Nothing to fear but… what?

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In advance of tonight's Game 7 in the NBA Western Conference finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the New York Times recalls a similar Game 7 faced by the Chicago Bulls in 1998:

That spring, the top-seeded Bulls were taken to a seventh game by the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals. Between Games 6 and 7, the Bulls’ coach, Phil Jackson, huddled with his players and told them not to fear failing.

“The fear is not losing,” Jackson told them. “The fear is not producing the effort needed.”

Phil Jackson is notoriously enigmatic (they don't call him the Zen master for nothing), but this pronouncement is particularly tough to unpack.

On first reading, Jackson's statement may appear to contain a peculiar parallel construction:

the fear is not [losing]
the fear is not [producing the effort needed]

Based on context, however, we can assume that the first clause is intended to contrast with the second. Thus:

the fear is not [losing]
the fear is [not producing the effort needed]

This is a case where the written transcript comes up short, as it lacks the speaker's intonation that would help to dispel ambiguity and provide necessary contrast ("The fear is not losing…"). But beyond matters of prosody, we also have to question how accurately the transcript reflects what Jackson said.

Looking back at news reports from May 31, 1998, the day of that fateful Game 7, I found a few different versions of Jackson's comments. The recent New York Times article apparently draws on how the Washington Post presented the quote:

"The fear of something is sometimes worse than the actual thing itself, and to deal with it is important," Jackson said. "I just wanted to point out not to worry about the fear. The fear is not losing, the fear is not producing the effort needed."

But the Associated Press wire story (e.g. here and here) phrased it differently:

"I think the fear of something is sometimes worse than the actual thing itself," Jackson said. "To deal with it is important. I just mentioned don't worry about fear. The fear is not of losing but of not producing or having a good effort … I think they took it as reality."

And the San Jose Mercury News had it yet another way:

"I think the fear of something is sometimes worse than the actual thing itself, and to deal with it is important. I just wanted to mention the fact that, don't worry about the fear of this. The fear is not losing, the fear is of not having a good effort. And if the fear is keeping you from having a good effort, then the fear is inhibiting your chances."

The two other paraphrases make the contrast between the two "fear" clauses a bit more obvious by means of the word "of":

the fear is not of [losing] but
___ of [not producing or having a good effort]

Mercury News:
the fear is not [losing]
the fear is of [not having a good effort]

As we often see in such cases, it's remarkable how divergent reporters' transcripts can be. Without some audio to let us know what Jackson actually said, we're once again left to wonder about the liberties taken by reporters as they jot down quotes in their notebooks. For more, see Mark Liberman's series of posts from 2005:


  1. Yuval said,

    May 31, 2016 @ 12:29 am

    Unless this was precisely the reason these of s were added in the two latter accounts – an editor wishing to avoid ambiguity after verifying the intonation with the reporter.

  2. mollymooly said,

    May 31, 2016 @ 6:21 am

    I would have gone with "The fear is, not producing the effort needed." I'm a big fan of ad-hoc punctuation.

  3. JPL said,

    May 31, 2016 @ 7:00 am

    He is also, it seems, clarifying the idea of 'fear', specifying what is the more troubling intentional object of fear in a sporting context: not of losing, but of not being able to make the required effort.

    Then dealing with that kind of fear in particular. The fear of not having a good effort is more of a problem than not having a good effort, because the latter is only inhibited by the former; if the fear is not there, it will be easier to improve the effort, fearlessly.

  4. Anthony said,

    June 1, 2016 @ 6:40 am

    My clarifying punctuation would be: "The fear is: not producing the effort needed."

  5. Johan P said,

    June 1, 2016 @ 5:20 pm

    The task of a transcribing reporter and a transcribing linguist are vastly different, as I think you're quite aware. A reporter tries to turn flighty, hesitant speech full of run-on sentences and ambiguities into coherent, easy-to-comprehend text that's gramatically appropriate for writing.

    All reporters will change the order of speech and clarify structure with small words like this, with most also changing wording more substantially on occasion to try to capture the essence of what is said.

  6. Jimbino said,

    June 8, 2016 @ 10:57 pm

    this pronouncement is particularly tough to unpack

    Who started the "unpack" mania? I've seen it twice on this one page of posts.

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