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Thursday, February 14, 2008

If A Season Ends And You Aren't Around To See It, Does It Piss You Off?

So an odd thing happened last night. My favorite college basketball team, Syracuse, lost to South Florida, effectively ending its hopes at an NCAA bid. Before I discuss what that means to me, a brief background of my fandom.

It's very intense. I shouldn't really have to mention this because the mere fact that I'm writing a damn sports blog is probably enough proof, but I have a pretty ardent passion for sports. When it comes to my favorite teams, there is no way to just casually watch a game. No matter who they play, when they play or who is playing, I will inevitably yell at the TV, pleading with Arinze Onuaku to box out or Jim Boeheim to switch to man-to-man for once or for someone, anyone, to make a damn foul shot. There are times when I try to detach myself from the outcome, curtailing my expectations and looking at the quality of a particular Syracuse team with as much practicality as possible. "OK, they aren't going to win at Georgetown. They cannot. If they just don't get embarassed I'll be happy." Two hours later, as Jonny Flynn's game-winning heave rattles in-and-out I fall to me knees pull the hood on my sweatshirt over my face and ponder all the fortunes that would've come along with Flynn's shot going in. I go back to all the missed lay-ups, missed foul shots, bail-out fouls and foolish turnovers and now say to myself, "We should've won that game! We outplayed them!" And this happens multiple times per year. It's an emotion ingrained in the hardcore sports fan that is as instinctual as grief or love. It's unavoidable.

That being said, I'm not feeling any different today, with my squad's season essentially over, than I did yesterday. In fact, since I knew the game wasn't on TV and it was against the worst team in the conference, I forgot Syracuse was even playing last night, until I checked ESPN's scoreboard around 8 p.m. and saw the Orange down 15 or so. And when I saw it, I barely reacted. I knew the ramifications of that score holding up and I knew how likely that was, and yet there was nothing. And this concerned me as a fan. If this game had been on TV, I would've locked myself in the bathroom with a box of Girl Scout cookies screaming profanities periodically until it was empty. But when it showed up in text in front of me, I just quietly said, "Fuck" and clicked somewhere else. And today when a friend of mine reminded me what happened I had a similarly understated reaction. It seemed that my intensity wasn't the result of any special connection with my team, but just with wanting to witness a specific outcome and experience the joy/sorrow that accompanies that outcome. My fandom had nothing to do with Syracuse, just with winning. So by this logic, I should be able to turn on any game, convince myself I really care about one of the two teams and experience the same excitement I would with a game featuring my favorite team. Chances are the next time Syracuse is on, even though its season will be ostensibly over, I will still root for it with the same amount of aforementioned ardor.

And I suppose this is why gambling is so popular and I suppose there is some broader thesis on the essence of being a sports fan that would take 10,000 words to delve into and probably wouldn't serve anyone anyway. We are sports fans just because. To explain it in totality wouldn't make that next game any different. But what is kinda interesting about this little quandary, is how it relates to the debate over college basketball's regular season.

The general assumption in collegiate sports is that the college football season matters and the college basketball season does not. The reasoning being that if you lose one game in football, the whole season is over and you can lose several in basketball and still have a shot at a title. By this reasoning, singular college football games are exciting and singular college basketball games, by and large, are not as exciting (rivalries excluded). I'm not going to comment on football, I'm just using it as a counter-argument. I want to focus on the "regular season college basketball games aren't as exciting" argument and say that, after what I experienced with the South Florida loss, that is incorrect.

If the "excitement" part of any witnessed sporting event including your favorite team is based on win and loss -- and that emotional association with the outcome is unavoidable -- then isn't the context of that regular season game irrelevant? For instance, let's say your team, a top 20 team but not a title contender, is playing two games in February. One is against an in-conference team with a similar record and could be vital for conference title purposes, tournament-seeding and all that stuff. The other is against a team outside of the NCAA picture and your team is heavily favored. The former game is not on TV, the second game is. It turns out both games are extremely close and decided in the last minute. You try your best to follow the first one on Gamecast or something, keeping abreast of the score. You watch the second game from start to finish. Your team wins both games. Which experience is more exciting?

It's the TV game, even if it means significantly less in the grand scheme of things (the "grand scheme of things" being something completely undefinable in sports and yet half-heartedly assumed to be "winning"). And that's why I didn't feel that much remorse or grief when Syracuse lost to South Florida. Because it doesn't take anything away from the reason we watch sports in the first place. To be genuinely excited about something that is essentially trivial (and as an "escape" and all that other shit, you get the idea). The playoffs are a different story because the excitement of winning a title is far different than any singular game and generally rates on a separate, far-more-transcendent level of sports enjoyment but for the regular season, every game is exactly the same. If the Orange win Saturday's game against Georgetown on ESPN I will be ecstatic; it will make the rest of my day significantly better. But they still won't be a tournament team and I will know, just like the fans of 340 other Division I basketball teams, this won't be the year I reach that transcendent level of sports excitement. But just because that one moment isn't going to happen, doesn't mean all those other moments become irrelevant. It's an incredibly optimistic way to look at a singular sports season. Just like the robotic drones that play our sport say without fail in every press conference: "Just take it one game at a time."

So thanks Syracuse, for losing to an incredibly shitty South Florida team. I have a new, positive outlook on the season even if you will be achieving absolutely nothing.

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