for them to play all out the next four weeks with the much bigger goal in the distance.

The Golden State Warriors and their fans, on the other hand, seem to feel very differently. Of course, it’s easy to feel different when you JUST WON the NBA Championship and so it feels a bit like you’re playing with house money. But I imagine if given a similar choice:

Choice 1: Do not break the all-time Bulls’ win-loss record but win the NBA Championship.

Choice 2: Let it play out.

Most would just let things play out. For one thing, there’s an overwhelming and appropriate confidence about this team. They are playing basketball like it has never been played before. Steph Curry is on a different level from every single shooter who came before him and should now play basketball in a white robe. The whole team is shooting 50 percent and Klay Thompson might be the second-best three-point shooter on planet earth. Draymond Green, at 6-foot-7, can apparently cover any human being no matter his size or speed, and Andre Iguodala is some sort of shape-shifter who can take over games in dozens of different ways.

Because of all that, nobody wants to put a limit on this team. Can they break the Bulls’ all-time win-loss record? Can they do something ridiculous like go 78-4? Can they actually go undefeated? The point is: We want to find out.

Of course, they could end up not winning the championship. Most NBA insiders would agree the Cleveland — even though the Cavaliers are not nearly as good as Golden State — is in a much better position to win the title because the Cavaliers are pretty clearly the class of the Eastern Conference. Right now, they are being chased by Charlotte, Toronto, Atlanta, Indiana and Miami — and it would be a shocking upset for any of those teams to even come close to beating the Cavaliers in the playoffs.

But it would not be shocking if San Antonio or Oklahoma City or the Los Angeles Clipper gave Golden State a great series because those are legitimately great teams. Golden State faces what looks to be a much tougher road to the title.

And of course the title is still the most important goal. But it sure seems like the Warriors are playing for something more than the title. They are playing for history. They are playing for basketball immortality. And that’s the coolest part.