11/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sustained Focus and Effort: Sports Clichés, the Election and Our Place in the World

Last night, I played professional basketball, in a dream, for the 1992 Chicago Bulls. We won, and in the post-game press conference, I tried to explain why. It was difficult, because up until the point at which my dream suddenly jumped chapters -- which my dreams tend to -- from me running in front of an arena full of slam dunk-hungry fans to sitting in front of a roomful of sound byte-hungry sports reporters, I hadn't actually been playing very well at all. Hard, sure. Well, hardly.

See, in dreams -- as opposed to real life, I like to think -- I'm more or less physically inept, lumbering around whichever fantasy world I find myself with some sort of debilitating muscular disease. If I'm in a fistfight, for imaginary instance, no matter how fierce the opponent, I can't even lift my hands to defend myself, let alone take a swing. I'm a punching bag. And in this basketball fantasy, I was a similar mess, chasing around the inflated orange globe as a dog does a ball too big for it's mouth, seeing it rush from my hands towards the sideline every time I tried to corral it like a soaking bar of soap.

But, somehow, at the post-game press conference, I found myself on the winning end, smiling and fielding questions, wading in a fawning sea of notebooks and dictaphones, all dying to know the secret to my -- our -- success. So, I was honest: "We played hard," I said. "It wasn't always pretty -- on my part, especially -- but we wanted it. And we didn't stop going after it, not for a single second, until there weren't any seconds left to try. And, well, we ended up getting it." Even in my dream, I was aware that this was a gross cliché, at best, and vague absurdity, at worst. And the reporters seemed to feel the same, because they wanted more.

"It's, I don't know -- what does Coach Jackson always call it...? Sustained focus and effort." And that last part, I said out loud. The dream was over, but I'd made it real, in a way, by carrying the conversation into my dark bedroom, where I mulled over those last few words for the next few hours.

Sustained focus and effort: that's what it takes to win. Because you can't control, of course, whether the shots are falling or the ball's bouncing your way. But you can certainly control how hard you're trying to make your desired outcome a reality. And, if sustained focus and effort are pretty good ways to get what we want -- which I hope is taken to be the case (otherwise, life is basically a compromise, if not altogether hopeless) -- then we should also realize that anything but that sustained focus and effort leaves open the door for failure.

Now, taken in a political context, many may question whether the United States has had the sustained focus and effort over the past eight years (and prior -- sure) to, well, win: to be great, to lead the world -- economically, technologically, environmentally, and morally. And if we're honest about it, we can probably say that -- no -- the focus and effort have not been sustained (see: Iraq War, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, Katrina response, collapsing infrastructure, evaporating respect abroad, horizonless contention at home, general environmental negligence, economic meltdown, et al.). We've grown complacent, resting on past victory; we've taken our eye off the ball.

Of course, one could argue that neither focus nor effort have been the problem. The Bush Administration has had the same goal of winning, they might say, and the required effort and focus to make it happen, just a different game plan to get it done. My response would be that, if you're doing steroids, fouling like a hungry gorilla, picking fights with fans, launching shots from half-court, and occasionally dunking on your own hoop, then -- whether or not you are, in fact, trying really hard -- you're not really trying to win.

So, given the previously-mentioned athletic formula for victory, from the make-believe lips of the basketball guru himself, it's fair to be a little bit worried that our shortcomings, both offensive and defensive -- if not entirely forgetting which basket is ours and racking up a bunch of points for the other team -- has put this great nation in a position where we're simply no longer capable of winning.

Many may scoff at such a notion, call it unpatriotic. Others may, rightly so, ask for some perspective as we view this game; we are, after all, much better off than most nations around the globe. But any good coach will tell you that hubris -- not respecting one's opponent -- is the very best way to get beaten. And in that way have all great empires gone down. Because, at the end of the day, respecting your opponent isn't about playing well enough to beat them (and this applies, especially, politically). It's about preparing to be your best. You're not playing against any one team or nation, but for greatness. That's the only way to win.

Obviously, we've seen lapses in focus and effort before: slavery, sedition, the Great Depression, Japanese Internment, Vietnam, Nü Metal. And we've -- to large extents -- overcome those tragedies, making this nation even greater. But we certainly haven't overcome them by forgetting them; we haven't overcome them by acting as if the game is over. Because the devil never rests, and once you think you've arrived, you're lost.

That's what's so troubling about all of Governor Palin's "There ya go again, Joe, pointing backwards" talk. Because if we don't "point backwards" -- if we don't admit lapses in effort and focus -- then we'll have no idea which direction actually is forward. If we don't know our faults, we'll never know how to fix them, and they will beat us.

Now, there are a few ways to view our two-party democracy in relation to this idea of "sustained focus/effort" and our ability to win. On one hand, it can be seen as impossible to sustain anything at all when the government is changing hands every few years, with each party constantly undoing the other's work and eliminating any real possibility of progress. Or, taken from another angle, our democracy puts us in a position to consistently check the effort and focus of our government and change lineups if we're not getting the results we want. There's a bit of truth to both views, of course, but I happen to favor the latter -- if not only because it was the founders' intention, then simply to look on the bright side. Though, there is something troubling, in our United States, about half of the fans rooting for the other team.

In any case, for better of worse, our democracy has given us an opportunity -- an absolutely essential opportunity -- to start again with renewed focus and effort. The past has happened. We must remember it and learn from it; we must look backward in order to find forward. But we need the right kind of leader to do that, someone with the honest perspective to see the error of our ways, yet a deep personal understanding of this country's potential and an unquestionable aptitude to bring its people together towards a brighter future. We can't just put in our backup who's been riding the bench for the past quarter century; because it's become all too apparent that he's learned every bad habit of the past eight years' starter.

Fortunately, America's been given the chance -- in the midst of this financial crisis, two wars, diminished respect abroad, and a seriously fractured fan base at home -- to draft the political cream of the crop, an absolute Air Jordan of government (who, now that I think about it, must be the real reason we won that game in my dream, not sustained focus and whatever the hell the rest of it was; MJ probably scored fifty) -- with the very first pick in this year's draft. So, to end with yet another sports cliché: just do it.

Author's note: I'm not sure Phil Jackson ever said anything about sustained focus and effort other than in my dream -- I certainly can't find any record of it -- but it does seem like something he'd say.