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Defining Success

The legendary Los Angeles sportscaster Jim Healy is best remembered for the heyday of his nightly radio show from the late 1970s to the early '90s. Besides reporting the nuts and bolts of sports, Healy incorporated into the proceedings a conveyor belt of audio clips, taped voices of athletes, entertainers, politicians. Most were brief, used as the punch line to a particular news item; others were lengthy and never intended for public consumption. Ask anyone (sports fan or not) who was listening to L.A. radio in those years, "What's your opinion of Kingman's performance?" and they'll probably smile in recognition:


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But Healy would warn me at this point not to bury the lede. As nostalgic as I am for the rants of Tommy Lasorda, the Healyisms that mean the most to me today are the uncommon insights Jim would insert into the midst of the raucous humor. One such contrary opinion was "Bad teams lose close games." At first, I thought that couldn't be right. A team that loses close games must be good because it stays in contention to the end. After a while, I began to understand that Healy was correct: A bad team may hover within striking distance of victory, but it finds ways to blow it in the clutch.


And there was another frequent Healy insight, criticizing the habit of doctors, public relations specialists and their partners in the press of pronouncing surgery on an athlete "successful" the moment the procedure concluded, a practice that continues to this day:



Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a compound ankle fracture in a game two Sundays ago and underwent surgery the same evening. Were he here, Jim Healy would point out that the success of this operation can only be determined by the level of performance Prescott exhibits when he returns to the gridiron next season. If he plays as well as or better than he did prior to the injury, the procedure will be deservedly called successful. If Prescott never again performs as well as before, the rush to label his surgery a success will have been wildly premature.


Two years ago, Alex Smith, quarterback for the then-Washington Redskins, experienced an injury even more catastrophic than Prescott's, a compound leg fracture resulting in a broken tibia and fibula. Following an initial procedure the day after Smith's injury, this was typical of the headlines:



Ultimately, Smith endured 17 operations in a battle -- successful, in the end -- to save his leg from amputation and his very life. Against all odds, Smith returned to quarterback Washington in a back-up capacity on October 11, the same day that Dak Prescott was hurt. Smith completed nine of 17 passes for 37 yards and was sacked six times, a poor afternoon, especially when compared to his earlier standards.


Jim Healy's perspective on the success of surgery is nuanced and one I've never heard expressed by anyone else in media. And as with his adage about bad teams and close games, it took me some time to grasp its wisdom. A surgeon or PR exec might find it expedient to communicate the message that surgery on an athlete is by definition successful as long as the broken bones are set and the patient wakes up after the operation. In reality, nobody knows whether an athlete who goes under the knife will perform at their pre-injury level when they suit up again.



Alex Smith was lauded and rightly so for simply walking onto the field of play two weeks ago, regardless of his performance. There's also a narrative among some football observers that Smith should be named the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year by acclamation, again without regard to how well or poorly he performs.


Jim Healy might have a contrary opinion about that.

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