High school tournaments already are in full swing across the nation.
So cheers to all the teams and their fans for the victories that got them to the next level. But as I was researching my biography on one of Kentucky's most colorful characters, former high school coach Jock Sutherland ("JOCK: A Coach's Story," Wind Publications), I was reminded that the greatest lessons from scholastic basketball -- and any other sport -- often come out of defeat.
I rode with Sutherland to meet many of his former players. During one of those trips, as I was driving north on Paris Pike near Lexington, Ky., he pulled out a faded envelope he had received from Jimmy Edwards on May 12, 1967.
The team was one of the coach's best ever -- a team many thought had a chance to win the state title. Harrison County took a 27-2 record into the 10th region semifinal game against Bourbon County. But the team's star senior guard lost a contact lens before the contest and Harrison County lost by a point when Edwards' tap-in at the final buzzer fell off the rim.
Edwards sat alone on the floor in silence after his miss as the Bourbon County players celebrated their victory. It hurt so much, he remembered.
Sutherland didn't know then that Edwards had a difficult relationship with his father. And Edwards never told his coach how much he appreciated what he had learned from him; never told him how much it meant that Sutherland was there to comfort him when his mother was killed in a car accident during his senior season.
Four years later on a tour in Vietnam, Army Specialist Fourth Class Jim Edwards was elated when he received a letter from his former coach. The emotions he seldom expressed in high school suddenly came pouring out. He wrote back from a foxhole while his squad was out on maneuvers.
"I was really glad to hear from you. ... You told me about where you were at ... I will give you an idea where I am. We are on Operation Manhattan, in the Bali Woods. We are supposed to have Charlie surrounded. It may be just the opposite. We have made light contact, but I expect heavier contact in the hours ahead. I read your letter very carefully. It brought back many memories. ... I am a squad leader now. This is a very dangerous game we are playing. A big responsibility has been laid upon my shoulders. I don't only have to look out for myself, but the members of my squad. ... If something goes wrong with them, I will feel responsible. I've done some foolish and childish things before, but I have grown up a little bit now. I've always had a problem with lack of confidence. I've found out that I had a little more inside than I thought I had. ...
"I really didn't mature very well in school. I hope that I will (be) better than before. I have approximately 120 days left here. I hope that I will make it. I have been very lucky so far. There is so much I want to say but there isn't much time. You have been more than a coach and a friend. I admire you more than any person in the world. You have done so much for me. I don't want to disappoint you. I'm going to come through for you for a change. Well, I guess I had better sign out. Don't worry, I'm not going to shoot like a scared stick."
As we continued our drive, Sutherland folded the letter and placed it back in the envelope.
"Do you see why I've kept this all these years?" he asked.
I didn't have to answer. I hope all of you who will be celebrating over the next few weeks understand that, too.
(Edwards returned home safely from Vietnam in 1967. He is retired and living in Harrison County, Ky. Sutherland, who lives in Nicholasville, Ky., will turn 83 on Monday. Warner is an editor for AOL News. A version of this essay appeared in the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader in March 2010.)