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Hanging In There

I received a heartfelt, quite-well-written e-mail today from a person I'll keep nameless for sake of privacy.  It was about five paragraphs long, every word worth reading.  The gist was this:  How does a person get over it when hopes have been dashed as seems to have happened with the Greg Oden and Brandon Roy situations?  Part of it was hanging on as a Blazers fan, but part of it was an honest attempt to deal with that feeling "when your heart drops through your gut but it doesn't stop dropping because your gut is just this big, empty feeling, so you don't feel like you have a heart anymore".  I don't know this person's age.  Maybe he's young and this was his first brush with a deeply-invested disappointment.  Maybe he's older and every other loss he's felt is wearing the clothes of this one.  I'm not sure it's important which, because I can assure you that plenty of other people--to a greater or lesser degree--are feeling the same way right now.  For this kind letter-writer and for anybody else who might be feeling something similar, you're not alone.

I'm sure the knee-jerk reaction of some is, "It's just basketball, dude."  But sometimes basketball is more than basketball.  I've told the story a couple times about the Drexler-era Blazers carrying me through a really rough patch in my life.  I was clinically depressed, stuck in the dark.  If it weren't for those teams and those deep runs, looking forward to a game every second or third day, I don't know what mileposts I would have had to mark my life's progress.  Without them I might well have stalled and stalling in depression can have drastic consequences.  I'm not saying the author or anyone else is experiencing this.  I'm saying I'm a living example of a very deep scenario where something seemingly optional like the Blazers can mean everything because it's the only thing you have that lifts you out of an otherwise mundane--or worse--life.  We need heroes and hope, a thrilling and sometimes-alternate reality.  We need something to root for and feel good about.  The Blazers aren't the optimal solution to that need but sometimes they have to do.  Basketball isn't always just basketball.  

But you know, friends, there's more to basketball than just winning.  Winning is certainly the goal.  Without that mark to shoot for there's no game and little thrill.  But a journey is not defined just by its ending.  If you love the Blazers you don't have to stop watching or believing in them just because damage to Oden and Roy may rob this incarnation of them of an expected chance to win a title.  First off, we don't know for sure what will happen.  That's part of the excitement.  Both players may come back full-force.  It's unlikely, but you never say never.  Alternately the Blazers may make moves that renew their rocketing momentum.  Keep in mind that the team's ascent happened in a relatively short period between 2006 and now.  Three years from now we may be looking at a small core of current members surrounded by fresh excitement every bit as powerful as that felt in this generation.  If there's one thing I've learned in a lifetime of watching it's that you look forward to the Drexlers even as you mourn the Waltons.  The new day will come even if this day is over...which it may not be!

The trick is, what do you do in the meantime?  You fall in love with the game.  You root for players.  You marvel at what Wesley Matthews brings to the table that's different than Roy.  You hope Armon Johnson becomes a force at both ends and you celebrate the small steps he makes along the way.  You put up posters of Nicolas Batum and write in for an autograph from Dante Cunningham and you celebrate their victories even if the team's ultimate victory isn't coming today.  You also learn more about defense, applaud the value of a hard-fought offensive rebound, start to appreciate a well-set pick.  Through all this you find that, though you always want the win, the win isn't as good when isolated.  In fact if you only feel your heart beating when the scoreboard says you can it's almost a crass, detached experience.  You learn to find the wins inside the losses and go extra crazy-happy when you get to see wins within wins.

You don't let go of the dream of a trophy, that's for sure.  You just lengthen your timeline a little.  If it's not this incarnation, it'll be the next or the one after.  You just have to hold on as a fan and as a person, right?   I can tell you right now that one of my goals in life is to live long enough to see the Blazers win the title again.  Plenty of people would agree with that, I think.  Thus you resolve to do whatever it takes to make it to that point, even if it means heartache following the team and especially if it means living out the other parts of your life with some sense of peace and integrity so that you're able to truly enjoy the event when it happens.  You do what you have to in order to make it another day, another decade if necessary, to see that trophy raised.  Me?  Since the Blazers won the title last I've gone through elementary school, middle school, high school, college (twice!), and grad school, gotten a steady job, married, even had a couple kids as insurance that someone in my bloodline sees that day in case the championship is a ways down the road.  All of this supports my day-to-day life--allowing me to eat and be warm and happy--while I'm waiting for that ultimate Blazer moment.  Heck, I even started a blog for other closeted waiting people so we all could bide our time together and enjoy it.  I'm pretty sure when the Blazers do win it all we're going to cast off our daily routine and all run half-clothed through the streets crying and jumping and shouting like hooligans, then live together in a pinwheel-shaped commune with a statue of Bill Schonely at the center.  But until then just act normal so nobody suspects, eh?

And that's the point.   We're together through this.  It's the unspoken secret of Blazer fandom.  We find each other annoying sometimes.  We don't always have a lot in common.  Some of us voted for Dudley, some for Kitzhaber, some for RuPaul.  Some of us munch burgers, some granola, some sushi.  We're young and old, well-off and barely making it, elite club seats and nosebleed and never-been-to-a-game-in-person people.  We're in nursing homes and Lake Oswego mansions and east-side ranch homes and riverside condos.  But we're family because of this stupid, stinkin' team.  That family feeling started with a trophy and a huge parade but it's the heartache we've felt since that's really bonded us.  We're not Lakers fans.  We're here because we've bled.  We fell with Walton's arches.  We cried when Drazen was killed.  We reached out our hands and tried to hold on when Drexler was traded.  We winced at Jordan's shrug, screamed at Earl Strom for waving off the shot, went fetal in the Fourth, rose up in anger at tinfoil and drag racing.  We delighted in Roy's R.O.Y. and rose in thundering chorus upon winning the lottery.  Now here we are staring blankly at a bunch of cartilage-challenged knees experiencing the bitter irony that it would have been better to be second the one time we were finally first.  But this is what makes us who we are together.  We're stubborn and we're just damn stupid.  We're going to believe and keep at it until it happens no matter how hard fate or wrong turns hit us and no matter what anybody else says or how they laugh and thank the stars they're not us.  Prick us, do we not bleed?  Smack us in the face with a shovel, do we not get up and start walking again?  And again?  And again?

When saying we're family I don't mean that we should give money to the team because we owe them or even that we should support them unconditionally.  I mean we've been through too much and been defined by too much together not to be.  Nobody understands this like we do.  And that means when things do turn good--which they do plenty often, if not yet in that ultimate sense--there's no better group of people to be around.  You're not going to want to miss the end to this story, whether it comes sooner or later.  You're going to hear a chorus that will put any cry that's ever been uttered to shame.  Really you're not going to want to miss any of the intervening steps either.  Good or bad, they're going to make that ending all the more sweet and the shouts that much louder.

I had that empty gut too when I heard the news.  I still had it a little watching tonight's game and I'm sure it's going to return when the team loses a few in a row.  But that emptiness isn't the most important part of the story, let alone its culmination.  We all know that.  So we're going to endure the heartache, celebrate what needs to be celebrated, criticize what needs to be criticized, analyze everything the better to learn from it, root and cry with each other, thrill and mourn with each other, and be Blazer fans.  Returning to the original question, you don't get over it.  We get through it, together, just like we've always done.

--Dave (