One of the most memorable moments during the 2011-12 NBA season came during Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. San Antonio entered the fourth quarter trailing Oklahoma City by nine, when cameras caught Spurs coach Gregg Popovich saying this:
"I want some nasty."
Those last four words made the speech a YouTube sensation and even sparked T-shirts. More importantly, they inspired his team as the Spurs went on an 13-3 run and won the game 101-98. At the heart of that run was Stephen Jackson, the one man who personified "nasty" on that team, holding NBA scoring champ Kevin Durant to six points in the fourth.
I bring that game up because we loved Pop's moment. We knew exactly what he was talking about, and so did his players. They didn't win the series, but what they did do was remind NBA fans that the Spurs' championship play may be "boring" in the eyes of some but it should never be mistaken for soft.
We despise soft.
Which is why I'm not going to throw Notre Dame radio analyst Allen Pinkett completely under the bus for the comments he made earlier this week during a Chicago radio interview. Pinkett was asked about Notre Dame suspending lead rusher Cierre Wood and reserve defensive end Justin Utupo for violating team rules. His response included these remarks:
"I've always felt like, to have a successful team, you gotta have a few bad citizens on the team. …
"I think Notre Dame is growing because maybe they have some guys that are doing something worthy of a suspension, which creates edge on the football team. … You get your butt kicked with a football team full of choirboys. …
"Chemistry is so important on a football team. You have to have a couple of bad guys that sorta teeter on that edge to add to the flavor of the guys that are going to always do right. … You look at the teams that have won in the past. They always have a couple of criminals. …
"I don't want any mass murderers or rapists. I want guys that maybe got caught drinking that are underage, or guys that maybe got arrested because they got in a fight at a bar. That's the type of criminal I'm talking about."
Not surprisingly, Pinkett was removed from Saturday's game and has since issued an apology.
Now maybe years of seeing the underbelly of big money sports has desensitized me a bit, or perhaps I still have a little too much 'hood in my own blood, but I just don't have a problem with what Pinkett said. I don't. I don't because for the most part he's right. Saying "criminal" went too far. But having players rough around the edges is not something teams have historically shied away from; many coaches have embraced such players.
Bill Romanowski, Bob Probert, Roger Clemens, Charles Oakley … these are guys we hated when they were not on our team. They weren't criminals, but they brought a lot of nasty to their teams and their teams won because of it. I would even toss Hope Solo's name in the conversation because she brought a lot of swagger to that gold-medal winning Olympic soccer team. She is confident, she is brash, she's outspoken and she's a winner.
San Antonio pursued Stephen Jackson -- a man with a list of questionable behavior so long, it would take a month to read -- because Pop knew he was nasty. And he also knew how to use that nastiness to make his team better.
I'm sure Pop wouldn't want one of his daughters marrying the guy, but high-stakes sports and everyday life do not inhabit the same social spheres. There are things that are said in a locker room or on a field that would never be accepted in a normal work environment. But that kind of work ain't normal. Which is why pro players who want more money stay home in protest either get more money or get traded, while the rest of us just get fired.
Again, saying a college football team needs criminals went too far, but I stand in agreement with the essence of what Pinkett was trying to say.
Edge without talent gets a team nowhere. A team with too much edge self destructs. A team with no edge rarely wins big. But there is a formula that requires a dash of what Pinkett was talking about that produces champions year after year. We may not like to talk about it, but when it's time to play for a ring, we'd take nasty over soft any day.