I’m no fan of Giannis Antetokounmpo, but when I was 16, I wrote him a poem. As the terminal exit led him home after his team was eliminated from the 2019 NBA Playoffs, I told him, “You are my MVP on Thursday nights when every piece falls firmly into place and they call you a king, and you are my MVP on Tuesday nights when defeat forces your head down in a humble realization that you are not invincible, and you will always be my MVP on all the nights in between.”
A bit dramatic for an athlete who represents a state I associate with cheese, but this is how loss distorts my reality: Suddenly, a four-game losing streak for the Milwaukee Bucks is comparable to the second flooding of the earth, and I write so many eulogies that I feel like my entire personality is made up of sports teams who screw up when they need to be clutch.
It used to scare me, the almost visceral response I’d have to losses that weren’t mine to own: short-lived playoff runs, torn ACLs, Kawhi Leonard buzzer-beaters. I would let the disappointment hang heavy on my shoulders, trading an entire day’s worth of productivity for useless wonderings of “What if this” and “What if that” as if my manifestations would change the overall outcome.
In retrospect, I was merely learning how to lose.
When I was younger, I never considered sports to be anything more than just casual entertainment. It is easy, after all, to get swept up by the beautiful words and shiny trophies, forgetting that there are bigger lessons being taught than just how to win.
Sports taught me how to love, how to pick a side and commit, for better or for worse. I’ve had my brief flings: The years in middle school when my friend bamboozled me into supporting the Patriots, the two weeks in 2019 when I yearned for the Warriors to fall, the Nationals’ inspiring World Series run against the Astros that same October. I’ve also met my forever teams: The scarlet and gray of my hometown Buckeyes, the quiet persistence of the still-blossoming Rams. I know how these relationships work, and I know I have enough unconditional support to go around.
Sports forced me to sacrifice. I scheduled meetings and hangouts around the matchups I wanted to watch, woke up early for games catered toward an East Coast audience, spent my money on tickets and jerseys, praying that the players whose names I took the time to learn would not betray me. I gave sports my seasons. I put in the work. I loved my teams right.
So it is a blessing, I suppose, that when sports lets me down, it lets me down gently. Inconsequentially. I react and react, screaming my lamentations and feeling cheated, but at the end of the day, it is just a game. It is just a couple of men throwing a ball around, hoping to get from one end of the field to the other. If I reach, it’s almost like a metaphor for life.
Sometimes, when I lose perspective in the face of loss, I harken back to one of my favorite Damian Lillard quotes: “Pressure, nah. Fam, this is just playing ball. Pressure is the homeless man, who doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from. Pressure is the single mom, who is trying to scuffle and pay her rent. We get paid a lot of money to play a game. Don’t get me wrong — there are challenges. But to call it pressure is almost an insult to regular people.”
This humility — this is how I heal. This is how I slowly rearrange my priorities, game after game after game.
It is a beautiful microcosm, these sports worlds we carve out for ourselves. We grow up in them, we love and trust and commit for the sole purpose of learning how to get our hearts broken. We write indignant poetry to cope, find a better lover in revenge and circle back to the same thrill and hope that is addicting enough to be considered a vice. We break enough times that the pain yields rationality. We break enough times until we have finally learned how to lose.