18 March 2012

Bitter Sweet Basketball -- It's Still Just a Game

There is a very good reason that "fan" is (probably) short for "fanatic" when referring to a sports fan.  We fans are often delusional when it comes to our sports teams.  In some rare instances, that delusion turns violent, leading to tragic results, like the recent Port Said Stadium disaster in Egypt. Most of the time, however, sports delusion manifests itself in a "faith" that our favorite team can, and should, win almost every game it plays.  One definition offered by Webster for "faith" is the firm or unquestioning belief in something for which there is no proof.  Those wonderful italic words make it clear that science is not faith-based.  They also make it clear why we sports fans have too much faith when it comes to our teams.  I number myself among delusional sports fans!

I did not pick Vanderbilt to beat Wisconsin when I filled out my March Madness bracket.  In a quiet, rational moment while contemplating "Vanderbilt" or "Wisconsin," I entered the better team in my bracket.  Of course, pessimism is a part of many sports fans' psyche.  We simultaneously have faith in our team's chances while picking against our team because we actually think that lowering expectations will help us accept a potential loss just a tad better.

Watching yesterday's loss to Wisconsin, I knew that my team was simply not quite as good as the other team.  Still, in those final minutes, I believed that anything could happen and that my Commodores could pull out the win.  Unlike that game Cinderella wins against a better team that they probably could not repeat if the two teams played ten more times, my Vanderbilt Commodores simply lost to a better team in the Wisconsin Badgers.  We had a few more turnovers, and when the game was on the line, they hit a three they had no business hitting and we missed an open look at a three.  Ballgame.  We lost by three.  Sure I was disgusted that we lost.  Sure I wondered "what if?" about a hundred times while replaying the game in my mind in the span of about ten seconds.  But faith came to an end when the proof of which team was better got played out right in front of me.

After a few minutes of anguish, my sensibilities returned.  Hey, no shame in losing to a better team, right?  I suppose my benign delusion was okay for a few minutes -- loving my alma maters is part of what makes my life fun.  Congratulations to Wisconsin for advancing to the Sweet Sixteen.  Congratulations, too, to my Vanderbilt Commodores.  For an alum like me, I'm proud of my team.  We won 25 games this year, plus we get to put a shiny SEC Tournament Champions trophy in our case in Nashville.  A great season!

What's funny is that while the delusional part of my mind that focuses on Vanderbilt was returning to reality, the part of my mind colored cream and crimson was still frantic about Indiana's chances of beating Virginia Commonwealth University.  One gut-wrenching game bled into another!  Indiana shot well during the game, but we turned the ball over so much that I began to wonder if one of our called plays was "step out of bounds!"  There was a stretch in the second half when I simply couldn't believe what I was seeing.  All I could see was my team's mistakes.  It simply wasn't registering in my mind that my team's carelessness was being offset by VCU's protracted shooting drought.  As much screaming as I was doing after each lost IU possession, it was only in the final minute or two that I realized that we actually had a chance to win the game.

Much like Vandy's loss to Wisconsin, the end of the IU win over VCU came down to which team could make a final play.  We hit our open shot; they missed their open shot, which would've won them the game had it fallen.  After their shot missed and all zeroes showed on the game clock, my strongest memory is hearing my older daughter running into another room to tell her mom, "Daddy is jumping up and down in front of the TV!"  In the span of about an hour, I had experienced the low of watching my team come up just short and the high of watching my team squeak out a win it probably shouldn't have gotten.  Such is life for a sports fan!

So Indiana moves on to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in ten years.  Kentucky is waiting for us.  Kentucky, the #1-overall seed in the tournament.  Kentucky, the team we beat on our floor with the shot of the year (so far).  It's a relatively quiet Sunday morning right now and I know that Indiana has no chance to beat Kentucky next Friday in the Georgia Dome.  Such craziness to think that we can!  Oh, but wait, I feel some good faith-based delusion sinking into my head.  Ten years ago, Indiana was a #5 seed, just one seed worse than this year.  We faced the #1-overall seed that year in the Sweet Sixteen.  We beat Duke by the IU-famous score of 74-73 (think 1987 title game for another great 74-73 win), which got us marching to the title game before losing to Maryland (in a completely unwatchable game, though not as bad as last year's final).  Hey, it can happen again, right?

A little delusion is fun.  Let's not forget, though, that the sports teams we love so much play games.  At the end of the day, it's still just a game.  As crazy as I get watching my teams in tight games, my passion for science is much stronger.  My love for my family and friends is even stronger.  Of the 68 teams to make the Dance, 67 will lose their final game.  The fact that almost all teams in a given sport lose their final game of tournament play means that the overwhelming majority of sports fans are disappointed to some degree once the season ends.  Put sports disappointment in its proper perspective and enjoy all the other wonderful aspects of life.  For me, seeing my younger daughter's excited face this morning when I wished her a happy 6th birthday put all my sports highs and lows where they should be -- way, way down on my priority list.

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