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What Was the Greatest Rivalry In Sports? Why Does It Still Matter?

Phil Bildner.jpg

Today's guest blog is written by best-selling young adult novelist, school presenter and all around cool guy Phil Bildner. 

Katherine Sokolowski is a public middle school teacher in Monticello, Illinois, a small town in the middle of the state. This winter, Monticello's high school basketball team went on a thrilling run that took them all the way to the state championship tournament. Of course, the entire community - including Katherine and her two basketball-loving sons - rallied around the Sages.

In Peoria, the Boys Basketball Team faced perennial powerhouse, Chicago Orr. A month prior, the Chicago Sun-Times ran a five-part feature on Chicago Orr titled, "A Season Under the Gun." The feature talked about the horrific violence plaguing the city of Chicago and Chicago Orr and how it had impacted the students, the school, and the community.

Katherine shared the articles with her seventh graders and wrote about the experience on her Read, Write, Reflect blog, one of my favorite educator sites. In the post, she talked about how her students responded with an uncharacteristic silence. They simply had no idea, and it even prompted one student to say, "Should we root for Orr? I almost feel like we should now."

But that wasn't Katherine's intent. She wanted to call attention to the hyper-charged world of competitive sports, and how, too often, we adopt an "us versus them" mentality and view our opponent as the enemy, especially when the stakes are high. For many of her students, it was a revelatory experience, one that challenged them to look at sports and competition through a new, wider lens.

The post resonated with me, among other reasons, because it coincided with the release of my non-fiction picture book, Martina & Chrissie: The Greatest Rivalry in the History of Sports. The dual biography tells the story of tennis legends, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert.

A few months ago, I told my friend Teddy about my upcoming book, and he responded with, "Who are they?" His answer caught me off-guard because Teddy is worldly, well-read, and a huge sports fan. But Teddy is only in his late twenties, and after discussing who Martina and Chrissie were, we both acknowledged his surprising blind spot.

The conversation with Teddy, Katherine's post, and the release of my new book, got me thinking about blind spots. We all have them. How many of us knew anything about the Standing Rock Sioux tribe prior to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests? And how many of us had even heard of Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan prior to seeing Hidden Figures? Or had a true understanding of the thirteenth amendment before watching Ava DuVernay's 13th? Or possessed even cursory knowledge of the history of the gay rights movement prior to seeing When We Rise?

Of course, we have Black History Month in February, Women's History Month in March, Pride Month in June, and Native American Heritage Month in November. But too often, we limit our studies of these groups to those set aside four weeks, and more often than not, for whatever reason, we only have time to scratch the surface with our students.  

So doesn't that make us partly responsible for our students' blind spots? Why are we limiting our periods of exploration and study? I'm not advocating for the elimination of these commemorative months, but I do think our studies of these groups must be more naturally incorporated into the curriculum.

This can be achieved -easily achieved -- through the wider use of picture books. Picture books should be used in all classrooms (u r never 2 old 4 picture books). There are now so many rich, varied, and beautiful ones that can be used as the launching pad for discovery.

Last November, PictureBookMonth.com featured a post a day by a different author/illustrator titled, "Why Picture Books Matter?" Each mini-essay, touched on a different theme or reason, and collectively, they formed a practical and useful tapestry.

An Important Review
It would be revisionist history for me to say the reason I wrote my Martina & Chrissie picture book was to address a blind spot, but it's certainly true that I wrote it to provide a lens on history, and at the same time, show the power and importance of equality, respect, and sportsmanship these two women demonstrated time and time again.

On the court, both Martina and Chrissie were the fiercest of competitors. Their devotion and dedication to their craft was unmatched. It's no wonder that on so many Sundays in the 1970s and 1980s, they played in the finals of tournaments, often against one another. Martina and Chrissie pushed the other to higher heights and made the other better. Martina never would have been the champion she was without Chrissie. Chrissie never would have been the champion she was without Martina.

To this day, that's something they both acknowledge.

Off the court, Martina and Chrissie were great friends. That's what many didn't realize. That's what made their rivalry so unique. Yes, every time they faced one another they each wanted to win more than anything, but that didn't mean they hated the other. It was never personal. The opponent was an opponent, not a mortal enemy. From a competitive standpoint and a human standpoint, these two women raised the bar and set the example. Together, they redefined the meaning of the word champion.

More than anything, that's what I want young readers (all readers) to take away from Martina & Chrissie. It's my hope they'll use the book as a launch pad for further exploration so that they can learn more about these two exceptional role models, and in turn, address their blind spots. 

 

Phil Bildner does school visits all around North America and is an amazing and engaging presenter. He left a lasting impression on our students and teachers when I was a principal. Peter DeWitt. 

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