Archive for Sunday, May 4, 2003

A literary look at coach’s parting words

May 4, 2003


A few reflections on the recent Event in Kansas, from a literary point of view...

In the light of the recent Event, we find that, along the trail from his humble beginnings, good old homespun Roy Williams has developed a bit of an ego.

A telltale sign is his habit of speaking of himself in the third person, like Julius Caesar did. ("People that think that aren't thinking of the real Roy Williams." "Those two kids probably came to Kansas more for Roy Williams than they did just because it's Kansas.")

It sounds as if he's standing back admiring a 30-foot tall statue of himself. A bloated ego ill-befits a good old boy. In the words of William S. Burroughs, "The ego is just excess baggage."

When we consider Roy's many virtues, we find that succinctness is not among them. His news conference announcing his departure from Kansas -- one of the towering moments in history for many of us -- had me reaching for the remote.

One sportswriter called it "revolting," which seems a little harsh. But it would not be unfair to characterize it as tedious, redundant, even a little sappy. Surely Roy must not harangue his players before a game in this fashion. He would only inspire them to yawn.

It reminded me of a bit of wisdom I once heard from a furniture salesman pertaining to the craft of writing. He referred to a man who ended a letter by saying, "Sorry I didn't have time to make it shorter."

The point is it's easy to spout verbiage. It takes time and thought to cut away the fat and get down to the bone. A dozen sentences ought to be discarded for every one you keep. Speaking of Caesar, "I came, I saw, I conquered," is a lot more memorable than most sermons or one of Fidel Castro's interminable speeches. As Samuel Johnson said of Milton's Paradise Lost, "No one ever wished it was longer."

The expressions you fall in love with are the very ones you ought to suppress. "Kill the darlings," as Ernest Hemingway said. Roy's favorite, "frickin'" -- a euphemism for another word that's lost its power due to overuse -- conveys nothing. It's an admission of inarticulateness. A cliche. Avoid cliches, Roy. But remember, they become overused by virtue of being somewhat true. As the furniture salesman advised me, "Just add a twist, like the man who invented the paper clip did."

Alas, Roy's only quotable quotes were the surprisingly nasty ones, like the one about being "stuck out there" -- in Kansas. It made all his gushings about KU seem disingenuous. When King Lear asks his daughters which one loves him most, the duplicitous Goneril and Regan smother him with unctuous lies. One says she loves him more than her eyesight, the other claims to have no other joy in life than Lear. Cordelia tells him the truth, "I love your majesty according to my bond; nor more nor less." And she's the one who really loves him.

Roy's tears, his protestations about how agonizing the decision was for him, how he threw up over it, how he was "a Jayhawk bred" -- all those effusions only added to the sting. It diminished rather than augmented the impression that he cared. It made him come off as insincere -- particularly when he started tossing nosegays to his new Carolina players.

Understatement, Roy. Don't carry on so much. Just say, "It has not been unpleasant, this stopover in Kansas. Kirk and Nick are not the worst young men a coach ever had the privilege to coach."

"Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak," wrote Robert Frost. The more you embellish a sentiment, the cheaper it seems. Just give us the truth. So few people do these days.

And consider this: Is there any moment in sports more powerful than when fans begin to sing, "Rock Chalk Jayhawk" in barely audible unison? It passes over the crowd like the Grim Reaper's scythe. It informs the opponent that his doom is sealed, he's six feet under; the gravedigger is covering him with earth.

That's understatement. The Star Wars victory march, the tomahawk chop, the players jumping up and down exchanging high fives, the shirtless fans with painted faces wagging their fingers to signify "We're Number One" -- all look hackneyed and puny by comparison.

Though Roy may cover himself with more glory, he'll never hear that thrilling chant sung for his team again. But on lonely nights after empty victories it will come back to haunt him like the voice of wind in cedars in one of those austere graveyards on gravel roads in remote hillsides of this state. And he will miss it -- Kansas, the Jayhawks, out there, or as Tom Averill puts it, here.

-- George Gurley, who lives in rural Baldwin, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.

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