This pass Saturday, I, along with thousands of other U of M students, witnessed the Men’s Basketball team’s shocking loss to the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). While I can honestly say I enjoyed nearly every minute of the game, the end result was truly disappointing and carries major implications for the potential of our team this year—at least I was told.
To start the first half, our players appeared to have a slight edge. We did a really good job passing the ball in the first several possessions, though our ability to produce consistent stops on the defensive end seemed challenging. By the end of the first half, a dominant team seemingly was nowhere to be found.
In the second half, the tone of the audience saw a drastic shift. As NJIT slowly created a lead for themselves, I began to overhear surrounding fans contemplating the possibility of witnessing a major upset. “This can’t be happening,” a fan sitting directly behind said. “We’re way too good to lose to a team like this,” another said, highlight her general sentiment of utter disbelief. One of the team’s star players, junior Caris Levert, led the impressive offensive effort in the second half, but his personal success proved not enough to challenge the nearly perfect-from-the-field shooting opponents. The end score of the tense and clearly competitive contest was 72-70, in favor of the visiting team.
For a fan of any sport, there exists an ever-present consciousness of the feasibility of unfavorable results. No matter how good a sports team is, the reality is that to win, you must lose—though, of course, some teams end up losing far more than others. Coming from Washington, D.C., I am extremely familiar with that reality.
In recent years, the major four professional sports teams (baseball, basketball, football and hockey) that call D.C. their home have experienced abysmal results when faced with achieving “champion status”—to say the least. The Washington Capitals—the hockey team—consistently yield a high playoff ranking, only to be defeated in the first or second round by an unworthy competitor. The team has yet to win the Stanley Cup. The Redskins, considered the most historically successful D.C. franchise, hasn’t won the Superbowl since 1991. In the past two seasons, the team has posted a total of six wins. Similarly, the Wizards haven’t won the NBA championship since 1978 and have also recently struggled in the early rounds of the playoffs. Lastly, the Nationals—the most recent testament to the city’s unsuccessful athletic state—for the past two years have been considered favorites to win the World Series (as projected by ESPN). The team was filled with young talent, considered entirely capable of bringing the World Series back to D.C. for the first time since 1933. This year and last, the Nationals suffered early elimination from playoff contention by subordinate competitors, each of whom boasted fewer wins throughout the regular season. I had the distinct misfortune of observing the final game of the Nationals season a year ago—an event that will forever go down in history as one of the most disappointing loses for a D.C. team in the playoffs.
The game started nothing like it ended. Before the game and throughout the first four innings, fans were loud and filled with excitement for what was to come. The game was the last in a series against the St. Louis Cardinals that would decide who would advance to the next round. The Cardinals held a notorious reputation for being a team that executed on an elite level in the both the regular season and in the playoffs. With an elite pitching from our then ace, Gio Gonzalez, and sold early run production, the Nationals created a six run lead (6-0) by the end of the third inning. That lead was soon to disappear.
By the bottom of the ninth, the Nationals were up slightly (7-5). Davey Johnson, the team manager, called in its final pitcher, Drew Storen, to close out the game. In that one inning alone, the Nationals blew their lead from 7-5 to 7-9. The Cardinals ultimately won the series, but lost the next round to the San Francisco Giants.
On the train ride home, I remember a sense of incredulousness filling the air. Washington sports fans were experiencing a feeling that felt all too familiar: failure in the playoffs. I remember claiming that I no longer considered myself a fan, for the shock was too challenging to come to terms with at the time.
In witnessing both unexpected losses—the Men’s Basketball team this weekend and the Nationals a year ago—I can’t help but ponder why people continue to come back and support their favorite teams. According to Bartlett Giamatti, the former commissioner of Major League Baseball and author of Take Time for Paradise, “sports can be viewed as a popular or debased religion.” I can’t up help but agree with this assertion. Only those who follow sports can truly understand the satisfaction of having your team find success. With both professional and collegiate athletics, a team’s results are often viewed as an extension of a person’s identity. Fans defend their teams as if they are protecting their own children.
Since enrolling at the University of Michigan, I have noticed an increasingly strained relationship I hold with my home city as a result of distance. After watching the Washington Nationals get eliminated from the playoffs this year, I felt like a major link to my city had been destroyed. I knew my fandom wouldn’t be compromised by the loss, but it made me sad to think about how I could no longer brag about the Nationals to those I met. I can only hope that a similar affinity with the Michigan Basketball team develops during my time in Ann Arbor.