“Second place is just the first-place loser.” – Dale Earnhardt
“If you ain’t first, you’re last.” – Ricky Bobby, “Talladega Nights”
There are many things in the world crueler than second place. But forgive sports fans in the Carolinas if they can’t think of a single one right now.
In the past three months, Clemson lost to Alabama in college football’s national championship. Carolina lost to Denver in the Super Bowl. And, on Monday night, UNC lost to Villanova, 77-74, on a horrifyingly gorgeous three-pointer at the buzzer that trumped Marcus Paige’s double-pump prayer from 4.7 seconds earlier. If you are a fan of the Tigers, the Panthers and the Tar Heels, 2016 has become your personal sports nightmare.
There have been so many high-profile second-place finishes in the Carolinas in such a short period that people are getting them mixed up. Geraldo Rivera wrote on Twitter Monday night: “#CarolinaPanthers didn’t lose #NationalChampionship. #Villanova won it.”
Wait ... Panthers? OK. Maybe Ron Rivera can tell us why no one picked up Kris Jenkins after Jenkins in-bounded the ball.
UNC fans stumbled around Tuesday morning looking like extras from “The Walking Dead.” Paige’s shot, which would have been remembered as one of the greatest in Tar Heel history had his team won, instead became the king trumped by an ace.
We are like that in America. With misguided, Lombardi-esque fervor, we make our children feel like winning is everything. That’s why we get quotes like the two that began this column. It’s why comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said that a silver medal in the Olympics just means that “out of all the losers, I’m the No. 1 loser.”
Second place is a knife in the back. And falling to second place on a last-second shot hurts the most of all. In my opinion it’s much better from the “fan health perspective” to lose like the Panthers did – never leading for a single second of the game in a 24-10 loss to Denver – than the way UNC did.
At least in the Super Bowl, Panthers fans had a few glum hours during the game to gradually prepare for the fact Carolina was about to lose. UNC, though, led by five points at halftime and came back from 10 down in the final minutes. Tar Heel fans saw the promised land, reached out to touch it and then tumbled down a manhole.
If you watched the final 10 seconds of Villanova-UNC, you will remember where you were when you saw the back-to-back three-pointers from Paige and Jenkins for the rest of your life. That was permanent-ink stuff. Jenkins may as well have taken a Sharpie and drawn Villanova’s logo on the columns of the Old Well.
The omnipresent “Crying Jordan” face has been dominating social media, of course.
The real Michael Jordan – considered so otherworldly in part because when he got to the final two of anything, he won and won and won – was there in Houston Monday night.
The real MJ handled this the way all Tar Heels should handle it. In the seconds following the loss, he mouthed “good shot” and nodded his head several times in grudging acknowledgment of Jenkins’ game-winner. Jordan then spoke to the UNC players afterward in the locker room. He told them they had made him proud to be a Tar Heel.
Paige was so devastated that he couldn’t even look up at first while Jordan talked in the quiet locker room. But eventually he was able to do so.
Like the Panthers and the Tigers, the Tar Heels will eventually all lift their heads up and understand there is nothing to be ashamed of here. This is just life. You do your best. You win sometimes. You lose sometimes. You move on.
The thing is that if you told a fan before the season began that his favorite team was going to finish second, many would take it. If you think about it dispassionately, second place is really, really good.
If I told you right now, for instance, that the playoff-bound Charlotte Hornets would make it to the NBA Finals in June and then lose when Steph Curry drilled a buzzer-beater for Golden State in Game 7, you probably would be OK with that.
But then it happens and you hate it. As anyone who has ever finished second in anything knows, the first question that pops out of most people’s mouths when you tell them your result is: “OK. Who was first?” It’s the American way.
Tar Heel fans probably have a little more empathy today for Cam Newton during his postgame press conference. They might like to pull a hoodie over their head and hide from the world, too, although they would be better served by handling the loss in as graceful a manner as Paige did in his own postgame comments after his own devastating loss. Newton could learn from Paige. Actually, we all could.
Second place sucks – that’s what Earnhardt was really saying.
When you finish second, you get left at the altar.
You come off the stage, still in your nice clothes.
You know that life goes on. But for awhile, you just don’t know how.