The decline and fall of choking

The Sacramento Kings choked in Game 7, pure and simple. So why didn't print and TV journalists call them on it?

By Eric Boehlert
Published June 5, 2002 7:17PM (EDT)

Thank goodness the Sacramento Kings didn't choke in the closing minutes of their decisive overtime loss to the Los Angeles Lakers during the NBA's Western Conference Finals Sunday night.

Yes, the Kings blew a seven-point second-half lead and watched the Lakers score the last eight points of overtime. And the Kings did miss 14 of their 30 free-throws attempts, a charity stripe performance that would make many junior high squads cringe. Sure, Peja Stojakovic threw up an airball on a wide-open three-point attempt that could have sealed a victory in regulation. Yes, during the last two-plus minutes of overtime the Kings missed five straight shots while Hedo Turkoglu tossed the ball off the shin of teammate Chris Webber during a crucial possession with less than a minute remaining and the Kings down by a bucket.

It's true Doug Christie capped his dreadful night by clanking an uncontested jumper off the backboard -- never even drawing iron -- with 20 seconds left and the outcome still in doubt. And yes, team superstar Webber, one of the highest-paid players in the NBA, missed his fourth and final OT shot with eight seconds left; a make would have pulled his team within one point. (This, after playing 29 second-half/OT minutes and scoring an invisible six points on three-for-10 shooting.)

But none of the Kings choked. Not according to the press accounts.

Calling the game for NBC, the closest NBA commentator Bill Walton came was suggesting the Kings were "panicking" during their unsightly meltdown.

In the next morning's Sacramento Bee, local sports columnists lamented the loss, but danced around the "c" word. "They could have played smarter, with more poise, and with better execution in the end," wrote Ailene Voisin.

"It was there in overtime, the team of shooters suddenly losing the basket, the team of confident scramblers suddenly, quite staggeringly, unable to make the play," agreed fellow Bee columnist Mark Kreidler.

As for Webber, the Los Angeles Times on Monday noted, "The series suggested, as had Webber's career, that while he may do many things making shots at the end of the game isn't one of his strengths." But choke? Never.

Welcome to the wide world of professional sports, where nobody ever chokes anymore.

When exactly did choking become such a loaded slur among sportswriters, a sort of no-going-back accusation? The type of radioactive charge that can only be made weeks or months after the meltdown, not in the painful, immediate aftermath?

The new timidity seems peculiar, especially at a time when big city sportswriters talk more and more trash. Last week the Boston Globe's Dan Shaughnessy set off a local storm when, bemoaning a Boston Red Sox player, he wrote, "Let us consider for a moment the piece of junk that is [Jose] Offerman." (According to the paper's ombudsman, mnay readers felt Shaughnessy went overboard with the insult.)

Or turn on sports talk radio and hear rowdy listeners who aren't afraid to call out chokers. In fact they probably do it too casually, assuming any botched play is a choke. (The Kings' clutch guard Mike Bibby did miss a big jump shot in OT during the Kings' deadly 0-for-five drought, but considering Bibby carried the team for the last 10 minutes of play, that single OT miss cannot be held against him.)

Anybody who's played competitive sports understands that choking -- performing worse than expected in pressure situations -- is a real part of any game. That muscles can tighten, mouths get dry and feet sometimes move slower when the game is on the line. Or are today's professional athletes, whose absurd pay and media adulation have taken them further and further away from mainstream American life, supposed to be immune to such everyday occurrences?

Perhaps, but does anybody really think the Kings, playing "the biggest game in Sacramento's NBA history," as the Sac Bee put it, who've been struggling to surpass conference rival the Lakers for three years running, whose entire 61-win regular season goal was within their grasp Sunday night, did not feel the pressure as they squandered the game away? That the Kings, who have never won a championship in their 17-year NBA history, did not choke?

The general reluctance to address choking likely revolves around access. Professional athletes understand sports commentators aren't always going to be kind, that it's part of their job to criticize failure. Yet those commentators don't want to wander too far out on a limb and risk losing access to the athletes. So it seems a line has been drawn at "choke," and scribes understand not to cross it.

As one network television sports producer told Salon, "The announcers want players to continue giving them interviews, and the former coaches [who announce] want the chance for future employment. So they're as polite as possible."

But like all journalists, sportswriters and broadcasters are supposed to report accurately, not what their hometown readers -- or the athletes -- want to hear. That's not to suggest local papers ought to ridicule the high school QB who stumbles on the three-yard line with seconds to go in the championship game. Perhaps college athletes should be immune to the painful charge of choking as well, even if they clank a couple of free throws to lose a big game. (Duke player of the year Jason Williams showed a real knack for that at season's end; few scribes seemed to notice.)

But why shouldn't professional athletes, many of whom earn five figures a day, be judged realistically and harshly if need be? A choke is a choke.

What else can you call Michelle Kwan's hesitant performance in this year's Olympics? (And yes, Kwan has earned millions without turning "pro.") Trying to capture an elusive gold medal, the favored American ice skater stumbled badly while young, carefree Sarah Hughes skated her way to gold.

While there was lots of media talk about "choking back" tears the next day recounting Kwan's collapse, an electronic search indicates there was virtually no talk of the obvious. Mark Lund, publisher of International Figure Skating magazine, was an exception. "She came out, and she just choked. She was going way too fast into that triple toe-triple toe combination," he told CNN.

And he was right on the mark. After years of practice and anticipation, Kwan succumbed to the pressure of championship competition and choked. So did the Sacramento Kings.

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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