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.
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.
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”).
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 coddled—aside 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.
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.
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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