Whiplash and the Price of Greatness

While watching Whiplash last weekend, I was struck by the connections between the character Andrew and the greats we all know and love.  The movie – which everyone should run out to see as soon as possible – examines what it means to be great.  The cost, apparently, of being great is staggeringly high.  It is, in fact, everything.

The movie first: earlier this year I tried to figure out what the best movie I saw this year was.  Whiplash blew them all away, handily and then some.  The final twenty minutes are so intense there were long sections where I completely forgot to breathe.  Whiplash is a pretty straightforward movie plot wise: Andrew is a student at a prestigious music school in NYC, he gets noticed by the leader of the Jazz band, named Fletcher (played by JK Simmons, best known to Oz fans as the psychotic Vern Schillinger, a character basically reprised in full minus the Nazi stuff).  It turns out that while Fletcher is a great conductor, he does not necessarily believe in just having a good band, but rather wants to foster greatness through whatever means possible.  This “teaching” includes berating and beating students, forcing them to practice at all hours and challenging them constantly.  The idea circles around to what he feels are the worst words in the English language “good job”, which celebrate mediocrity instead of pushing for more greatness which only comes through loss and brutality.  You can guess where this goes with poor Andrew who wants to be great at any cost and regardless of suffering.  After a particularly grueling round of practice this is evident when Andrew drops his bloody, torn hand into a bucket of ice.  Even then he still cannot get the tempo of the piece right and you see he has to give more, even when there is seemingly nothing more he can do.  To be great, the movie argues, you must be torn down and rebuilt completely.   Watch it and prepare to be blown away: for me this was one of the best movies I have ever seen.

How does this connect to the sports world?  How did Michael Jordan become great; and what did he have to sacrifice?  Many would argue that he too, sacrificed everything in order to become the greatest of all time.  LeBron too may have to do much of the same – and just how is he pushing Tristan Thompson to be more?  The Cavs have turned it on and many of their players are having among their best individual seasons and LeBron’s influence is a major part of that.  Are the Cavs players willing to sacrifice everything to win a championship for the city of Cleveland?

Very few athletes reach the peak of their sport, but all have had to sacrifice in order to even make it to the pros.  No one can accurately judge the cost of greatness except those who achieve it, and only those who are truly great, like Andrew, can judge whether or not it was worth it.