Attempting to Appreciate the Mountaintop

The Miami Heat are my favorite professional basketball team. The Miami Heat also happen to be the best team in the NBA right now; as of this writing, the team has won a franchise-record 16 consecutive games. The Heat employ LeBron James, the best player in the NBA, and they are, of course, the reigning NBA champions.

I mention all of this as a way of trying to remind myself that this will very likely be the apex of my experience as an NBA fan, and it will almost definitely never, ever be this good again.

Life as a sports fan is obviously pretty easy when you remember that you are just cheering for a team of professional athletes you don’t personally know playing a sport you very likely cannot play (or at the very least, you cannot play at anything approaching a decent level) for amounts of money you cannot even fathom and, also, lest we forget this very basic but essential fact, we’re ultimately just talking about adults playing a children’s game.

Not to construct too fine a straw man here, but there are sports fans who act like fandom is some sort of Sisyphean task, with their “levels of losing” and complaints about how horrible it is when your team loses a Super Bowl or a big game.

And I’ve been there! It does suck when your team loses a big game, or even a relatively minor game, because when we attach ourselves to teams and programs and franchises and we decide to root for them and care about them and spend money watching their games and any related apparel, it is never fun when another team winds up with more points at the end.

But speaking as a fan who has watched my teams lose championship games and lose winnable meaningless games and flirt with league records for fewest wins in a season, I long ago realized that this is the heart and soul of sports fandom. We watch in the hopes that our team will win, but we know, deep down, that our team will almost assuredly lose.

I’m not talking on a game-by-game basis here. I’m talking about the inescapable fact that there is a single real championship to be won in each professional or collegiate league in any given season, and there are dozens upon dozens of teams trying to win these titles, and so obviously if you root for one particular group you are taking horrendous odds. I’m a Heat fan. Great! I have one-in-30 odds of having to picked the team that will happen to win the title this year (and those odds aren’t even actually one-in-30, obviously, because there are teams and franchises and programs that will likely never contend).

The thing that some sports fans often seem to forget or put out of their minds — and I’m speaking anecdotally here, based on what people I know say and what people I don’t know write and publish — is that the overwhelming majority of rooting for any given team is an exercise doomed to failure. It’s tilting at windmills (if the windmills in question are multimillionaires who get to wear shorts or pajamas to work). Many fans know this. Many fans revel in this, hugging their “lovable loser” tags as tightly as possible.

In any given year, many teams won’t even realistically contend for a title. A small handful of teams will stand out as contenders, a slightly larger number of teams will win enough games to make the postseason but go nowhere and the rest of the teams will either hover around .500 or descend into abject mediocrity.

Becoming attached to a team/franchise/program, and choosing to root for and care about this team every year, is to accept that you will almost always end the season in disappointment. This is not just an anecdotal feeling; it is a statistical fact. A very small percentage of franchises can make legitimate claims to perennial contention.

And even the teams that do win a lot do it in waves. An Alabama fan may gloat about three national titles in the last four seasons, but they also won a single title between 1979 and 2009 (after the 1992 season). The Yankees won the World Series four times in five years between 1996 and 2000, but in the three decades before that the team won two titles (still more than, say, the Cubs). The NBA is a bizarrely dynastic league — since 1980, just nine teams have won the 33 championships — but aside from the Lakers, even the winning franchises have had to go through periods in the wilderness.

It is this knowledge — the sheer, unavoidable fact that what goes up must come down, and that winning seasons will be followed, eventually, by the misery of disappointment and failure — that sustains fans during the dark times, during the periods when Boston teams win multiple championships.

And so this knowledge has its benefits, as it reminds us that it could get better, but it also has its drawbacks, as it reminds us that it definitely will get worse. A team mired in losing seasons could draft a franchise-changing player and maybe they could eventually contend; a team winning a title or contending for one, entering that far more rarefied category of teams where so many things have to go right it’s almost absurd, will absolutely fall from that grace at some point.

Of course, this knowledge is not something I often remember during the games themselves. When I’m watching the Heat now, I don’t really think about the fact that I am watching the best team with the best player winning a ridiculous run of games while trying to win a second consecutive title. I think about the shots they miss, the times they don’t cover the open man, the extra pass that I can see from my couch and if only they had the foresight to watch the game on TV and have a better view of the floor. (And I think about the officiating, but not too much, because I am of the opinion that referees are only human and prone to screwing up and so if you get good calls — as the Heat likely get, boasting multiple superstars — you will get bad calls at some point, so why get too hopped up over either? What goes up must come down.)

Yet I try to remember this, because I also know that a few seasons from now — when LeBron is a Laker, or when Dwyane Wade is still playing, sure, but he lost his step a while back and now he’s relegated to being a jump shooter coming off the bench so that he doesn’t slow down the first team too much — I probably won’t remember what it was like to watch this.

I’ll remember that it happened, of course, and I’ll remember specific games and particular players and some rather great plays. But this will represent a microcosm, a sliver of my overall time spent watching the Heat, and I will have spent a lot more time watching a Heat team that isn’t this good than I will have spent watching a team that is this good.

Of course, I could be mistaken in my timing. The Heat could go on to win the next five NBA titles and I could look back on this as me being fatalistic and girding myself for the worst. And if that’s the case, that won’t make this any less true; it’s simply a matter of it being several seasons, rather than these two seasons, that represent the zenith of my Heat fandom. (Or, y’know, they could fail to win the title this year and the year after that. Also possible.)

The basic point remains the same: This is what sports fans wait for, the ability to have your team be this kind of team. And I realize that I am incredibly lucky, insofar as someone cheering for a bunch of strangers throwing a ball through a net can be considered lucky. We wait and we watch so that we can hope to have our team be the best team, and while that will obviously, clearly not last, it is happening now. I need to remind myself of this. What goes up will come down, eventually, and when that happens I will again cheer for a lottery team and a middling playoff team and hope against hope that the Heat again become a contending team. It’s the cycle of fandom. The losses make you appreciate the victories, the victories remind you about the losses and it’s ultimately a meaningless, joyous, entertaining, maddening experience as an observer.

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