Somewhere Between Winning and Losing

Bethlehem Shoals wants to rid our sports vocabulary of the ‘lovable loser’ label.

As a kid, I was a picky sports fan. Then I ditched sports for music snobbery. I used to think that coming back to sports was some sort of radical breach, or comforting regression, on my part. Actually, I’d never really strayed that far away to begin with.

Fandom has a primordial form to it: devotion to a team we’re taught to love, playing a sport that we’ve come to understand. From there, all sorts of mutations are possible. There’s the historian, obsessed with the free and open exchange of musty information; the seamhead, he of the arcane stats and alternate realities; and the sentimentalist, driven by the conviction that sport represents the highest form of drama available to modern man. And yet none of these paths trades in taste.

In sports, the most lasting narratives involve the glory of victory and the sorrows, or humiliation, of defeat.

Arbiters of taste, we call critics. In my former field, all critics begin as fans, singing along with the radio and saving their money for cassettes (at least in my generation’s case). That might seem like an oxymoron to anyone who sees criticism as cold and ornery, looking for the next big thing—which they themselves will play a large part in creating. But criticism is itself an outgrowth of love.

In sports, the most lasting narratives involve the glory of victory and the sorrows, or humiliation, of defeat. It’s problematic to compare war and sports, yet you’re far more likely to to hear a discussion of a losing general’s brilliance than an appreciation of a player, or team, branded a loser. In a sense, war is more forgiving than sports—or at least more refined.

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In 2008, Bill Simmons penned a eulogy to the “seven-seconds-or-less” Phoenix Suns, in which he ambivalently introduced the notion of “critical acclaim” in sports. The Suns were so stunningly fresh, even hip, that Neal Pollack wrote an ode to them for Slate in which he praised their “sense of humor” and “irony.” Back on earth, though, Phoenix had a problem of perception: They couldn’t go all the way. No matter how many regular season wins they accrued, for a professional sports franchise, this was an intractable problem. Which was why, that fateful February of 2008, they sent forward Shawn Marion, arguably the linchpin of their unconventional lineup, to Miami for an aging Shaquille O’Neal, to toughen up their interior and surrender to conventional basketball wisdom.

They went on to lose in the first round to the Spurs, and D’Antoni was gone that summer. For Simmons, this bittersweet demise only sealed this team’s fate as “critically acclaimed”:

These Suns teams would be cheerfully remembered some day like we remember Coryell’s Chargers and the Fab Five. In other words, it didn’t really matter that they never won a championship, just like it didn’t matter that Pulp Fiction didn’t win an Oscar, The Wire never won an Emmy, and Arrested Development bombed in the ratings. We would always remember them fondly and feel like they were more successful than they actually were.

“More successful than they actually were.” The Emmy, the box office, Nielsens, SoundScan … all of these are, from this sports-centric perspective, shortcomings.

At the same time, I don’t think any self-respecting human being sifts through entertainment options based on ratings and awards. Given this framework, Simmons might as well be calling these teams lovable losers, which simply couldn’t be less accurate. All of the teams on this list were damn good, falling just shy of that ultimate prize. They just hadn’t been able to make that leap into immortality that comes with a championship (as one friend pointed out, the list is purely teleological; teams like the 1986 Mets and Showtime Lakers belong on this list, but can’t be, because “in his idiotic definition, you can’t be critically acclaimed and win a title”).

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In the normal terms of sports, these teams were flawed, and yet still demanded some kind of superlative.

These teams don’t need to be coddledaside from the fact that they did win plenty, they should be celebrated for what they contributed to their sport. Did they make it more exciting, interesting, intelligent, rousing, or just generally eventful? Are you more likely to watch their games on an ESPN Classic replay? These teams exert their own kind of claim on us, and it’s really only explained by taste.

Actually, taste already does have a place in sports. The fan favorite, usually a bench player of limited skill and boundless energy, is seized upon by fans as their own. This is the most personal facet of rooting for a team—no team is without at least one of these plaintive scrubs—and for the fan, there’s an element of selectivity, celebration, and distraction from the usual win-loss binary. There’s joy in the fan favorite, just as there is the memory of Simmons’ martyrs.

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A sports critic, if such a thing exists, should be doing what they do in every other field: Letting taste and imagination guide him, appreciating the little things, and taking his eyes off the prize—unless you believe in some notion of absolute beauty. When brought into contact (or conflict) with the practice of history, all of a sudden we’re on the stomping grounds of the uncategorizable Greil Marcus, who writes in 1975’s Mystery Train:

Cultural history is never a straight line; along with the artists we care about, we fill in the gaps ourselves. When we do, we reclaim, rework, or invent America, or a piece of it, over and over again. We make choices (or are caught by the choices others have made) about what is worth keeping and what isn’t, trying to create a world where we feel alive, risky, ambitious, and free (or merely safe), dispensing with the rest of the American reality if we can. We make the oldest stories new when we succeed, and we are trapped by the old stories when we fail.

Looking at Simmons’ list, I don’t see teams worth admiring despite themselves. The Fab Five need no justification, even if they did twice fall short of a championship. The Fab Five completely transformed basketball in this country. Some see them as arrogant “chokers,” but just as many see them as pioneers. They were a true youth movement, bubbling up from the college ranks to influence the direction of the pros. Their moniker evokes both the early Beatles, who seemed like they could change the world, and Fab Five Freddy, the great hip-hop proselytizer who eventually ended up hosting Yo! MTV Raps. This was not just a basketball team.

It’s not that the losers deserve to be remembered just like the winners. It’s that the winners can fall out of the picture in the presence of the right loser.

Don Coryell’s San Diego teams profligately racked up passing yards by sending the ball and receivers streaking downfield with decidedly un-NFL-ish abandon, and yet only came as close to a title as losing the AFC Championship Game two times. But these Chargers fulfilled every brightly-colored fantasy of what a long-bomb NFL team could look like, when the NFL had yet to fully embrace this possibility. Like the Fab Five, their shortcomings are a distraction from their true legacy. This is the way I think of these Chargers: Not a beautiful fluke, or a failure, but the crystallization of a new perspective on the game. Innovation and originality are nothing to be ashamed of—and frequently set the stage for what follows.

These teams provide a more subtle rush than, say, the indestructible Jordan-era Bulls who ruled the world. But they do suggest possibilities, underscore oddities, and complicate the sport. To make these teams the lodestars of your sports cosmology—while always prowling for new entrants into this select group—is to be a fan who believes strongly that sports history doesn’t write itself. Which is to say, it’s not about the winners, or proving that the losers deserve to be remembered just like the winners. It’s that the winners can fall out of the picture in the presence of the right loser.

The internet didn’t create music criticism, but transformed it from a career into a demographic. The jury’s still out as to whether the world’s a better place for it. But with sports, there isn’t a need for expansion so much as recognition—that appreciating the game may be just as important as mowing down the losers.

—Photo Raymond Brown/Flickr

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About Bethlehem Shoals

Bethlehem Shoals is the NBA Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. He was a founding member of FreeDarko.com. and is currently raising funds for his new project, The Classical.

Comments

  1. I like your general point. I question why you decided to mention the Simmon’s quote, though. It’s not like his post argued that fans should judge teams and athletes on a simple win/loss binary. Did you just assume that he would argue that based upon the one sentence you quoted that (kind of, sorta) says the Suns weren’t “successful”?

    I tend to agree that championships are overvalued and those who never won one are treated too harshly. Couldn’t you make that point without the Simmons’ quote? Maybe I’m missing (or misunderstanding) something, but I found the references to him forced and distracting.

    It’s also confusing, since the teams, movies, and television shows he references are all really well regarded, despite them not winning. If Simmons comapred the Suns to shitty things, then I could understand how you would have a bone to pick with him. But he clearly isn’t saying that.

  2. His notion of “critically acclaimed” suggests that these teams are relevant only to snobs, not sports history in general. That does set up a binary between those that almost make it, but fail, and those who do.

  3. So he’s saying that only snobs like Pulp Fiction, Arrested Development, and The Wire? Or is that what you are suggesting? Either way, I disagree. Maybe we have different conceptions of what a snob is.

    • “We would always remember them fondly and feel like they were more successful than they actually were.”

      I really could care less about how successful these teams were. And my view of them doesn’t depend on distorting what they did or didn’t accomplish. They mattered. That’s all.

      And Arrested Development and The Wire, relatively speaking are for snobs.

  4. If you really could care less about how successful these teams were, then you’re not really a fan of those teams.

    I loved this year’s Patriots team. They were a throwback to 2001 with a nice mix of rookies, budding superstars and wily veterans. They went 14-2, a successful regular season by any measure. But then they threw up all over the field in the playoffs against the Jets. And because of that, the regular season means nothing. Just like the 2007 undefeated regular season means nothing because they didn’t come home with the Lombardi trophy.

    My view on those teams are absolutely changed because of their lack of accomplishments. As they should be.

  5. Pugnacious Reilly says:

    How is success correlated to fandom, or importance? Just because you sez so?

    Listen, Daddy – you’ve got your own, not terribly original, interpretation of what’s significant in sports, and part of what Shoals offers is an alternative. Some of us are thankful for that.

  6. Shoals, been a big fan.. you were fresh in perspective and proses but the act has gone tired. Sports is the toy section of life and, lately, you’ve been akin to giving a Shakesperean review to Pootie Tang. Reaching is not very becoming of you.

    • Then you’ll be happy to know that this is a revised version of something I wrote (and never used) several years ago.

    • Rich,

      Pootie Tang is f’cking sensational. The subjectivity of fandom is beyond you. It what makes you a loudmouth, and Shoals a critical voice worth reading.

  7. I just think you misinterpreted the Simmon’s quote, and I’d say you’re just taking a due-swipe at him, but I’m not sure if this is post “History for Children,” or whatever you called his amateurish revisions in later editions of the BoB. Anyways, I feel like you kinda misread his quote, and went on to eloquently articulate an argument which basically said the same thing as the quote, only much longer. Tryin’ to beat Simmons at his own game, eh? But then again, this is all the fault of his maddening writing sometimes that tries to take a simple idea, like the one you spelled out, but speak it in the only language Simmon’s knows (or cares to use): Sports/Pop Culture.

    • A quote from later in his piece:

      “When you’re critically acclaimed in sports, that means you failed in the end … and those Suns teams did fail. As much as we hate to admit it.”

  8. why does “critical acclaim” imply those teams accomplishments can only be appreciated by snobs? i think simmons’ point is that their play was worth taking note of for the sort of reasons you suggest, i.e. that they were “thrilling, creative, inventive and loved by all.” his point is just that they fell short of achieving their full potential, which seems to be true. after all, the s.s.o.l. suns were skilled enough to win a championship, and they certainly aimed to, but they didnt. when simmons says the suns failed, he means they failed at a particular goal, one which is generally considered to be a pretty important one by competitive athletics.

    i’m not sure why being a sports critic is exclusive with thinking that championships matter/are a important gauge of the merit of a particular team. if your argument is just that things other than championships should matter in how we think about teams, then im not sure that that is a criticism of simmons, as he starts the article by making just that point. he even goes as far as to say that we might sometimes justifiably think better of non-championship teams then champion winners (his discussion of the spurs v. suns), if better is to be thought of in aesthetic, or “critical” terms. the question is why those aesthetic considerations should cause us to ignore, or assign secondary importance, to winning? why can’t we both be fans of what the suns did, and acknowledge what they didnt do?

    when you talk about the win-focused view as being unnecessarily teleological/de-emphasizing the agency of sports fans, im not sure why that has to be the case. cant we think both winning and critical acclaim are both important aspects of the way we value teams. i think you could still agree with the marcus type point while still thinking of competitive success as an important criteria for evaluating sports teams. it also seems like the analogy to culture or art more generally misses out on the competitive element of sports which is part why we care about them. i guess im not if your point is supposed to be that we shouldnt care about competition, in which case im not sure why what you’ve said justifies that strong a conclusion, or if its just that things other than competition are important too, in which case i’m not sure you’ve really criticized simmons.

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