My friend Max is a Washington Wizards fan. Going into the start of the 2012-13 season, I spoke with Max about what he thought the expectations were for his childhood team. He expressed optimism about the additions of Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza (which, in hindsight, yikes), as well as unhinged positivity about John Wall's continued development (he hoped for a jump shot) and the incoming Bradley Beal. I asked him where he thought the Wizards would finish in the East, given the dearth of fair-to-middlin' team prospects that populate the East's 6-11 seeds; he said, and I quote, "I think 6th place and a first round upset is high, but not unreasonable."
Fast forward almost one year.
The Wizards finished at 29-53. John Wall was injured for a decent amount of the season and never developed a jump shot. Nené, Okafor and Ariza underperformed, posting no more than decent starter PER and win share numbers. Brad Beal was close to a bust until the last two months of the season. Arguably the best Wizard was Martell Webster. Things did not strictly go as planned, so to speak. So when I asked my friend Max about a week ago how the season went, he said the following, again quoted, "It was a total success." He cited Washington's exemplary Defensive Efficiency rating (100.6, 8th in the league) despite playing at a reasonably fast pace, as well as getting the promising Otto Porter to help platoon the small forward position with Webster. In all, he felt as if the Wizards season was an unheralded success, with little hesitation in the thought.
I mention this lengthy preamble because I've been watching this video a lot.
Game six has been talked about enough. This website alone did a poll about whether it was time to just give up the ghost. Sports is a heartbreaking world; the Spurs have managed to shirk most of the heartbreak in their near fifty year history. So playing the odds, the Greatest Shooter of All-Time hitting a three point shot from the easiest place to shoot a three point shot would seem like a decent bet. Yet every single nuance of that less than half-minute Miami Heat possession still tortures my insides to the point where I have to go watch episodes of New Girl just to feel happiness again.
Looking back on that heartbreak, one that admittedly is severe but also one that most sports franchises have in their histories somewhere, and then looking at my friend Max, I start to realize what it's like being a beaten sports fan. Not beaten as in defeated; more than I recognize now that the Spurs are like any other franchise. Just because they went into the 2013 Finals having gone 4-0 in previous trips to the Finals doesn't mean that we had any distinct advantage over the Best Player in the Game. Just because we have the Best Coach in the Game doesn't mean he's not immune to the occasional baffling bit of substitution logic. Just because we have the GOATPUFF doesn't mean he's going to make every clutch shot he takes. Every single positive and every single negative about the Spurs in the Finals added up to a 98.6% probability of winning in those last 30 seconds... and they lost.
But what my friend Max's unhinged enthusiasm reinforced was an idea that, I think, a lot of Spurs fans haven't really prescribed to, despite the fact that Pop preaches it to his players. Winning isn't all there is. Cheering for a championship-level basketball team is one of the great gifts of being a sports fan, especially when they succeed. But so often the heartbreaks of losses and close calls with glory outnumber the trophy-lifting moments of utter joy that to place all our hope on them would be folly. To come so close to a championship is undoubtedly one of the higher levels of losing that any NBA team can accomplish. But there is so much more to being a Spurs fan than the four times Tim Duncan has held the Larry O'Brien aloft.
Which is why I'm kind of starting to like the Ray Allen shot. It feels a little vindicating that the Spurs now have a heartbreak to look back on the level of which cannot easily be surpassed. What's more, it was the most thrilling game of any sport that I've ever watched in my entire life. I'm sure fans of Byron Russell don't like watching Jordan's last shot over and over again, but how incredible to at least be a part of that storied sports history. Listening to my friend Max be optimistic about Otto Porter, awful Summer League performance be damned, reminded me of how spoiled I am to be a Spurs fan, and about how watching that Ray Allen video and million times wouldn't change the joy I felt being in the arena for this game, or the excitement I feel thinking about the development of Kawhi Leonard, Cory Joseph or even Aron Baynes. Being a Spurs fan is a rare gift and somehow the tragedy of that shot only added to the treasure chest of moments to hold onto.
A decent enough sports movie once said "If you're not first, you're last." For a while during and after the Spurs' near 2013 title run, and for many years prior, I thought that was a pretty good summation of how I felt about my favorite sports team. But to think that winning the trophy, the massive downtown celebration, the river parade or seeing Tim with the trophy one more time are the only rewards for being a die hard Spurs fan... I'm frankly glad Ray Allen beat that out of me.