Death and basketball: Life in the face of defeat

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As the Cal men’s basketball season winds down this month, I’m transitioning from one obsession to the next with the impending return of “Game of Thrones” on April 14. That’s only 41 days, 984 hours or 59,040 minutes, from today, but who’s really counting, anyway?

Invariably, I have begun to draw comparisons between the show and Cal men’s hoops with the increasing convergence of these two dominant forces in my life, and there’s one moment in particular that I came across during a rewatch of past episodes that inspired this column.

It takes place during season 7 episode 6, titled “Beyond The Wall,” when Jon Snow and his companion Beric Dondarrion have a conversation about death.

Jon asks Beric, “So what are you fighting for?”

“Life,” Beric explains. “Death is the enemy. The first enemy and the last.”

“But we all die,” Jon says.

“The enemy always wins, and we still need to fight him.” Beric answers. “That’s all I know.”

Indeed, death always wins eventually.

Now, if you think a column about Cal basketball shouldn’t discuss death, let’s just say that covering a team that was in the midst of a 16-game losing streak begins to trigger that sort of introspection.

Seasons end. People die. Players and coaches come and go, while programs rise and fall with the same arcs as individuals, nations or institutions

Death is an inevitability.

Whether it’s winning a championship or conquering an empire, making tons of money or receiving a Division I basketball scholarship, honorifics are only temporary victories in the face of ultimate defeat — but that doesn’t mean there’s no real value in them just because they don’t last forever.

Some people might say there’s no point in fighting a battle you cannot possibly win, but really, the fight is everything because it’s all any of us has.

Cal men’s basketball (7-22, 2-15) has been staring death in the face all season, as the team has suffered through the worst two-year stretch in program history and the single worst season under head coach Wyking Jones.

Heading into their matchups with the University of Washington (22-6, 13-2) this past Thursday and Washington State (11-18, 4-12) on Saturday, the Bears were down to their last three chances to avoid going winless in conference play.

The team had every excuse to roll over and not even bother putting forth significant effort in these past two games or during a season that had gone so wrong so early, but the Bears, despite their losses, never completely surrendered.

There’s plenty to be said for Cal being outcoached and overmatched talentwise in its losses, but for the vast majority of the season, the team has displayed a surprising amount of resilience and cohesion.

Given that, it’s not entirely surprising that the Bears were finally able to snatch two victories in their final homestand of the year.

Now, does that completely wipe away the horror of Cal’s ineptitude this season? Of course not. There are still major structural issues with this program that will likely take years to overcome and a coaching situation still very much in flux.

But the Bears’ victories this past week and the irrational but irreverent joy it brought Cal fans reminded us why we fight in the first place.

Not only for victory (or California) but for life.

As another character from “Game of Thrones,” Tyrion Lannister, noted, “Death is so final, whereas life is full of possibilities.”

The Bears face Stanford this Thursday and then will begin the conference tournament March 13.

As long as the Bears stay alive, possibility awaits.

Rory O’Toole covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].