Friday, May 16, 2014

In Washington, It's Dark Inside

We’ve seen it before.  You have been a fan of a local sports team for years, following it faithfully through season after season of disappointment.  You have to defend yourself and your team from the insults and the pity that come with following a team so persistently mediocre, if not simply inept.

The season starts like so many others of recent memory.  A loss.  Then another.  And another.  It isn’t even Veterans Day and the season has the feel of slipping away.  Your team wallows among the stragglers in the standings so that by the end of November it is still below .500, and you might be thinking “maybe next year will be our year.”

Then the calendar turns over, and your team wins a game.  The first time it has seen .500 all season and the first time in more than three years.  It starts a long slow climb, struggling to get to and stay above .500.  You get the feeling that if the team can just get past that break-even mark, good things might be in store.

Finally, in late February they pass .500 and stay there.  They finish with a rush in April – a 6-2 run – to clinch a spot in the playoffs.  Few might have expected your team would reach the post season this year.  Their number one overall draft pick might not be seasoned enough yet.  The top five pick they selected two years later might be too young.  But here they are, breathing the bright, clean air of the post season, ready for their first turn around the dance floor.

Your team makes quick work of a higher-seeded opponent in the first round.  But then, reality pays a visit.  You win the first game of the second round, but it seems less what your team did than the opponent did not.  Then you lose.  And lose again.  And again.  You might be thinking, “maybe next year.”  But your boys rise up and smack the other guys.  Now you are thinking, “they can do this.”

The good feeling that has been building for almost three months has been hiding a dark truth, though.  You don’t win at home.  Not nearly enough, anyway.  Having just the 18th best home record in the league in the regular season, you have just one win in four home games in the post season.  The city is talking about little else but what could happen if your team wins.  You head to the arena as certain as the sun rising in the east that your team will do just that. 

And they come out flat.  Trailing after one period, trailing badly after two, your head is resting in your hands, and you are thinking it was not supposed to end like this.  Then they come back, dragged along by the cheering and stomping by you and your fellow fans.  They take a lead.  But there is that dark truth that has been lurking, and it comes out to play.  The other guys go on a run late, leaving your team bewildered and out of gas, with nothing left to make one more push.  Your standing ovation for them as the clock winds down is more for appreciation than it is a rallying point.

The horn sounds, and it’s over.  The players are inconsolable at their bench. You and your fellow fans file out slowly and quietly, unable just yet to process the fact that there are no more games. 

You are a Washington Wizards fan.

You are where we, as Washington Capitals fans, were six years ago on a spring night when the boys we cheered through a long hard climb from the bottom of the standings to the playoffs had their – and our --- hopes crushed in front of us in the most cruel fashion, an overtime goal in Game 7.

You sat in the stands cheering, when you weren’t wondering, "why can’t our boys win at home?"  We’ve seen it, too.  Splitting four home games in that first playoff series six years ago. 

You tried to will your two young stars, perhaps not quite ready for the leading roles they were being asked to play, but full of skill and energy that were only going to make their games better as the games and the years passed.  You have your John Wall and Bradley Beal.  We had our Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.

You rallied around a theme… “dcRising.”  We found our rallying cry in “Rock the Red.”

You are at that point as a fan where you have had a taste of what the playoffs are.   Everything is bigger, brighter, louder.  Especially louder.  But the stakes are bigger, too.  Having that taste that you might not have expected last fall, you can’t wait for the next.  And you are sure it will be more satisfying.

Yes, Wizards fans.  We have been there, too.  As certain as that sun rising in the east that next year, our Capitals would go further, that a championship was in reach.

We are still waiting.  We hope your wait is not as long, that “dc” is still “rising.”  In the meantime, it is not pleasant to contemplate that it is dark inside.  Inside Verizon Center, inside the hearts of Wizards fans this morning.  Except for the spark the boys lit that you should keep with you as you wait until next season.

It was a season for you to remember, just as that 2007-2008 season was for us.  Be proud of them.  They earned it.