This week, Meds 2013 will become the 157th class to graduate from the Queen’s School of Medicine. Despite that long history, their experience in medical school has been distinct in many ways from the 156 classes that have preceded them. In part, that uniqueness has been due to their engagement of novel teaching methods. Beginning with the “Pearls” session during Orientation Week (see photo below), the use of clinical and personal “stories” and reflections has been woven into their learning. With that in mind, I offer another “story” as a parting gift to this special class.
Professional sport is sometimes capable of becoming more than just games played by privileged millionaires. On those increasingly rare occasions it becomes a metaphor, with lessons that can resonate through other aspects of our lives.
In the late 1980s, while training in Boston, I developed a fascination with basketball or, more specifically, the Boston Celtics. The starting five of the Celtics at that time consisted of players who had all enjoyed great careers – Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish, Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson – but, by that time, they were all well past their peak, suffering from a variety of physical ailments common to the older athlete – backs, knees, shoulders. Nonetheless, they remained a highly competitive team, largely because of their incredible savvy, guile and, most importantly, teamwork. They were masters of the game and very familiar and comfortable with each other. They were therefore able to consistently defeat younger, more physically talented teams. They remained the team to beat, and were annually competing for the championship.
The best individual player at that time, by far, was Michael Jordan. Still early in his career, Michael Jordan was like an alien dropped to earth to show the world a new way to play basketball. He did things no one else could do, and did most of them while seemingly suspended in mid air. He transformed basketball into a three dimensional game. He literally, and figuratively, soared. However his team, the Chicago Bulls, had no players who could complement his excellence. Their main strategy was “get the ball to Michael”. In a game where only five players compete at a time and one athlete can play almost the whole game, this approach can be quite effective if you have such a stellar player. Indeed, Jordan dominated the regular season, finishing miles ahead of anyone else in the scoring race, leading his team to the playoffs in 1986, and a much anticipated match with the Celtics. For basketball fans, it was a match for the ages, pitting a great team of very good veteran players against an incredibly talented star in his ascendancy. For basketball mad Boston, it was nirvana.
The teams split the first 6 games, with the Celtics using the standard strategy against Jordan, which was to double or triple team him. Basically, the approach was to assign one of their tallest and most skilled players to cover the 6’6” (not very tall for basketball) Jordan, moving another player or two over as soon as he got the ball, thus boxing him in laterally and vertically. By doing so, a team could hope to hold Jordan to 20 or 25 points, which would be regarded as a highly successful defensive effort. For Game 7 in Boston, the Celtics shocked their fans and all those watching by taking a dramatically unconventional and courageous approach. They decided to play Jordan man-to-man and, for most of the game, Dennis Johnson was assigned the task of covering Jordan.
Dennis Jordan was a very capable guard who had a long and successful career. He had become a key component of the Celtics team and knew his role very well. However, he was only 6’4” and, by 1986, couldn’t jump. Basically, he had no chance of covering Michael Jordan alone.
Throughout the game, the highly knowledgeable Celtics fans watched in shocked disbelief as poor Dennis was left to do the impossible. For a proud athlete with the entire basketball world watching, including his wife and children who were in the crowd, it would have been a humiliating experience. Michael Jordan scored in every possible way, eventually amassing an amazing 63 points – still the record for most points in a professional post-season game. But…the other four Celtics starters, freed from defensive responsibilities, all dominated their opponents and Boston won the game in double overtime – the most exciting and interesting basketball game I’ve ever seen. The team of grizzled and self-sacrificing veterans had triumphed over the transcendent star, at least that night. After the game, as players and fans swarmed the court, it was obvious that Jordan felt defeated and unfulfilled despite his incredible personal triumph. Dennis Johnson, on the other hand, emerged as the battered hero of the game despite his personal drubbing. He became, and has been, my favourite basketball player. I was saddened to learn of his premature death in 2007 from apparent cardiac causes. His Celtics teammates eulogized him as “one of the most underrated players of all time”.
So, what relevance does this story hold for the newly minted doctors of Meds 2013? You are about to engage postgraduate training of various types. You will, believe it or not, become highly proficient in your chosen specialties. You will have days when you feel capable of handling any challenge – of being able to soar like Michael Jordan. On those days, it will serve to recall the lessons of that April 1986 game, that you can lose the game despite personal triumph, and that even Michael Jordan never felt fulfilled as a player until years later when the Bulls assembled teammates capable of complementing Jordan’s talent and finally winning championships. By all means, strive to soar, but remember that most of our triumphs as physicians come when we toil with integrity like Dennis Johnson; without fanfare, with quiet effectiveness, with very few aware of what we’ve done, with the patient’s welfare as our ultimate goal.
Meds 2013 has been a remarkable class. An eclectic and unassuming mix of the quirky and conventional, the pragmatic and idealistic. Gracious and accepting in the midst of massive curricular change, unfailingly supportive of their school, of their world, of each other. You have earned the respect and affection of your faculty who will proudly follow your careers with great interest in coming years. It has been our pleasure.
Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)
Undergraduate Medical Education