Being a fan is a unique experience.
We watch games for entertainment, for pleasure, for fun.
Of course, there's a lot of other things we do for fun. My personal list includes reading, movies, a few TV shows, Disneyland, kids' soccer games and dance recitals and concerts, jazz and obscure artists' concerts, theater, board games, marching bands (go DCI!), and even poetry readings.
The funny thing is that only sports provide me with such a frustrating, ethereal sense of vulnerability. No other entertainment leaves me feeling so powerless.
It's all about control, of course.
I can control whether I like a TV show or a book or a board game or anything else by choosing the kinds that I like. This even applies for my kids. It's no coincidence that they do ballroom dance, soccer, baseball, and music. These are things I like.
Sports are different.
I don't cheer for the Jazz because they play the kind of ball that I like (though historically they have). I cheer for them because they are the Jazz, my team, the team of my hometown—regardless of whether they are good or not. I've spent about 25 years of emotional investment in this team, this logo, this game. It's been there with Stock running the point, with Deron going ninja, and even with Keith McLeod doin' his THANG.
The Jazz are my team regardless.
If I don't like the writing, the acting, the humor, etc., of a TV show, I just don't bother. But if I don't like the style of play from the Jazz ... well, so what. I still watch. It's my team. And if it gets so bad that I don't watch—I'm angry it's that bad. I'm frustrated. I didn't get pissed and depressed when I decided the show Heroes was hopelessly stupid (after about two episodes). I just went on, making fun of a couple friends that thought it was deep, but for the most part didn't spend any thought on it.
But if the Jazz are bad ... so bad that they're unwatchable. First of all, it has to be so much worse than a show or a book for me to not bother. And once it gets to that level, oh my. I've cancelled newspaper subscriptions. I've cancelled cable. I've spent entire winters and springs depressed. I don't watch any basketball at all (when the Jazz are a fun team, I watch all the playoffs whether the Jazz are still in or not. If they're horrible, then I can't stand to watch anyone).
And in the end, what's so frustrating is that I can't control whether the team I live and die for is one worth cheering for.
I know what I desperately want to happen, but whether it happens or not is totally out of my control.
So what do I want? What do fans have any right in expecting and hoping for?
(I'm resurrecting this from an old post of mine — almost two years ago, but it seems even more true today.)
All fans can reasonably demand is that their franchise works to build a team that matters.
We can’t demand even a single championship. Or even to win any individual game.* Too much luck is involved. But we can demand the team builds a team worth caring about, worth cheering for, and ultimately one that is in the small circle of 5-6 teams that matter during a given season.
*This is why I despise Lakers fans so much. Nobody else—except perhaps Yankee fans—feel like the universe owes them multiple championships.
When your team isn’t one of those top 5-6, then what you want are signs that they are moving that direction. That’s why there was excitement for fans of Oklahoma City in 2008 and hopelessness for fans of the Knicks. OKC won 23 games. NY won 32. But it was obvious that Durrant and Westbrook and company were going in the right direction. For a more recent example, it's why Indiana's exciting and Orlando's kind of depressing. Realistically, they could win the exact same number of games. But Indiana has a future and is getting better. Orlando has few prospects of improvement and a lot of fear for impending disaster.
Here are the prototypes of teams worth cheering for:
1. The 2002-03 Denver Nuggets stage. Record: 17-65. Yes, the team was dreadful, BUT they had just cast off all the solidly mediocre vets that had mired the team in solid mediocrity for the past few years. About 80% of their minutes went to guys 22 and younger (including some obvious keepers like Nene), and there was a draft class coming up that was to die for. This is what a horrible team with a good future looks like.
2. The 2008-09 Oklahoma City Thunder stage. Record: 23-59. Not a great team. Not even a good team yet. But it already has the right parts in place. They’re playing teams much tougher than the record indicates, and their fans get to sit back over the next few years, knowing that their ascension to becoming a team that matters is as guaranteed as you can expect.
3. The 2003-04 Utah Jazz stage. Record: 42-40. Much better team than expected, surprising role-players turn out to be major difference-makers worth keeping (like Raja Bell), the team’s in great shape financially, team leader’s a hoot to watch, and everyone's excited to see what major cogs they can find in the next couple years.
4. The 1999-2000 Dallas Mavericks stage. Record 40-42. They missed the playoffs. But they're young and have guys that are obvious All-Stars in the making. They improved from the previous season. They also made a huge surge the second half of this season, showing they're going to come out roaring next year. Everyone knows they are ready for their first breakthrough, and they're young enough to expect to be good for a very long time.
5. The 2006-07 Utah Jazz stage. Record: 51-31. Made it to Western Conference Finals. The team arrives. It makes surprising noise in the playoffs. It shows it’s a playoff team and will have to be dealt with for a while now. The team is still inconsistent: varying between off-the-charts good and incredible suckle, but it’s still young and needs nothing more than maturity and a minor roster tweak or two.
6. The 2007-08 Utah Jazz stage. Record: 54-28. Loses in second round to the Lakers. The team is on the cusp. The guys have matured, they’re playing together, they’re trusting each other, and they’re hungry. The next year just may be it.
7. 1994-1999 Utah Jazz stage. Average 60 wins/year. They’ve made it. They are one of the top 5 teams. Every talk about potential champions has to include them. Whether they win it all or not now depends on only which way the breaks go. They’re at the pinnacle of what a fan can demand.
8. 2000-2003 Utah Jazz stage. 55-45 wins/year. Fallen from the pinnacle, but we can still send the guys off with a resounding thanks.
The frustration I feel is that I think this Jazz team could match one of the prototypes. It could be anywhere between numbers 1 and 4 — but only if they coaches and front office make the right decisions.
The goal is to reach stage seven. But to get there you have to honestly look at the roster and figure out where you ought to start.
But as long as we are forced to watch a team that doesn't match any of the stages of a worthwhile team, all we will know is frustration.