Twenty-six rows up from the shiny court of the newly revamped Energy Solutions Arena, I sat with my eyes fastened to the giant video board during the Jazz’s season opener against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Gordon Hayward had just dished a no-look feed to Derrick Favors, who threw down a vicious slam that was so good I needed to see it twice. I was on assignment so I had to try and remain objective, but I was cheering like hell for the men dawning the J note to out perform the team with arguably the second best player in the league.
The Jazz raced out to a six-point lead, and the crowd erupted in jubilation. The excitement had pulled me out of my chair and onto my feet before I could prevent the deliriousness of celebration. I scolded myself for acting so unprofessionally and quickly returned to a more realistic mindset.
“What is really accomplished tonight by winning?” I inquired silently, albeit in a critical tone. “What good would this do?”
My mind sped from one possibility to the next as I tried to defend my gleeful state. “It would be nice for the longsuffering fans,” I offered. “Well maybe it builds confidence in a young team.”
None of the wishful thoughts resounded as loudly as my logic.
“If the Jazz win, it only dampens their likelihood of a high draft pick.” My analytical capacity kicked in just in time to rationally trump any lingering bliss.
I sat down weary of the predicament. What was to be done? Did I want the Jazz to succeed while I was in attendance, or was that plain selfish? Could a win eventually sacrifice the captivating future outlook of the franchise? Should I accept losses as tokens toward the big prize?
The answers lie somewhere near the equilibrium. No fan that has devoted countless hours to witness their favorite team in action can actively pull for the opposition without occasionally wincing. It’s a path that leads to self-loathing, and an even more strenuous moment of self-reflection that for me usually boils down to: I am a terrible person that only wants others to fail so that my ego won’t take such a beating.
So instead of flying in the face of a loyal dedication that spans decades, there are some guidelines I’ve discovered and continue to try to develop while watching the winless Jazz.
1. The first three quarters of the game are yours to win.
There’s nothing wrong with expecting your team to have the lead as the buzzer sounds. However, this year that expectation should only occur at the end of the initial three periods. If your team has the advantage it shows that the good guys are: (a) hustling and putting in their best effort, and (b) becoming the team you want them to be by improving and functioning as a unit.
Now when it comes to the fourth quarter, precisely the last two minutes of the game, the distinguishing characteristics of a team disinterested with winning can become excruciatingly obvious. This is where I implore you to put aside your emotional investment in success. A pass that was thrown two seconds too late? Check. A 24-foot, three-point attempt from a guy that shoots under 30 percent for his career? Check. The list goes on, but if your intuition tells you that all of a sudden things turned sour, you might be cheering for a team in full-fledged tank mode.
2. Hope for the players to garner accolades, not the team.
Alec Burks performed dazzling feats of body control in the season opener. He glided to the rim like Clyde himself, pretending to float to one side of the basket while changing his destination mid-flight to abandon defenders in his wake.
Hoping your team can develop young players so that they can eventually become stars is a common expectation every season. However, if you have truly accepted that your team has no chance (absolutely zero) of winning the NBA Finals, you will identify progress made without concerning yourself with how it helped the team win.
3. Try not to be too critical of the head coach.
Ty Corbin refused to respond to a question an NBA writer posed recently, stating that he wouldn’t want to give away his scouting report. Although I find this response incomprehensible, it makes sense given the big picture.
Corbin started Richard Jefferson’s corpse on opening night. Many of the decisions he makes are head scratching to say the least, but he understands the direction of the franchise better than any of us observers do. If management is pressuring him to shift his focus from wins and losses to just simple progress, that’s what he’ll do to keep his job.
4. Enjoy basketball.
This can be quite difficult. The previous three suggestions are somewhat easy to implement with practice, but the impulse to hope for the best is hard to suppress.
One thing that was recommended to me by a fan physician of sorts (fellow sufferer of mediocrity) is to watch games that you don’t have a rooting interest in. If you can gratefully take in the athleticism of Demar Derozan in Toronto, or applaud the quickness of Eric Bledsoe in Phoenix, you’re well on your way. A conscious effort is necessary to appreciate Enes Kanter’s blossoming Tim Duncan-esque footwork without checking the scoreboard to see how it affected Utah’s comeback.
These are only ideas that have helped me avoid banging my head against a wall in disbelief, but perhaps with some practice, we can all accept the predicament of cheering for a team to play well while it slowly inches closer to the abyss of horrendousness that is the NBA Draft Lottery.