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New brand of athlete seems too cool for (fail) school

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A friend of mine recently gave me a copy of an interview that Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets gave a couple months ago, right after the end of the season.

The takeaway line, and the reason my buddy shared, is that Jokic, the Nuggets' best player and a burgeoning superstar in the NBA, said that he "wasn't a star, wasn't at the level of Kawhi or LeBron."

Okay, so, sure - maybe that's the position of one young player at the end of his first full season just trying to be humble or something. Maybe he's still a bit in awe at an NBA that he chewed up and spit out this year. At least, that's what I told myself at first when I read it.

But then, I start seeing all the shade (kids' term) being thrown at the Gatorade commercial starring Michael Jordan, Serena Williams, Peyton Manning, and Matt Ryan, among others, that concludes "let defeat be your fuel." The main idea being that nothing drives a competitor towards ultimate victory quite like defeat.

What is their criticism? I'm not exactly sure, to be honest. I get that all of the athletes in the commercial went on to become champions except for Matt Ryan, but the criticisms are more than just the unfortunate use of him at the very end of the commercial. There is, from some quarters, a general disdain for the message that failure should be embraced, even as a motivator of future success.

And it dawns on me that these two phenomena are part and parcel of the same thing: there is a generational component in the idea that that sort of competitive spirit embodied by "old school" athletes like Jordan and Manning is unhealthy. Think about it: we just watched a NBA finals in which the three top players all project a persona of coolness, almost detachedness. As great as Steph Curry, LeBron James and Kevin Durant are at what they do, none of them project the sort of palpable, visceral hatred of losing that the stars of that commercial always projected.

For instance, compare those three to Michael Jordan. None of them play with that combination of joy and rage that characterized Jordan's game. And, I'm trying not to just be a "things were better back in the day" kind of guy - I really believe that Jordan would have beaten any of these guys in a meaningful game because he always had a completely different mentality.

Maybe it is because of his early failures in life, his well-publicized demotion from his high school team. Maybe it's because he wasn't a nationally known AAU superstar from age 10, like these guys.

Or maybe it's because they kept score at his little league games. Maybe he actually won colored ribbons - or didn't - at field day. Maybe, when his teachers assigned him a project in high school, they didn't give him a step-by-step road map showing him how to complete it. And when he needed information, he had to work a little harder for it than simply pulling his phone out of his pocket.

I don't think it's just a coincidence that all of the athletes in the Gatorade commercial are considered "old school," and Jokic and the sources of most of the disdain online are distinctly "new school." The new school has some wonderful adaptations, and the level of talent in almost every field is astonishing compared to the old school.

But that killer instinct is becoming harder to find, and the combination of the arrogance it takes to call ones' self a "star" and the pure hatred of losing that it takes to earn that title has been bred out of the new school.

Which is fine, I guess. Except when you need someone to count on to make a game-winning shot. Give me an old school star every time for that.

Michael Alcorn is a teacher and writer who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. His novels are available at MichaelJAlcorn.com

Michael Alcorn

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