Unpredictability, the most beautiful thing about sports, reared its ugly head Thursday night.
At its best (think: USA Hockey, 1980), unpredictability is what helps sports enrich people’s lives. On the other hand, The Lakers coughing up a 24-point lead at home in Game 4 of the NBA Finals against their legendary rivals, is the sort of unpredictability that can temporarily paralyze the psyche of a sports fan. Call it a devastation game.
As it’s happening, the magnitude is lost on you. In the moments after the game ends, the shock of what happened lingers and you stare dumbfounded, waiting for a logical explanation. There is none. The devastation game has no rationale. That’s what drives you crazy as a fan. Nothing you did caused it. Nothing you can do can change it. Nothing anyone says can make sense of it.
All you can think is, ‘What happened?’ and deep down in your devastated heart, eventually, you realize that question is never going to be answered. Your investment has left you numb.
If you’re a diehard fan, you’ve experienced this, too. If not, understand that iehard sports fans are a unique breed: passionate, loyal and devoted. But most of all they’re invested, invested in their team.
It’s an investment of money, for sure. Each year, fans justify paying for marked-up items because it features his favorite team’s logo and colors.
It’s also an investment of time. And not just in terms of games watched. Think of the hours spent watching SportsCenter, surfing the Internet to read about the team and, of course, the time spent explaining to friends why this year is our year.
But most of all, it’s an investment of emotion. And that’s where the devastation game hits the hardest. There is no measuring stick of emotion invested in a season, but suffice it to say if you reach a devastation game, it was too much. Of course, with the onset of each new season, diehard fans again pledge their allegiance to their teams with the dream that said team will bring them joy in the form of a season full of victories and, ultimately, a championship.
And they do this knowing full well the odds are against them. It’s an incredibly unequal partnership. The fan invests money, time and emotion in exchange for what? For the hope that exists in the dawning of a new season, the intangible hope that they can overcome the odds to finish the season basking in the ecstasy that only a championship season can provide.
Ironically, the unpredictability that leads to the devastation game is the same thing that makes the investment worth it in the first place. Fans know going in, they aren’t investing in a championship. They’re investing in a journey. Ideally that journey will culminate in a championship. The fact that it so rarely happens that way makes the experience that much more memorable when it happens. The rare air at the top of the mountain is what every fan desires to breathe.
That’s why every year, before the season starts, fans talk themselves into this year and this team. They want to be on board for the championship journey from the get-go. When that train gets derailed, the true fans separate themselves from the frontrunners. The true fan hangs on for the bumpy ride knowing that a bounce back the next year will be relished having suffered through a tough ride the season before. It’s all about unpredictability.
No one foresaw the Lakers making a run at the 2008 NBA Finals when this season began. Kobe Bryant wanted out. The surrounding cast was young and untested in the playoffs.
Then the young players, most notably Andrew Bynum, Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar overachieved during the season. They acquired Pau Gasol in a trade. They whizzed through three rounds of the playoffs with only three losses and suddenly, unpredictably, the Lakers were Finals favorites against a Celtics team that had the best record in the league all season.
The ride that Lakers fans had signed up for back in October was living up to their highest hopes and greatest dreams. When success comes by surprise like that, fans are floating on a dreamlike cloud of invincibility. You hear “team of destiny” floated around a lot during these types of runs. But nothing awakens fans faster and crushes their hearts more than when that dream dies at the doorstep, unexpectedly.
Case in point: the 2007-08 Los Angeles Lakers in Game 4 of the NBA Finals.
This was the most devastating Lakers loss of my lifetime. Down two games to one, the Lakers had the perfect opportunity to even the series. They led by 21 after one, 18 at halftime and as much as 24 points during the game. Yet they lost. Celtics fans will remember one of the greatest comebacks in NBA history.
But I’m a Lakers fan so this was a colossal collapse, a bitter defeat. With MVP Kobe Bryant, the game’s best closer, on our side, there’s no excuse for allowing this game and that lead to slip away. It’s hard to believe it really happened that way.
What’s worse is that while this series, at 3-1 Celtics, is not technically over. The Lakers even play Game 5 at home. However, the deflated feeling lingering from that loss has Lakers fans mourning this season already and doubting that their team is feeling any differently. This was an all-time devastation game.
The 10 most devastating losses of my life as a sports fan
I’m happy to say my first sports memory was a positive one: the Lakers defeating the Pistons in the 1988 NBA Finals. I was less than 4 years old then, but I swear I remember watching those Finals on my dad’s lap. Unfortunately, I’ve endured a lot of heartbreaking sports losses since. Whereas Bill Simmons has his levels of losing, I’ve been leveled by several demoralizing defeats in my young sports fan life. The worst 10 losses I’d rather not revisit are as follows:
10. Texas Longhorns 38, Michigan Wolverines 37
January 1, 2004
The Rose Bowl
What I remember: Vince Young was exasperating to root against. He was like a video game player that had a code for constant turbo. Michigan simply could not stop him as he ran for 192 yard and 4 touchdowns and threw for 180 yards and another score. When Michigan took a 37-35 lead with 3:04 left, I had a very bad feeling that too much time was left on the clock.
9. New York Yankees 1, Oakland Athletics 0
October 13, 2001
American League Divisional Series , Game 3
What I remember: The A’s had lost in five games to the Yankees the year before. In ’01, they took the first two games in New York and came home to finish the deal. Game 3 featured the now-historic Derek Jeter flip play. If only Jeremy Giambi knew how to slide. The A’s couldn’t manage a run in this game and went on to lose the next two, blowing the series 3-2.
8. San Antonio Spurs 96, Los Angeles Lakers 94
May 13, 2003
Western Conference Semifinals, Game 5
What I remember: Robert Horry missed the shot he always makes – a potential game-winning three-pointer rattled in and out– and the Lakers furious rally from 25 points down fell two points short. Had that shot gone down, the Lakers would’ve headed back to L.A. with a chance to clinch and possibly extend their bid at a fourth straight NBA title.
7. Detroit Pistons 88, Los Angeles Lakers 80
June 13, 2004
NBA Finals, Game 4
What I remember: An incredibly frustrating series was unofficially ended in Game 4 when the Lakers lost despite 36 points and 20 rebounds from Shaquille O’Neal. Kobe Bryant shot (and shot and shot) his way to a porous 8-25 night from the field. No one gave the Pistons a chance coming into this series, which made the Lakers’ offensive struggles (averaging just 81.8 points per game) all the more mind boggling for fans.
6. Lower Merion 48, Cathedral Prep 43
March 23, 1996
1996 PIAA AAAA Basketball State Championship
What I remember: My cousin, Keith Nies, was the senior starting point guard for Prep. The other team had some highly-touted senior named Kobe Bryant. Prep held Kobe in check most of the game and led for a good portion of the game, but foul trouble hurt them.
5. Boston Celtics 97, Los Angeles Lakers 91
June 12, 2008
NBA Finals, Game 4
What I remember: It’s the cause of this column. The series isn’t technically over yet, but it sure feels like it is.
4. North Carolina Tar Heels 77, Michigan Wolverines 71
April 5, 1993
NCAA Championship Game
What I remember: The Fab Five era came to a screeching halt as Chris Webber called a timeout the Wolverines didn’t have. The Tar Heels used the ensuing technical free throws to ice the game. Webber would declare for the NBA, and Michigan basketball hasn’t been the same since.
3. Ohio State Buckeyes 42, Michigan Wolverines 39
November 18, 2006
Regular season finale for the Big Ten Championship
What I remember: Both teams entered this massively hyped game at 11-0, ranked #1 and #2 in the country. The winner would take the Big Ten Championship and earn a spot in the BCS title game. Michigan drove down the field and went up 7-0 on the first possession. And the Buckeyes just bombarded the Wolverines defense, scoring 21 straight points. They racked up more than 500 yards for the game and scored three touchdowns of 39 yards or more, effectively killing Michigan’s national championship run.
2. New England Patriots 16, Oakland Raiders 13
January 19, 2002
AFC Divisional Playoffs
What I remember: It was a fumble. I don’t care about the Tuck Rule. Anyone with eyes and a football sense – Tom Brady, Charles Woodson – knew it was a fumble. Surprisingly, this is the only game on this list where I feel my team was robbed and not simply beaten by the opposition. Years before Spygate, this is when I began hating the Patriots.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 48, Oakland Raiders 21
January 26, 2003
Super Bowl XXXVII
What I remember: It was supposed to be a great day for me. One year after the Snow Job game, the Raiders were in the Super Bowl for the first time in my life. But on the way to the game, my car slid off the road into a snow bank. Things only got worse from there. The Raiders former coach Jon Gruden was patrolling the sidelines for Tampa Bay, and he seemed to know every play the Raiders fan. NFL MVP Rich Gannon threw five interceptions, three of which were returned for touchdowns, and Tampa Bay annihilated the Raiders in one of the most lopsided championship games I’ve ever seen.
Honorable mentions (in chronological order):
- 1990 AFC Championship, Oakland Raiders lose vs. Buffalo Bills
- 1994 PIAA Basketball State Championship, Cathedral Prep loses to Chester
- 1999 PIAA AAAA Football State Championship, Cathedral Prep loses to Central Bucks West, 14-13
- 2000 ALDS Game 5, Oakland Athletics lose vs. New York Yankees
- 2002 ALDS Game 5, Oakland Athletics lose vs. Minnesota Twins
- 2003 Rose Bowl Michigan Wolverines loses vs. USC Trojans
- 2003 ALDS Game 5, Oakland Athletics lose vs. Boston Red Sox
- 2003 Monday Night Football, Oakland Raiders lose vs. Green Bay Packers
- 2005 NCAA Championship Game, UCLA Bruins lose vs. Florida Gators
- 2006 NBA Playoffs, Round 1, Game 6, Los Angeles Lakers vs. Phoenix Suns
- 2006 NBA Playoffs, Round 1, Game 7, Los Angeles Lakers lose vs. Phoenix Suns
- 2007 Regular season opener, Michigan Wolverines lose vs. Appalachian State Mountaineers