“If you ain’t first, you’re last.” – Ricky Bobby.
Actor Will Ferrell played a “big, hairy, American winning machine” in the NASCAR-themed movie, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” The main character would just as soon wreck his car as come in second or worse.
He obviously wasn’t a big fan of points systems or Matt Kenseth, who won the 2003 NASCAR championship despite winning only one race. Kenseth’s success led to organization’s “Chase for the Cup.”
But the pursuit of any title, whether in individual or group sports, always results in more disappointment than satisfaction. Only one driver, golfer, tennis player or team gets to hoist the trophy. All others in the field are losers – figuratively in some minds, literally in others.
If you fall in the latter camp, Chris Paul is a loser. The Los Angeles Clippers point guard has postseason averages of 20.9 points, 9.5 assists and 2.3 steals. But he has failed to reach a conference finals – let alone win an NBA championship – in his spectacular 10-year career. The Houston Rockets won Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals Sunday, sending Paul into yet another offseason unfulfilled.
In the postgame news conference, Paul was asked about being so close to advancing (the Clippers blew a 19-point second-half lead in Game 6).
“‘So close,’ I don’t even know what that means anymore,” he said. “… Being close ain’t good enough.”
Washington fans know that feeling all too well at this moment, having watched the Wizards and Capitals brush against rare conference-final appearances. But instead of being one step away from the championship round, the teams are where we’re used to seeing them – in the scrap pile with other also-rans.
The win-or-bust attitude is great in theory, as a philosophical approach and motivational tool. But it’s demeaning in practical terms when runs come up short. It devalues success and denigrates the pursuers, obscuring their accomplishments by highlighting their failure.
Hard-core fans can have trouble appreciating the Wizards’ and Capitals’ seasons – or the Nationals’ last three seasons – because they didn’t end with a parade.
The Wizards haven’t been within sniffing distance since 1979, when the then-Bullets lost in the NBA Finals. The Capitals lost the Stanley Cups finals in 1998 and haven’t been one round away since. The Nationals owned the National League’s best record in two of the last three seasons but failed to escape the League Division Series both times.
It’s natural to be disappointed when your teams don’t win championships, whether they’re barely competitive (Wizards) or perennial contenders (Capitals) for long stretches. It’s like the age-old question: Would you rather be blown out or lose at the buzzer?
The only pain-free answer is “neither.”
But the vanquished need whatever solace they can find. And while there’s no comfort in knowing they have lots of company, it allows them to appreciate the task’s degree-of-dificulty.
In the 35 seasons since Washington lost the NBA Finals to Seattle, only nine teams have won a championship. The Lakers (10), Bulls (six) and Spurs (five) have accounted for 60 percent of the NBA titles during that span. Other than the Mavericks and 76ers, every other champion won at least two titles (Heat, Pistons, Rockets and Celtics).
The NHL has been much better at spreading the wealth, making the Capitals’ shortcomings tougher to swallow. Eleven franchises have won the Stanley Cup in the 15 seasons since Washington lost against Pittsburgh. Four of those franchises – Jersey, Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles – have won twice.
Baseball has been fairly egalitarian as well. Seven franchises have been crowned World Series champions in the 10 seasons since the Nationals came to town. The only teams with multiple titles in that time are the Giants (three) and the Red Sox (two).
The Nationals are World Series contenders for the third time in four seasons, so maybe they’ll bring joy to Washington in October.
Either way, D.C. has reasons for optimism, which is the next-best thing.
The Wizards have a young backcourt to build upon, with John Wall on the verge of super-stardom as Bradley Beal embraces plain ol’ stardom. The Capitals have a new regime in coach Barry Trotz and general manager Brian MacLellan, who can’t be blamed for the other nine epic collapses since 1985. The Nationals have emerged as one of baseball’s strongest outfits in the majors and on the farm, with the makings to contend for several more seasons.
Even Washington’s NFL team holds newfound promise with Scot McCloughan, a proven personnel maven calling the shots in Ashburn.
Yes, it’s possible that none of the teams finish first this year. And that won’t be the last time. Once again, it will be “wait ‘till next season”
The players are paid and their incentive to continue is clear. They can take the Ricky Bobby approach because it measures their livelihood.
But fans are different. If you can’t enjoy the chase, you’re wasting your time.