It has become one of sports' great philosophical questions, a query that demands Socratic debate: What if everybody believed that nobody believed in them?
Confusing? Of course it is. And ridiculous. Confusing and ridiculous. Yet it was Socrates who said, "The only true motivation is knowing you've been dissed."
Or something like that.
So now, as we move toward the Final Four, we are nearing the Mt. Rushmore of teams that have been slighted in one way or another.
Just watch. More than one player or coach will mention in the next week how "nobody believed" in their team.
Just watch. Somebody will talk about how they were motivated by perceived slights from the media or the fans or their opponents.
The "nobody believed in us" mantra ranks with Gatorade baths and champagne in the locker room as the most trite clichés in sports. Yet there is nothing new about this.
Thurman Thomas once used Super Bowl week to complain that he didn't get any respect, conveniently ignoring the fact that he had just been named the NFL's MVP. And Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson used the platform provided by the Final Four to complain that his team was derided by the media, even though it had been ranked No. 1 much of the season.
Why, Michael Jordan made a career out of such junior-college psychology, using taunts real or imagined to fuel his obscene competitiveness.
Prior to the 1992 NBA Finals, one of the media's preferred story lines was how the Blazers' Clyde Drexler was more effective from 3-point range than Jordan was. So Jordan spent the first half of Game 1 making six 3-pointers, scoring 35 points, and delivering a now-famous shrug.
And if you want to go back many, many decades, you will find tales about how Ty Cobb was driven by an obsession for proving his critics wrong. Well, he was driven by that and the fact that he was a sociopath.
Yet while we tend to subscribe the "nobody believed in us" phenomenon to sports, it truly permeates all facets of human existence. During research for this column, I ran across this comical quote from somebody named Siobhan Fahey: "Bananarama were written off from day one. Nobody believed in us but us. We kept having hits despite the record company, despite the press."
So there. Bananarama, a forgettable 1980s singing group, were driven by their naysayers. I guess they showed us.
Which points out the problem of the whole "nobody believed in us" mantra. Because sports have a distinct winner and a distinct loser at the end of the day, it becomes natural for the winners to define the narrative — after the fact. Winners write the history, after all.
But the truth is that just as many teams who don't win are driven by the perception that they have been slighted. It's just that they realize how ridiculous it would sound to say, "nobody believed in us" following a loss. Because, you know, they just proved that everybody was right.
All of which will come into play in next week's Final Four. No more than one No. 1 seed will advance to college basketball's ultimate showcase, which means that at least three squads will be there despite the fact that "nobody" believed in them.
And that should provide the media with a mission. When some player begins a banal monologue about his team's motivation, some reporter should ask, "Do you mean you wouldn't have tried as hard if people expected you to win?"
That's the kind of question that would make Socrates proud.