The art of the choke

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By ALYSHA TSUJI
College Contributor Network

It happens to the best of us. There are times when we are on the brink of success and then we screw up. A minor mishap, an egregious error, it doesn't matter. All that matters is that what could have been is no longer viable.

In sports it's known as choking. It happens to even the best teams.

The 2004 Lakers were destined to nab their fourth ring in five years. With a stacked roster and light years of experience over the opposing Detroit Pistons, another championship looked ready to fall into their lap. But you know how the story goes.

The Pistons completed a gentleman's sweep, emphatically knocking the Lakers off their feet in Game 1 (87-75), Game 3 (88-68), Game 4 (88-80) and Game 5 (100-87). And that concluded the Kobe-Shaq era in Los Angeles.

A few years later on the East Coast, the 2007 New England Patriots made history and eked out a perfect 16-0 regular season. They only needed to win three more games to cap off the year as undefeated champs. Everything went as planned until the last minute of the 19th game -- the Superbowl -- against the New York Giants.

In the last game of the regular season, the Giants nearly foiled the Patriots' perfect record. New England was forced to kneel through the final three plays to the finish, 38-35. The championship game marked a shot for the Giants' revenge, but with the Patriots on the verge of perfection, the bigger storyline was on their side. The spreads favored New England by a whopping 13 to 14 points in Vegas, according to ESPN -- all the chips were on the table and all were swiped by the underdog.

Eli Manning tossed the ball and Plaxico Burress leapt up for the touchdown to give the Giants the lead with 35 seconds remaining. The Patriots had no time to recover. One play forever tainted an otherwise flawless season.

Both the Lakers and the Patriots had reached the pinnacle of their respective sports. The thing is that the climb to the top is tough and once you actually make it, it feels okay to relax for a second, drop your shoulders.

But that breath of fresh air tends to have the opposite effect of what it's intended. It leaves a moment of vulnerability, and the perfect opportunity to choke. In that moment, anything off kilter can turn into a wrench that breaks down a well-oiled machine. One or all of the following can be that wrench:

1. Teammate Feuds

For the Lakers, it was a division between superstars Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal that built up and contributed to the demise of the dynasty. NBA.com's Keith Langlois felt the negative vibes during a practice the day after Game 2, which the Lakers won by just eight points in overtime. In a reflective article published June 10, 2014, Langlois wrote:

"It was a strange mood at their El Segundo practice facility that day. Phil Jackson almost seemed to be distancing himself from the product he was putting out there. Shaq was grumpy. Kobe was terse. Payton and Malone seemed wrung out."

2. Leadership Breakdowns

ESPN collected quotes from players recalling the 2007 Patriots season and published the compilation in 2013. Something repeated throughout was head coach Bill Belichick's intense leadership style that carried their run, with players commented that he coached them "hard" and relentlessly stayed on them all season.

After the Superbowl loss, Donte Stallworth said Belichick apologized, "We were outcoached." Meanwhile, fullback Heath Evans described the coach as "a broken man."

Relying too much on the consistency of one leader can backfire -- everybody needs to step up at the right time.

3. Superfluous Swag

Having swag in your step can be a good thing -- you miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take, after all. But an overdose of confidence can prove detrimental. For the Patriots, a point of weakness happened to lie in their Ugg-donning, supermodel QB, Tom Brady. In the same ESPN piece, cornerback Ellis Hobbs revealed:

"I remember [Brady] talking a lot more than he usually did [during media sessions]. He was going out there talking about what he was going to do before he did it. He wasn't that humble guy. It was like [the Giants] threw him out of his game."

Meanwhile, in an interview with Bill Simmons for Grantland this year, Rick Fox said that the Lakers didn't respect the Pistons. He noted, "We thought we could just show up," and that when the young guns rocked them in Game 3, the Lakers were left "shell-shocked."


So, in order to secure trophies, you need to have humility, stick together as a team and have a strong, healthy leader up front. Otherwise, brace for defeat and a bitter offseason. As an Angeleno, I feel it. The 2014 MLB playoffs was not our time. At least there's always next year.


Alysha Tsuji is a senior Journalism major at Pepperdine University. Her passion lies in sports media, namely when it comes to covering the NBA. Follow her on Twitter: @AlyshaTsuji

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