The simplest canon of sports fandom is the unwavering support we exhibit for our favorite teams. It’s a constant that remains, regardless of circumstance, the driving force behind why we watch. If our team is playing, we are cheering for a victory. The decision is so far out of our hands that it becomes mechanical. Foul called against us because our center just judo chopped a driving point guard? Blasphemy! Terrible call. We can suspend the rational parts of our brain in exchange for truly embodying the word fanatic. Just ask proud Cal alum Aaron Rodgers about his beloved Wisconsin Badgers.
By those same rules, I’m a Lakers fan. Always have been, since the days of Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones. Through Kobe and Shaq’s scorched Earth success, from the highs of Lamar Odom to the lows of Smush Parker. They’re my squad, for better or worse.
And that is why this year has been so tortuous and awkward for me. Because the Lakers have found themselves in the pitiful reality that exists sometimes in the NBA—they need to suck this year.
The NBA is unique in that you either need to be excellent or terrible. To be somewhere in between is to be caught in the muck of mediocrity, a purgatory that renders you worse than bad; it makes you irrelevant. And irrelevant is the dirtiest word you can utter in Los Angeles. So when your team is as bad as the Lakers are this year, you have to own it. I’m talking full Bad News Bears, humiliating, sub-professional ineptitude. Because if you’re bad enough to get a high draft pick, and said draft pick turns into LeBron James or Kevin Durant, then you will not be bad anymore. Such is life in the only sport where one superstar can turn you into a juggernaut. And the more you win, the worse that draft pick becomes. This is especially true for the Lakers, who only get to keep their pick if it’s among the top five, a wonderful repercussion of that trade for Steve Nash’s cadaver.
So as backwards as it feels, every Lakers loss is a victory. Pragmatically this shouldn’t be hard to self-justify; if the season is lost, who cares what the exact number in the loss column is? All well and good but for the small caveat that sports fandom is the farthest thing from pragmatism. It’s throwing chairs when your team loses and going home with no voice and raw palms from high-fiving everyone in sight when they win, an emotional investment that oscillates between ecstasy and ruination.
A couple of weeks ago I watched a contest that served as the archetype for a perfect Lakers game this year. They were playing the Warriors, by far the best team in the NBA. And our little dogs hung in the fight until the end. It was close, it was entertaining, there was some actual buzz in the arena. And then at the end the Lakers started dribbling balls off their feet and Jeremy Lin threw a couple passes directly to the Warriors and they lost. There were flashes of hope with a satisfying loss as the ultimate payoff. Success!
This is the first time I’m dealing with the emotional weight of tanking and I hate it. It feels like bathing in dirty water. It’s hard to describe the feeling but it’s a glum pursuit. Not quite schadenfreude because the team’s misery is intertwined with your own. You don’t feel good when they lose, because as soon as losing feels good is when you should burn all your jerseys and become a Scientologist. But winning breeds an existential melancholy. You still want to be happy for the players who are actually pouring their hearts and souls into it, but there’s no escaping the uselessness of victory.
So really I just want this season to be over, to move on to the promise of the offseason and the new shiny bauble that will accompany it. But first I need the Lakers to tie a bow on the tank job they’ve put us all through this year and lose the rest of their games. Because if they rip off a meaningless win streak and lose that draft pick, I’m going to punch a hole in my drywall. Fandom, right?