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Rusty Saber

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by Joe McAdoo

The inspiration for this column came from loyal reader Marilyn Wright. She pointed out to me that the word "focus" has become as much a basketball term as slam-dunk. Coaches and players can't seem to get through more than two or three sentences without using "focus" at least once.

As I understand the word, it's commonly associated with cameras, binoculars and eye examinations. You bring an object into focus. Be it lens or eyes, you adjust in order to see an object more clearly. Focus isn't a word I have ever associated with winning a basketball game.

But if you watch basketball games, listen to commentators, hear coach and player interviews, or read the sports pages, you'll hear focus tossed around as though it's up there with scoring and rebounding as key ingredients for winning.

I can see focus being used in baseball; the batter must clearly see the ball in order to hit it. However, the word is rarely, if ever, used in baseball.

In basketball, I guess focus is used in place of concentration. If a team is focused, it concentrates on winning; if it's unfocused, it doesn't concentrate. So, the sports page headline laments, "The Aardvarks must regain their focus!" (Sounds like they need eye examinations.) Why not just say the Aardvarks need to concentrate?

In reality, it's a 1990s thing. Focus feels better. To say that a team didn't concentrate might imply that they were ogling the cheerleaders instead of paying attention to the game. And certain 1990s athletes may be unduly worried about their paroles being revoked.

Basketball fans might question coaches and players about a lack of concentration. Since focus has no meaning in the context in which it's being used, such questions aren't likely to be asked. People today don't seem to think much about words used out of context, leaving them with no real meaning.

Focus is of the same genre as "play within myself." I ask you, what does that mean? I think, but don't know for sure, that when coaches say players should "play within themselves" it means they shouldn't try to do more than their talents allow them to do.

For instance, players unable to hit the side of the Empire State Building with a basketball shouldn't be taking jump shots 50 feet from the basket. If this is what they mean, why not say so? Taken literally, I naturally assume players who don't "play within themselves," do the opposite, "play outside themselves." Try as I will, I can't conjure up a mental image of such a thing I must be unfocused.

Playing within yourself sounds an awful lot like the pop-psychology phrases "finding myself" and "getting in touch with my inner-self." I guess this means "yourself" has somehow become lost and you go looking for "yourself."

Amazingly, you "find yourself" living in California when you thought all along you lived in Missouri, whereupon you send yourself an e-mail, in hopes of getting a response from your "inner-self" so you can figure out what in the world is going on. Sounds like something you might see on "Oprah."

Immediately after a televised basketball game, there is the obligatory interview with the star player of the winning team. It sounds like this:

Announcer: "You played a remarkable game; tell us about it."

Player: "Ah, well, you know, coach told us that we hadn't been focused in our last few games. I came on the court tonight totally, you know, focused. I told my teammates they had to get focused, and they did. I told them to play within themselves, and they did. I know I played within myself. I was really focused! The crowd got me pumped up. My teammates were unselfish and got the ball to me. I was lucky enough to score 40 points."

Translation: "The coach has been chewing us out because we've been losing. He's afraid he'll be fired. I want to go to the NBA, so I decided I'd best get on the stick and concentrate on the game. My teammates don't have much talent, so it's easy for them to play within themselves. I told them to give the ball to me and get out of my way. They did. I went wild; the crowd loved me. We won. I'll be making $30 million next year in the NBA."

I'm old-fashioned. I keep focused by having regular eye examinations ...

(Joe McAdoo is former chairman of the communication department at Drury College and a Springfield public relations consultant.)

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