Rocky and the Jayhawks
A Question for Us Bums
In the first Rocky movie, the best one, Rocky trains his pea-pickin’ heart out as he prepares to fight big-time boxing champ Apollo Creed. He runs, punches, and generally tortures his body until it’s a fine-tuned specimen that can fly up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. He’s as ready for his big moment as he can get. But on the eve of the fight, when Rocky visits the empty arena where he will square off against Creed, the stark truth hits. Even with all his training success, he can’t beat the champ. He goes home and confesses this to his girlfriend Adrian, and she asks a simple question.: “What are we going to do?” Not, what are you going to do. It’s the question of the movie, and Adrian isn’t only asking Rocky.
The Rocky movies loaded up the box office coffers so well that six renditions were produced. Lots of reasons behind that, I’m sure, but here’s my take: Rocky is a goodhearted, well-meaning bum, who doesn’t want to be a bum. And the vast majority of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, are goodhearted, well-meaning bums, who don’t want to be bums. We’re all Rocky, each one of us taking our various assorted stabs at breaking out of bumhood. And most of us, through no fault of our own, never really make it. We live our days in relative obscurity. We do our best to take care of ourselves and our families. We get by. The path out of bumhood, for most of us, is too steep. So here’s the question, straight from Adrian’s mouth: What are we going to do? When facing insurmountable odds, just how will we respond? Rocky’s answer resonates, and I think it’s why we love the movie. His answer? Instead of giving up, he sets a new goal, one that might be reachable. Here’s what he tells Adrian: “I was thinkin’, it really don’t matter if I lose this fight. It really don’t matter if this guy opens my head, either. ‘Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.”
I thought about all this the other night as I watched my beloved Kansas Jayhawks, vastly overmatched by the soon-to-be-pro basketballers from Kentucky, fight their way through the 2012 NCAA Championship Game. My team lost, as almost everyone, including me, thought would happen. As the game wound down, with a little over five minutes to play, Kansas trailed by fifteen points. Game over, right? Might as well give up, right? Not these Jayhawks, who “went the distance.” Their new goal was to play their darnedest until the final buzzer. To make Kentucky, in the Kansas players’ own words, “uncomfortable.” And in this they succeeded. They clawed their way back to within five points and had a couple of chances to narrow the gap further. If the ball had bounced their way a few more times, this week the sports world might be buzzing over the most improbable comeback in NCAA basketball history. In my lifetime I’ve cheered two different Kansas teams as they hoisted the NCAA basketball championship trophy. Great stuff, but this year’s group ranks ahead of those in the heart of this Jayhawk.
So as I see it, Adrian’s question is directed at every one of us bums. What are we going to do? Well, the next time this bum is presented with some impossible challenge, I hope I remember Rocky and the Jayhawks.