On Tuesday night, in part because we were hungry and in part because muted televisions relieve us of the experience of listening to Matt Harpring’s color commentary, Jackson and I went to JCW’s, a Provo burger joint, to watch the Jazz-Nets game. While I will spare those of you who did not watch the game my rendering of its minutiae, I will say that the game was in Brooklyn, and the Jazz won. Yes, it was a road game, and yes, the Jazz won. We were shocked, as I’m sure you were, and frankly, as I’m sure you were not, we were a little disappointed. This is my turmoil.
Though as a fan, I typically spend most of my mental capital on considering my team and its place in the figurative world of basketball, I’ve recently encountered a new internal conflict that occupies at least as much if not more of my mental space reserved for sports. I find myself thinking more about how I am a fan of the Jazz than I do about how the Jazz are as a basketball team. This is not to say that I don’t also think about the Jazz as a basketball team–I only turn inward as a response to the confusion I find on the actual basketball court–but to say that for much of my experience as a fan of the Jazz (and more recently, as someone who writes about them), the Jazz as a real entity are the end of my thought train, rather than a launchpad into new depths of philosophical introspection, which is what they have become.
This is because it’s always the wins that leave me the most emotionally conflicted. Obviously, this doesn’t make any sense, because any consideration of sports fandom begins and ends with one quintessential law of response: wins make you happy and losses make you sad, or angry, or bitter, or withdrawn or any amalgamation of negative feelings. Not for me, not now. Now, wins leave me in a swirling mixture of bewilderment, self-loathing, and disappointment. Now might be the time where I should say something about the innate pessimism of human nature as an explanation for my atypical fan-behavior, but I think that’s too meta even for me. So my simpler explanation is that the losses vindicate me–after all, my frustration with the current Jazz is that I genuinely believe I know which factors on the court cause the losing, and that a failure by the team to rectify those factors will inevitably cause me emotional distress off the court. On the other hand, wins contradict my worldview, because as much as I know the reasons for the Jazz’s losing, when the Jazz win, it’s rarely because I see a correction of that which causes the losses. This makes me uncomfortable. So in other words, I feel that my perspective on the Jazz is justified when the Jazz lose, because they lose for all the reasons I thought they would, and I feel emotionally conflicted when they win, because they win for reasons I can’t quite understand, but that have very little logical connection with the reasons that they lose. That’s my simpler explanation, and simpler though it is, it disingenuously ignores the real explanation, which is that in a way, I kind of want the Jazz to lose.
Without going into the details about the ways I express myself when watching games–which I’m sure would make all of you hate me even more than you do after reading the preceding paragraph, and which would distract from the ideas I’m trying to explore–I will say that I do, occasionally, find myself hoping the Jazz will lose. This, of course, violates the Code of Ethics of Fandom, which I metaphorically signed the moment I told someone I rooted for the Jazz. By rooting against my own team, my very sports morality is called into question, and if in the moment you read that I wanted the Jazz to lose, you felt some sort of ethical revulsion toward me and my hedonistic sports ideologies, you are entirely justified. I deserve whatever righteous indignation you now harbor against me, and if that indignation takes the form of a few vociferously worded hate-comments at the end of this article, I can’t say that I blame you. But this does raise some more interesting questions.
After the Memphis loss–which, terrible though it was, was not quite as terrible as the fact that it brought me, a lifelong Jazz fan, some degree of happiness–Diana Allen and Andy Larsen had a thought-provoking exchange on Twitter, the gist of which was this: if your being a fan in a particular way makes me feel bad, don’t you have some interpersonal obligation to consider that fact before reacting to a win or a loss or a trade, especially in a public forum like Twitter, or a fansite, or the comment section of a blog post? This is an interesting debate and while I have an opinion on it, what actually impacted me was not the debate itself, but the conclusion it forced me to draw about fandom. There are some rules, and there is a prescribed behavior for fans, and though it is relative, debatable, and messy, it does exist, on some level, for every fan. But there’s something else: not only do fans function on an understanding of a governing Fan Code of Ethics, and not only does the understanding of that code differ for every fan, but we seem to accept that though sports are themselves manufactured by our perceptions of them and though sports are only artificially attached to the reality of our lives, our obedience to that Fan Code of Ethics does say something real about our moral character. This is why fans on Twitter feel obligated to point out the faulty responses of other fans. This is why my boss at Salt City published a well-written, persuasive piece on booing. And this is why I feel guilty for rooting against the Jazz.
Now I’m not rooting against my favorite professional sports team just because I’m a sadist, or just because I was searching for a sensationalist angle on the Jazz to break through my writer’s block. I’m rooting against them because, I genuinely believe that losing now is in the team’s best interests. My reasons for this are complicated and any explanation of them would likely turn out long-winded, but basically it boils down to draft picks, young player development, and a necessary reconsideration of the team’s identity from the front office. My reasons for rooting against my favorite team, however, are far less important to this discussion than that I’m doing it at all. After all, I was as appalled as anyone at Golden State’s seemingly shameless indulgence in tanking last season, and I’m just as appalled that it seems to be working out for them this season. They violated my Sports Code of Ethics, and now I expect some sort of retribution. It’s not coming, just like the karmic retribution someone might wish for my anti-Jazz-fandom is also not coming, but it does force me to address the hypocrisy of my own position. Here’s how I do that:
At some point, every fan of a small-market NBA team has to come to terms with the rules of the NBA game: players only come to a team through drafts, trades, and free agency. Salt Lake City will never be a hot destination for free agents and you can only trade for good players if you have good players (I am choosing to ignore, for the sake of my argument, that there are enough incompetent executives with NBA teams that sometimes, you can trade for good players even if all you have to give in return is bad players), which means, new talent can only come through drafts. Drafts are a crap shoot, so in order to be successful in them, small-market teams need to acquire tons of draft picks. Then they need to develop these drafted players, hope for more than a few lucky breaks in roster chemistry, player health, and league competition, and maybe, have a chance at winning a title. That’s the reality. Harsh as that reality is, and it is mercilessly harsh, that’s the situation for small-market NBA teams. Consequently, as a fan, I have a choice: either I forsake my hopes in the extremely slim possibility of my team winning a championship and I focus on enjoying the playoff chase with whatever good players my team might have and then maybe see a few playoff wins, or I say screw it, all I want is a championship, and I end up cheering for my team to trade away or refuse to re-sign its quality veteran players and draft and develop its young players. I believe that unless the Jazz miss the playoffs, the front office will re-sign the team’s veterans and the Jazz will miss out on another draft pick, and unless the front office lets those veterans go and/or gets that draft pick, this team will continue to labor in first-round playoff hell. That’s what I believe, and the beauty of the Fan Code of Ethics is that regardless of the accuracy of my perspective, it says a lot more about me than it does about the Jazz.