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'Losers' Recount the Positives of Not Winning
March 1, 2019  | By David Hinckley

In sports as in life, we love winners. An unusual new Netflix series invites us to rethink how we feel about the losers.

The eight-part Losers becomes available Friday on Netflix, and it quickly becomes clear the title oozes irony.

While it visits seven athletes and one team that did not win, it portrays none of them as losers in the simple pejorative sense of the word.

They lost. That didn’t and doesn’t make them failures, because in several cases they came out the other side stronger. Where that didn’t happen, they didn’t let the loss define the rest of their lives.

In some ways, Losers is a breezier version of films in the ESPN 30 for 30 series, which has included some intense stories about athletes who didn’t win.

Losers has elements of the classic “don’t take it so hard” talk that coaches, teammates, family, and friends give to every athlete who comes up short. The message here is that even if the talk sounds weak, hollow and inadequate, that doesn’t make it untrue.

Losers visits an eclectic range of sports, mostly outside the high-profile quartet of major league baseball, football, basketball, and hockey.

It includes one basketball player, Jack Ryan, who became a deity on the street courts of New York but never was able to parlay his shooting and ball-handling skills into a pro career. That landed him in the tradition of other New York playground greats like Earl Manigault or Joe Hammond, who also never made it to the pros.

Ryan talks about how he didn’t take his skills seriously until it was too late. Also, like many of his fellow playground stars, he had substance abuse and self-discipline issues. But he persisted enough to develop a showtime act he started taking around the country – sort of like magic tricks with basketballs.

Several Losers episodes involve that kind of loss – a long-term ability to reach one’s potential rather than, say, one bad moment like Scott Norwood missing a possible Super Bowl-winning field goal.

The last episode, however, does deal with One Horrible Moment.

That would be Jean Van De Velde’s famous collapse on the 18th and final hole of the 1999 Open golf tournament.

Van De Velde needed only a 6, which for a professional golfer should be no problem, to win that major tournament. Instead, he hit several terrible shots, ended up in a watery ditch and took a 7, which put him into a playoff, which he lost.

He played professionally for another nine years and never came close to winning another major.

He retired in 2008. He talks here about how he now coaches golf and works with charities and rather enjoys his life. He’s still chagrined over his collapse that day, but c’est la vie.

An angrier French athlete was figure skater Surya Bonaly, who almost won several Olympic and world championship medals, but was repeatedly judged just below other skaters. After the 1998 Olympics she turned pro and had a very successful career – free, she suggests, from judges.

Another segment of Losers visits former heavyweight champion Michael Bentt, who was knocked out in his last fight and became much happier as a Hollywood consultant, coach, and writer.

And yes, for all those who feel curling rarely gets the respect it deserves, one episode revisits the legendary Hackner Double that victimized Pat Ryan in the 1985 Canadian championships. Who can forget that? Really.

Losers keeps its episodes fresh by avoiding formulas. It has the common theme of rebounding from loss, but its subjects have made that rebound in very different forms, with different perspectives on the past.

It’s instructive and interesting, even if it won’t make you feel any better next time you lose a tennis match or a blackjack hand.

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