My time at Wake Forest University overlapped with Tim Duncan’s, the now veteran NBA star of the San Antonio Spurs. At the time, Duncan was widely considered to be the best college basketball player in the nation. Expectations were high for Wake Forest to pull off a national championship, especially when Duncan made the unusual move of staying on for his senior year of college. He was, unfortunately, surrounded by an average team and the national championship was not to be (John Feinstein covered the whole collapse in his book, The March to Madness). Any longstanding Wake Forest fan could have predicted the failure having had years of experience watching the team clutch defeat from the jaws of victory. Tim Duncan or not, the Wake Forest fan knew the Demon Deacons were and always will be the underdog. I was one of those fans who, game after game, was drilled in the emotions of underdog-ism: irrational exuberance at glimpses of genius, elaborate excuse making for inexcusable sloppiness, exquisite anguish during the choke of the final minutes, and the hot afterglow of despair or, on the rare occasion of victory, disproportionate glee. In short, the entire range of human emotion in two, twenty-minute halves, which may explain why being the underdog is so addictive.
My collegiate training in the art of the underdog certainly came in handy for the half of my career I spent working in the music industry. Piracy and iTunes made the traditional music business an underdog of an industry, but, as if this wasn’t bad enough, I had to work for the underdog of the underdog, EMI Music. Year after year by any measure EMI has been last amongst the major record companies. The glory days of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are gone, but even Coldplay—EMI’s most recent Tim Duncan—hasn’t saved them.
I suppose that becoming a British citizen was the natural if extreme conclusion to my long-running affair with the cult of the underdog. I was reminded of this yesterday listening to Radio 4 commentators agonize over England’s dismal showing in the fourth test match of The Ashes, the biennial, month-long cricket tournament between England and Australia (imagine March Madness only without the excitement of whittling 64 teams down to 2 and with breaks for tea). I got interested in The Ashes during our first summer in the UK in 2005. England won that year for the first time in 18 years, and for the last week of play every workplace TV was tuned in for the benefit of those who hadn’t called in sick to watch it from home or hover outside The Oval in hope of catching a glimpse. England lost the tournament in the following series and in the majority of series before, but the joy in the underdog victory of 2005 was palpable across all of London.
It’s not just cricket but most aspects of British life that fit the underdog profile. Summer, for example. Or, in all things geo-political, where Britain is dwarfed by America, yet predictably Britain’s interest in Obama could only be reciprocated by her former colony if Princess Diana rose from the grave. Despite all this, Britain churns out literature and films and music and painting that exert a global cultural influence far in excess of the measly population of this oddball island nation. It is our not so little underdog victory in which I am happy to share the disproportionate glee.