Few words in sports elicit such varying degrees of responses as the simple phrase, “He’s clutch.”
Tony Romo? Please, don’t slander the good name of clutch by mentioning him and it in the same sentence. Eli Manning? Come playoff time, he is unstoppable. Give him a third and 99, and he will use superglue, helmets and uncalled holding penalties to somehow convert. Michael Jordan? His Airness was the very definition of clutch. LeBron James? Just doesn’t have it. He can’t win the big one… oh, wait. Houston, we have a problem.
In team sports, there are so many variables, so many moving parts that it is nigh impossible to determine who is clutch and who isn’t. Players are often dogged by stigmas of “clutch” and “anticlutch” throughout their careers, putting them in absurd amounts of pressure to succeed and lessening their abilities to perform at the highest level.
Most devastating of all, however, are the insane levels of achievement necessary to be considered clutch. It is in this columnist’s humble opinion that even God Almighty might not be considered clutch in this day and age, given the truly absurd requirements to be given such a designation.
Take, for instance, the curious case of a certain Thomas Edward Brady, the golden-boy quarterback who ascended the NFL’s highest peak as Super Bowl XXXVI champion when he was just 24 years of age. For a while, it seemed that Tom Brady could do no wrong; with three Super Bowl victories in his first four years of play, innumerable improbable comebacks and a supermodel wife to boot, his clutch factor (if we define such a thing) was off the charts. But slowly, the league adjusted. The little tiny breaks that went Brady’s way in his victories started to be the margin of defeat in his painful losses. Somewhere along the way, Brady lost his invincibility, and the Golden Boy became the Tarnished Bronze Man.
Living on the flip side is LeBron James, who has struggled so mightily in the playoffs and who redeemed himself so exceptionally with his herculean efforts last spring.
Behind an unfathomably good Eastern Conference finals, where in Game 6 he unleashed unholy terror on the Celtics in an elimination contest, LeBron proceeded to nearly average a triple-double while routinely playing lockdown defense and playing all five positions on the court. It was a display of incredible virtuosity not seen since Magic Johnson took the floor as a center when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar got injured in his rookie season.
Despite his fast-receding hairline, LeBron even managed to make a commercial that involved him getting a haircut this summer. However, despite championships at the national and international levels, the perception that LeBron is unclutch remains common; it is the one demon that he will likely never shake as a result of his early-career struggles in the limelight.
The truth is that such debates have raged throughout sporting history. We want to be able to say with certainty that a specific player always comes through, that he never let us down, that he saved our bacon on many an occasion.
Certain players have been demonized in the past for their choke jobs; that selfsame Magic Johnson, who buried the Celtics in 1987 with a transcendental baby-sky-hook that remains one of the most unforgettable plays in NBA history, was once nearly run out of LA for his performance against the Celtics in 1984, where he clanged free throws, turned the ball over and otherwise wore goat-horns throughout a miserable series.
John Elway lost playoff games in the most gut-wrenching ways imaginable before finding redemption with two brilliant Super Bowl victories in his last two years in the league. The difference is that these players have rewritten the script and now go down in history as winners.
The problem, then, is our instant-reaction subscription to sports in this day and age. In many ways, this has become both a blessing and a curse. The dawn of the Twitterverse has heralded the rise of armchair analysts and instant judgment calls on players and situations that aren’t necessarily so easy to judge.
We are so quick to critique, to dismiss, and to tear down, while simultaneously being so slow to build up and support. The level of magnification on each individual game, however small and meaningless, has by extension made “clutch” nearly an impossible honor to attain. If someone isn’t perfect, then they sure as heck aren’t clutch has become the new motto.
There is a famous poem entitled ‘Casey at the Bat,’ penned sardonically by the poet Ernest Thayer. In it, Casey is the superstar hitter, the man who could do no wrong, the unstoppable force at the plate. With his team down by two with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, everyone is convinced that if only Casey can get to the plate, the game is as good as won.
When Flynn and Blake, the preceding batters, surprisingly get on base, Casey swaggers up to the plate, with the fans utterly convinced the game is as good as won. But he takes two quick called strikes. The poem ends:
The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate/He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate/And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go/And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow/Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright/The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light/And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout/But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.
My response to the clutchness debate: sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. I truly believe there is no way to judge just how clutch someone is. The true metric for how clutch a player is? The level of terror experienced by opposing fans when that player has the ball.
Vignesh Venkataraman still has nightmares of David Tyree’s helmet catch that ended the Patriots’ dynasty. Recommend some sleep medicines for him at email@example.com.