The Agony of Defeat

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The agony of defeat….

As fans, we all live for the thrill of victory: the shared buzz of happiness with our fellow fans, the over the top social media posts letting everyone know that our team is clearly the best and everyone else’s team is the worst thing ever and  even the excitement that comes from knowing the highlights will be replayed over and over the next day.  Unfortunately, only one team each year gets to experience the aforementioned thrill. For every other fan base, the season ultimately ends in the agony of defeat. Whether it’s when your team craps out in the playoffs or it’s on day one when you realize your team sucks, nearly everyone goes home on the losing end.
When the season starts and you know that your team is a complete dumpster fire, you can still find reasons to watch and things to cheer for. You can pick out young players, reclamation projects and individual games that interest you, or you can ‘hate watch’ and cheer for losses to get a higher draft pick. There’s really no right or wrong way to go about rooting for a bad team, whatever it takes for you to get through it as painlessly as possible is the right choice.
A much more difficult task is dealing with playoff defeat. The NBA Playoffs have a tendency to resemble a death march. The weak teams are picked off early and then it’s just a matter of seeing which teams can make the run to the finish line without succumbing to the pressure.  Like I said previously, only one team will come out as champion, with a couple more being legitimate contenders, but if your team made the playoffs, they’re technically in the running for the title so it’s tough to come to terms with their demise. It could be due to injury, bad luck, injuries or just not being good enough, but eventually, we all go through the 5 stages of sports grief.

1. Denial and Isolation:

“The First stage of grief is to deny the reality of the situation. It is a normal reaction to rationalize overwhelming emotions. It is a defense mechanism that buffers the immediate shock. We block out the words and hide from the facts. This is a temporary response that carries us through the first wave of pain.”
Once your team loses, you don’t want to  recognize the worst part of failure: after a six month investment,  you don’t get to watch them anymore. For me, this happened last weekend when the Bulls lost Game Six at home to the Cavaliers. Going into the series, I fully expected them to lose in six, but after the Kevin Love injury and D-Rose buzzer beater, I was optimistic about their chances. When they blew Games Four and Five, and with it, their best chance at winning the series, I was less optimistic, but still believed that they would get the job done at home and go out fighting and with their heads held high. I could not have been more wrong: Rose took only four second half shots, Matthew Freakin’ Dellavedaova turned into Mark Price and the Bulls showed the most embarrassing lack of effort since a pouting Kobe Bryant refused to shoot in an elimination game for the Lakers in 2006. Mentally, I knew they had lost and the season was over, but I still woke up Sunday and began prepping myself for Game Seven before I finally realized that it really was over- there would be no Game Seven.

2. Anger:

“As the masking effects of denial and isolation begin to wear, reality and its pain re-emerge. We are not ready. The intense emotion is deflected from our vulnerable core, redirected and expressed instead as anger. The anger may be aimed at inanimate objects, complete strangers, friends or family.”

I love my little sister dearly, but she is not without her faults. She’s obnoxious, whiny and occasionally spoiled, but her biggest shortcoming is the rooting interests of her fiance, Zach, who is a Green Bay Packers fan. This year, when the Packers lost in the most excruciating way possible, she texted me and asked what she should do, or if there was anything she could say. My immediate response was to tell her to “shut up and go away”. I didn’t say this because Zach is an angry or abusive person (He’s far from it), but rather because I remembered how I felt when the Blackhawks lost to the L.A. Kings in Game Seven in 2014. I was miserable, pouty and completely on edge. If anyone had said a word to me, I may very well have snapped and said something I shouldn’t have. Instead, I resorted to turning my pillow into a punching bag and went through a prison-style push-up workout until I was closer to being a normal human being again.

3. Bargaining:

“The normal reaction to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability is often a need to regain control, Secretly, we may make a deal with God or our higher power in an attempt to postpone the inevitable. This is a weaker line of defense to protect us from the painful reality.”

It’s amazing how quickly and how often fans will get to this stage.”If only the refs had made this call here, if only the coach had played Player X, it could have made all the difference.” The best thing about a coach, ref or player not making a specific decision is that it gives us the ability to second guess without any chance of provable rebuttal.
Over the years, hundreds of coaches and general managers were because of this stage. Recently, Monty Williams and Scotty Brooks were let go by the Pelicans and Thunder respectively after the teams under-achieved in the eyes of management. In the case of Williams, his players loved him, but for some reason, the fans and ownership felt as though a team with Anthony Davis should do better than the eighth seed in the conference. Scotty Brooks is probably the unluckiest coach in basketball: in the last few seasons his GM traded away James Harden, Serge Ibaka missed a playoff series, Russell Westbrook tore his meniscus and broke his face and Kevin Durant missed most of this season thanks to mismanagement of a foot injury. The fact that the Thunder missed the playoffs by one game is absolutely amazing.
Still, there’s nothing that works better to appease a restless owner or fan base than replacing the coach. While there may be some truth to back up this line of thinking, more often than not, teams just weren’t good enough, and no new coach is going to change that. Sometimes you just need a fall guy.

4. Depression:

“Two types of depression are associated with mourning. The first one is a reaction to practical implications relating to the loss.  The second type of depression is more subtle and, in a sense, perhaps more private. It is our quiet preparation to separate and to bid our loved one farewell. Sometimes all we really need is a hug.”

This is the part of sports mourning that we’re all the most familiar with. After you lose a team, it’s all practical reactions: analyzing the loss and planning for the future. Who is your team going to draft and sign? Who’s going to take a step forward to improve the next season? What the heck are you going to do with all this new-found free time??? As pathetic as it is to admit, sports fill a huge void in many people’s lives.
Once all the thinking, analyzing and planning are done, you end up back where you started. You’re at the point where you still don’t have that part of your life anymore and it bums you out. . When I hit that point, it makes me want to cry. I wallow for a bit, consider giving up watching sports for good and go through some heavy self pitying. Then I realize how stupid it is that I’m depressed over a child’s game that doesn’t actually affect my life, and I can move on to the final stage:

5. Acceptance:

“Reaching this stage of mourning is a gift not afforded to everyone. Loss may be sudden and unexpected or we may never see beyond our anger or denial. It is not necessarily a mark of bravery to resist the inevitable and to deny ourselves the opportunity to make our peace. This phase is marked by withdrawal and calm.”

As someone who’s recently lost a team, I can tell you that the key to recovery is find reasons to keep watching. For me, it’s easy, as I’m pathetically obsessed with following these games, but for normal people it may be a little more difficult. The key to enjoying anything in life; sports, movies, music, books or anything, really, is to make an investment. It’s tempting once your favorites are gone to pull away and cash out of that investment, but there’s so much left to love. The very root of fandom is simple: it’s the raw human emotions and experiences that competition brings out. It’s a city buzzing with excitement over a big game, players doing things that take your breath away and the joy of seeing a group of individuals realize how much more they can achieve when they sacrifice personal desires for a common goal.
As jaded and cynical as we can all be, when we take a step back and simplify things, we can see that our personal rooting interests are not the end all, be all of sports. What really matters is that our investment makes us part of something bigger than ourselves. When you move past your grief, you learn that the thrill of victory isn’t everything- witnessing and sharing in history with our fellow fans is what makes it all worthwhile.

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