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Guest Post: Why we watch losers

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Ed. Note: Evans Clinchy is a Bostonian and active member of the hoops blogosphere. He’s covered the Celtics for five seasons, with his writing appearing on CelticsBlogNESN, and SI (among other places). You can follow him, his thoughts, and his writing on Twitter. He wrote this piece while reflecting on the end of the Celtics’ 2013-14 season.

Can I interrupt your enjoyable playoff experience to be a massive downer for a moment? Thanks.

At some point toward the end of one of the worst seasons in your team’s history – precisely when depends on your patience level, but it’s generally sometime between St. Patrick’s Day and April Fools – you begin to lose focus on the actual basketball, fall into a bout of existential soul-searching and ask yourself why you still bother.

When you’re watching the losses pile up and your team sink deeper into irrelevance, you have to hate yourself on some level just to keep showing up. Lose once, shame on the team; lose 50-plus times, shame on you for still being there. If you’re still in the building, then undoubtedly at some point during those final weeks, you have to stop and wonder what compels you to torture yourself, witnessing defeat after defeat.

I covered about 37 Celtics games this season. To say the least, it was painful. After six glory years with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce on the floor together, this season’s C’s practiced a special form of sadism on the loyal fans who kept showing up. Walking into the TD Garden meant subjecting yourself to a whole lot of Rajon Rondo putting up “tree falls in the forest” triple-doubles, Brandon Bass blowing defensive assignments, Jared Sullinger missing ridiculous 3-point attempts and Jeff Green existing. There were certainly bright spots this season, but many of them were of the “Player X had a masterful game in a losing effort as the Celtics lost by 18 to Lottery Team Y” variety.

Ostensibly, there appeared to be little point to watching dozens of Celtics games this season, given how similar they all were. There are only so many times you can watch your team take a 12-point lead early, bleed it away in the third quarter, then execute terribly down the stretch and lose by six. This happened seemingly every single game. There also only so many times you can wander into the locker room postgame, hoping to uncover some nuggets of brilliance about why the team is struggling, only to be disappointed by cliches.

It all gets old. So it’s only natural to ask yourself why. Why do you do it? Why not stay home and read a book or something?

I’ve thought about this question a lot the last few weeks, and it’s not easy to produce a satisfactory answer, but I think I eventually managed to stumble into one. Here’s what I did.

I thought back to six years ago, when Garnett had just arrived in Boston and the Celtics won a championship by destroying the Lakers in an unforgettable Game 6 at the Garden. I thought about Pierce raining jumpers on Kobe Bryant, the guys dumping Gatorade on Doc Rivers and Garnett declaring that “anything’s possible!” I conjured up these memories, I thought about how much joy that championship brought to Boston, and I realized that winning a title is so gratifying that it’s worth all of the misery.

Wait. No. Scratch that.

It’s gratifying because of the misery.

This is why we watch sports. We watch because the reward redeems the risk. We pour countless hours of our time into years of games. Beautiful games, sloppy games; wins, losses; games we’ll remember forever, games we’d love to erase from our brains “Eternal Sunshine”-style the moment after the final buzzer. We watch them all, and the cumulative effect of them all makes us better fans.

The more we watch, the more pointless and depressing the setbacks feel. But if you have perspective, you also know the converse. The victory, whenever it comes, will be even sweeter.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why that 2008 championship season mattered so much – even in Boston, where we’re spoiled by victory parades. That ’08 season was special because of all the pain that came before it.

KG had spent a decade slaving away in Minnesota, hardly even getting close to his first ring. Doc Rivers had been on the hottest hot seat in the league. Ray Allen had likewise never so much as sniffed title contention. Pierce had endured one of the rockiest periods in franchise history, including a 58-loss season the year before that he’d largely watched from the bench, nursing injuries.

When they all finally reached the top, it wasn’t just a postseason triumph – it was the culmination of a lifetime’s work. Those Celtics had invested everything into winning just that one ring. When they finally did it, it was worth all the heartbreak that came before it.

With these current Celtics? That one-year turnaround ain’t happening. No way, no how. KG and Ray aren’t walking through that door. But that’s fine – it just means that whenever the recovery does happen, it will be even more impactful. Each loss that happens now only sweetens the pot for the eventual windfall. People who refer to losing as “futility” are getting it all wrong. It’s an investment.

By extension, I think there’s hope for hapless teams everywhere. It doesn’t matter where you are. You might be pouting about a down season in Sacramento or Salt Lake; Milwaukee or Philly. Wherever you are, your losing counts for something. It’ll make you a better winner someday.

Hardwood Paroxysm