Beautiful pain. To understand the power and significance of this phrase, we must appreciate the journey that transpired, from beginning to end. Kyle Guy’s basketball career certainly didn’t begin last March, but one can imagine that it represented a sort of beginning.
For those unfamiliar with the context, Guy’s University of Virginia team entered the 2018 NCAA Tournament as the #1 overall seed out of 68 teams. The #68 seed? The University of Maryland-Baltimore County Retrievers. 135 times, a 1-seed had gone up against a 16-seed. 135 times, a 1-seed had prevailed. But UMBC pulled off an upset of historic proportion -- jumping into the argument for the greatest upset in the history of sport.
Fast forward 386 days. Guy hits 3 free throws with 0.6 seconds left to lift Virginia to an improbable national semifinal victory and then two days later scores 24 points as the Cavaliers win the school’s first ever national title.
It’s a journey that begs a powerful question for anyone pursuing mastery in their field: Would this year’s championship have happened without last year’s epic loss? While I realize this is impossible to answer, I believe there’s value in the thought experiment.
I’ll offer up two lessons from Kyle Guy and Virginia’s journey, hinting that this year’s beauty would not have been possible without last year’s pain:
Losing in such a painful way provided the opportunity for a new quality of motivation and drive. It was clear throughout this season that the Virginia coaches and players couldn’t escape the UMBC game. They chose to deal with it head on and let it drive them. Listen to head coach Tony Bennett: "Again, it's a game. We talked about it, but they had to deal with things, their own stuff inside and the opinion of others, and just come together and tighten in a way; and they went after it in terms of developing their own game and then how they played."
Painful losses can lead to new perspective on adversity and failure. When Virginia fell behind another 16-seed, Gardner-Webb, in their 2019 first round game, it easily could’ve unraveled the Cavaliers -- perhaps for a team that hadn’t been through it before, it would’ve. At halftime of last year’s loss to UMBC, there was yelling and a feeling of panic. This year, down 6 at the half, the locker room was calm and focused. The Cavs pulled together and eventually cruised to a 15-point win.
There are some things in sport (and life) that can only be learned in the context of failure. Who knows what tangible and intangible effects the historic loss had on the Virginia coaches and players? All we can know for sure is that it will forever be a part of their story. But, thanks to their national championship one year later, it will only be a footnote.
There was nothing beautiful about the pain of losing in historic fashion. But the journey that followed, culminating in a redemptive championship, added beauty to what was surely some painful scar tissue.
Beautiful pain, indeed.