The great flood, the Black Death and the World Wars all earned widespread notice, but none galvanized global attention the way the Washington Wizards' Feb. 7 defeat of the Sacramento Kings did. "We just shocked the world tonight," said Wizards forward Kwame Brown, and the earth quickly endured a string of astonishing aftershocks, one following another, a catechism of cataclysm.
San Diego State won the Mountain West basketball tournament, and Aztecs forward Randy Holcomb said, "We shocked the world." Holy Cross led Kansas in the second half of their NCAA tournament game, and Crusaders guard Ryan Serravalle said, "We shocked the world." Indiana upset Duke last Thursday night, and Hoosiers coach Mike Davis said, "We shocked the world."
Ever since New England won the Super Bowl in February—"We shocked the world," said Patriots Adam Vinatieri, Otis Smith and Lawyer Milloy—the planet has served as God's speed bag, and we are constantly concussed by His thunderous right hand.
The human spirit is remarkably resilient, yet how much trauma can seven continents withstand? After all, each of these "shock" waves comes when the world really is reeling from an act that jarred all six billion of its citizens. I speak of the Day When Everything Changed and Jon Gruden was named coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "The Bucs shocked the world," reported The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, and when we recall the indelible images from abroad that evening—the pro-Gruden candlelight vigils in front of Berlin's Reichstag, the anti-Gruden protests staged at Antarctic substations, the fierce debate on the floor of the Malawian parliament—we are thunderstruck all over again by 2/18.
Athletes, and those who cover them, have always had a keen sense of proportion. The only thing more highly developed than Bobby Pesavento's passing eye is his sense of history. So when the Colorado quarterback said, "We shocked the world," after his team's defeat of Nebraska last November, the world indeed could not recall an event, recent or distant, that had so strained its credulity. With the singular exception of that unforgettable autumn day a few weeks earlier, when—without warning—Auburn beat Florida. Said Tigers linebacker Phillip Pate after that game, "We shocked the world."
Time was when only the most hubristic man could hope to impress the whole human race. "Come the three corners of the world in arms, and we shall shock them," the Bastard boasted in Shakespeare's King John. When Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston in 1964, the new heavyweight champion shouted from the ring, "I shook up the world! I shook up the world!" But even he was half winking, and most observers considered Clay—as Jackie Gleason called him in the next day's New York Post—a "Blabber Mouth."
Four decades later we're all blabbermouths, adrift on a sea of hyperbole, shouting to be heard. When every event is said to make our jaws hit the floor with the sound of a fallen anvil, what will we call a truly surprising moment in sports the next time one comes along? The Philadelphia Phillies "shocked the world for a third of a season last year," insists the Philadelphia Daily News. Olympic-speed skater Derek Parra "shocked the world with a silver medal," says the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. Australian boxer Anthony Mundine "shocked the world with his offensive mouth," reports the Sydney Daily Telegraph. He did? But I've never heard of him.
It doesn't matter. We are hype junkies, unwittingly hooked but nonetheless bingeing on b.s., and even the strongest superlatives no longer give a buzz. And so events of mild surprise to a few hundred people are packaged as Pearl Harbor. After Millersville (Pa.) University defeated Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Division II football last season, a Marauders linebacker said, "We shocked the world." When Monte Vista High upset rival Helix High in San Diego, a Monarchs running back said, "We shocked the world."
Last fall, around the time of those games, with much of the world in metaphorical shock of another magnitude, this magazine implored, "Let's hope, now that sports are in perspective, we keep them there."
Is it too early to ask how we're doing?