Posted on April 2nd, 2024

The Soft Core of the Earth – The Annual Disappointment

As a lifelong fan of [college team redacted], I’m used to disappointment every college season. It comes frequently and often, even when the team appears to be “good.” Based on an aggregate evaluation of their performance over the last 25 years (or longer, really), an objective viewer would see that the squad has been fairly consistent, fairly competitive, and had a lot of potential and a lot of big wins, even if they’ve rarely left indelible impressions in the minds of their closest fans, including yours truly. We’ve had some pretty lean years along the way, too, in large part due to some bad coaching/bad coaches, poor talent, or players who never reached their potential or lived up to the hype. But in more recent history, say the last five years, things have been on a positive trajectory, yet every season still ends in disappointment.

To be fair, unless your team wins the NCAA tourney, every season ends in a loss, and for many, that equates to disappointment. But disappointment comes in other ways throughout the season, such as last night when we lost a conference road game by one point to a team barely at .500 and we were picked to win by 10. In fact, we were up by 11 with 2.5 minutes to go; a collapse is the best way to describe it, and not the first of our season. Ultimately, it came down to poor defense, an inability to finish strong, and sloppiness – 18 turnovers, 13 of them in the second half. On paper, we’ve got one of the best teams in the country, and when playing together at their best, we can beat anyone (quick sidebar: yes, I know it’s not “we” because I’m not playing – it’s “them,” but I feel as if I’m in it all the time, otherwise the losses wouldn’t leave such a bad taste in my mouth). Other times, we can get beat by anyone.

Now, I don’t think I have too unreasonable of expectations. A national title would be amazing. Just making it to the Final Four again (last time was almost 20 years ago) would be amazing. But honestly, I just want to get past the first weekend of the tournament – let’s make it to the Sweet 16, it shouldn’t be too much to ask. Instead, even when seeded highly, we lose that first weekend. It kind of makes the whole season anticlimactic when the squad gets bounced so early. But, admittedly, that’s also the beauty of the NCAAs.

This is me frequently during college basketball season. (Image retrieved here and comes courtesy of Andrea Piacquadio.)

But it’s the in-season disappointments that hurt the most. Sometimes, they’re beyond the control of the team, like injuries and illnesses, sometimes they’re self-inflicted, like suspensions and poor chemistry, and other times, it just comes down to the fact that we’re not as good in actuality as we are on paper; or that the teams we play are either better or we catch some of them on the wrong night. I used to let these losses get to me, which is admittedly stupid. I have zero control over any aspect of the game, so now a loss just leaves me frustrated and disappointed, but only for the remainder of the evening. I always awake with new optimism that we’ll figure it out and get on a hot winning streak. “Hope springs eternal,” wrote Alexander Pope. And while seemingly true, why do my expectations not change? Isn’t the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? Has my basketball team driven me to insanity? That would explain a lot…

Which brings me to other questions: Why do I care so much? Why do I even watch at all? I’d never been particularly good at any sport, especially basketball. In fact, I only played one organized season, in sixth grade. I sucked, but I was on a really good team. We either won the league or lost in the championship. It’s been so long I don’t remember. I doubt I played much. I don’t even know what my motivation was to join. I only scored one point the whole season when the coach put me in to take a pair of free throws awarded for a technical foul. I made one and missed the other, not sure in which order. But I remember being so happy I teared up. At the team’s end-of-year banquet, I was awarded the most-improved player award. I doubt I deserved it. I never played organized basketball again. Mostly was a seldom-used player in the only other sport I stuck with long-term, soccer. I wrestled two seasons, did really poorly the first one and much better the second, but didn’t like it. Too much structure and discipline required. Tried out for baseball one year, pretty sure I got cut. Or quit. I don’t recall. Anyway, my point is that I was never good at any sports, and I really wasn’t even a fan until much later. In fact, I couldn’t say I actually cared about sports until after college when I did an internship down in Mississippi and learned about college football culture. I bought into that for some reason, and then pretty quickly turned into a diehard fan for my university’s football team (which has never been good enough to warrant disappointment) and basketball team (the subject of this here diatribe).

What was my question? Oh yeah, why do I even care. I can’t answer that, but I do. In some small way it’s a way to connect to friends and family who are also fans, in some small way it’s probably living vicariously through these amazing athletes, but in others, it’s because I want a taste of success, something that has never come to me of my own doing, so my only hope is some distant connection to college kids who just happen to play for a university I graduated from a quarter-century ago. It sounds kind of sad when I put it into words…

And if my team ever won the national title, how would my life change? My guess is I’d be in ecstasy for several days, maybe even a few weeks. But then that would fade. Come the following season, my expectations would be even higher, and the losses and failures would sting even more. I guess the level of disappointment can only grow larger following every success. So, when I think of college basketball programs like Kansas and North Carolina, and others that’ve had great success, I do wonder about their fans and their expectations, and how the losses affect them. Then I also think about those once-great programs, like Indiana or UCLA, that largely haven’t done much, if anything lately (yes, UCLA did make the Final Four recently, but only after barely making the field for the tournament). To have fallen from the upper echelon must hurt a lot more than to never have been up in the heavens.

In fourth grade, my dad paid me $100 to not watch TV for a year, and I did it. Sure, I cheated some when I went to friends’ houses, because if they wanted to watch TV and I was militant about not doing so, they would’ve just told me to leave. But for the most part, I did it. One of the few things I did as a kid that required some gumption and I actually saw through to the end. So, what if I just decided to give up on watching sports? I could fill that time fairly easily, maybe even enjoy whatever I did in its place immensely. I’m certainly not a fan of staring at a screen any more than necessary. However, I’d feel I was missing out. And with my luck, that would be the year the team was dynamic and made the deep run. FOMO, the kids call it. But the reality is that, more than likely, it would just be another season where I’d just be disappointed again. Maybe I’m just addicted to being a loser.

Marco Esquandoles
Frustrated Fan

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