Because basketball is not the only sport in the world, and because the long and lonely months from June (or sometimes *gulp* April) to October can get awful boring otherwise, there are other sports teams that I root for. One of those teams, for no other reason than geographical proximity to my childhood, is the San Diego Chargers. I don't want to waste your time with too much NFL talk, but the Chargers are ... not very good. Even, as often happened in the last 5 or so years, when they were very good, they were still, somehow, not very good. And this Monday, in their first game of a new season, under a new head coach, and with lots of new players, they lost in the most Chargers way possible, building up a huge lead in the first half and then looking woefully incompetent in letting the Houston Texans score the final 24 points of the game, including a game winning field goal as time expired. What was my response to such a gut punch of a game? A smirk, a chuckle and a quiet whisper in my mind:
Never change, Chargers. Never change.
Nobody wants their team to be bad. Nobody wants to root for a loser. The whole point of sports is to compete, and to win, and being on the wrong end of that equation, either as a participant or an interested observer, is not an enjoyable experience, in and of itself. In all likelihood, the 2013-2014 Los Angeles Lakers will be bad. In all likelihood, they will lose more games than is the norm for the league's most successful franchise. Just as it always is in predicting the future, one can't know exactly how bad the Lakers will be. One can't know how important intangible factors such as not bearing the weight of massive expectations, or not being reliant on a superstar who makes it hard to tell whether the injuries to his body or to his ego are more serious, will be. However, one can know that last year's Lakers team was not very good, and this year's team looks to be much worse. Even if all the excuses that could be made for last year's team are valid and accurate, even if that teams' performance wasn't an accurate depiction of its talent, the glaring weaknesses of this year's squad, and its over-reliance on a trio of elderly stars who all have injury histories of troubling severity, make it clear. In all likelihood, the 2013-2014 Lakers will be bad.
And I'm kind of excited about it.
This isn't about taking the long view; its not about tanking. I'm not excited about the Lakers losing games because it might help them achieve future success. In fact, I'm not excited about the Lakers losing games at all. I will still want the Lakers to win every single time they take the court. Unlike previous seasons, however, every time they fail to do so won't be a disappointment. Every time they lose to the Washington Wizards at home, I won't need to worry about what kind of impact such a loss might have on their postseason run. If the Lakers make the playoffs, great. If they don't, it won't be a tragedy. The lack of expectations, after years of "trophy or bust" mentality, is refreshing.
Since 2007, last year not withstanding, the Lakers have landed somewhere between very good and great. Since 2008, last year very much withstanding, the Lakers have been expected to be great, and nothing else has been acceptable. It's been a wonderful run, a run that may well continue through the blip of this season if the team's plans for next year's free agency pan out in any meaningful way. I wouldn't trade any of it for the world, and I understand that I am lucky to root for a franchise that consistently has the bar set so high. But there is a hidden truth about being a Lakers fan, one that has found its way further and further to the forefront over the past few seasons.
It's exhausting. Caring so much about every game, being disappointed every time the team fails to live up to its billing, treating each season that doesn't end with a trophy as a failure, and dealing with all the drama that ensues when a team is held to such an impossibly high standard, all of it is tiresome work. I'm not complaining about it; to complain about having a great team to root for because of how emotional the toll of failure can be is really, really stupid. But I'm also not entirely unhappy about the fact that there won't be quite so much emotion on the line this season. A break from all that "life or death" caring would be nice.
Why? Because getting wrapped up in the individual success or failure of your favorite sports team is one of the easiest ways to lose the forest through the trees. I love basketball. I love playing it. I love watching it. I could watch Steph Curry shoot jumpshots for hours, could watch the same Chris Paul play five times and see five new things he did to influence the events on the court that I missed the first time around. I think LeBron James is the greatest athlete in the history of the world, and Kobe Bryant is the best technician the NBA has ever seen. And yet, every season, I find myself forgetting about all of those things I love about basketball and getting bogged down by every stretch of games in which the Lakers start performing poorly, every stupid drama that arises when a group of guys with huge egos fail to achieve even a short term goal. Some folks might not need a lack of Lakers expectations to do all those things, but I've never been a multi-tasker. I'm looking forward to a season in which I can stop and smell the roses because there really isn't anything else to do.
Losing isn't fun. Losing is failure, and nobody likes to fail, whether as a participant or an observer. However, since the Los Angeles Lakers, and their fans, have experienced so very little losing in their illustrious history, there is a certain novelty to losing (as an expectation, not as a crushing disappointment). I don't want it to last forever. I don't want it to last through next summer. But, for one year, for one season, I am looking forward to entering each game more interested in marveling at tremendous feats of athleticism, more interested in being entertained by the insane displays of skill that make up each play on a basketball court, than I will be in whether or not the Los Angeles Lakers end each contest with more points than their opponents. It will be a refreshing change of pace from the normal, break-neck, do-or-die atmosphere the Lakers live and die in. Not much is expected of the Los Angeles Lakers this season, and I am looking forward to that.
Next season, on the other hand ...