Once again, it’s on. This week, my good friend/mediocre domino player Eric Todd and I discuss the basis of fandom, lowered expectations and the reason we should expect more out of the Houston Rockets than the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Eric Todd: As you (but basically no one else) know(s), I’ve spent the week wandering our nation’s capital among the artifacts of our brief history and, in doing so, can’t help but think of the nature of allegiance, of what causes us to associate ourselves with one thing or team or idea over another. In sports, this conversation could easily devolve into a discussion of regionalism, jingoism, or chauvinism, of a sort of insipid conformity, but I think a more proper analogy might be a consideration of why it is that we love our families. Our families, who complain and drag us into fights and make racist jokes and need money for bail, who scoff at our ambitions and fall asleep on the couch watching Two and a Half Men or a Chuck Norris movie in earnest appreciation of his ability to kick Russian ass. Our families who irritate us and worse but who, despite all the reasons not to, we can’t help but love.
Why then is it that these people, who for many of us resemble no one we would ever choose to associate with, are exactly the individuals we hold most dear. Is it because we sort of look alike? Or share some DNA? Or some cultural idea of obligation? Or is it just proximity? More than likely it’s all of those things, but also it’s experience. It’s time spent together, growing and becoming who we are. It’s that they know us and we know them. And I think the same is true of our sports teams. While the Rockets this year may have become a little like your uncle Ted who blew all his money at the track and got drunk and cheated on his wife at a conference in Detroit, he’s also the same uncle who never forgets your birthday, even if you always forget his, and who took you to see Pavement when you were 13, someone who, despite his obvious, glaring flaws, will always be family.
Jacob Mustafa: Sports teams and families certainly have their fair share in common, playing the patriarchal role when deciding if fanbases can deal with the loss of a star or acting out like a younger sibling in a massive breakup when players demand trades. The Rockets, though, definitely occupy something subtler than the cool ****-up uncle role, though. The Rockets are more like a high-strung, intellectual cousin who’s gotten a job as an insurance adjuster, a big shift from when the two of you used to watch anime shows while drinking his dad’s whiskey that he had sneaked out of the cupboard; sometimes you see the Rockets at family functions, but you used to hope he’d come out of his shell someday instead of picking a line of work in which he’d just delve deeper into his neurotic tendencies.
Maybe that was all gibberish, but I meant that I generally think of this organization that we follow as much safer than it should be, the kind of team that would rather never lose 50 games than make sure it wins 60. All well and good, but we know that those kinds of goals can be less than inspiring after years of this. Maybe I’ve just gotten spoiled, though. People round these parts don’t often talk about it, but in recent years, I feel like, as Rockets fans, we’ve been beyond blessed by the cosmos for the ridiculous ball we’ve seen. 22 games in a row? What the hell was that? Remember that month and a half where the Rockets just never lost? Or how about Yao’s Willis Reed impression? Or the Rockets still taking it to then Lakers without him? After ten years of trying to remember what it felt like to cheer for my team beyond the end of April, maybe the reason I think the Rockets could do so much more right now is that they’ve done such a good job of doing so much else in the last five years.
Mr. Todd: You are spoiled (in general), but clearly so am I. It’s easy to forget the reasons we’ve cheered during leaner times. Just as it’s easy to forget the laughs at family reunions and the nice things your Grandmother wrote in your graduation card during the petty fight at Christmas over how to split up your great aunt’s will. And I think that’s exactly the problem with this particular Rockets’ season (as well as life so very often). We’ve allowed our expectations to define for us the meaning of success. During the streak year no one expected anything from Carl Landry, Aaron Brooks, Scola, or, god forbid, Mike Harris (who wasn’t even on the roster) or Mutombo. At the beginning of the season, we were all excited about the Steve Francis signing and hopeful that with a new coach Bonzi Wells might become what he had shown flashes of in Sacramento (We do always trade with the Kings! Arrgh!), and that’s why when the streak happened, especially after Yao went down, it was such a wonderful gift, because it was just that, a gift. I remember in the playoffs the next year how you said you’d be “happy if we could get out of the first round” and how pleased we were to lose to the Lakers in seven.
But, therein, exactly lies the problem. The relative successes of those two years created further expectations for the next two, that the team should build on them and create even more successes. Daryl Morey manifested productive basketball players from the ether, seemingly tripping over them on the street like modeling agencies “discover” their clients working as waitresses in truck stop diners in Kansas, and now we expect him to continue to do just that, only more and better, to find us a “star” wandering the River Walk in San Antonio (maybe that’s a bad analogy) or hanging out in a bar on 6th Street. Imagine what the team would have looked like in 06-07 without both Yao and T-Mac, because that’s where we are. I’m not convinced that Luther Head, Juwan Howard, Rafer, Shane, and Chuck could win more games than the Cavs this season, maybe, but maybe not. Our expectations can create disappointment, and, being that expectations are often based on the events of the past and not always the circumstances of the present, that disappointment can sometimes be a little unfair.
Mr. Mustafa: But Leslie Alexander and Daryl Morey are not Dan Gilbert, and they would not have allowed a cluster**** like the Cavs to have ever taken place here. My expectations, and many fans’, are based on what this roster was supposed to be able to achieve and what this front office can do to rebuild. I have not lost the faith, brother (I feel more Hulk-Hogan than pious when I write that). I still think this team possesses the requisite things to turn into something currently; I enter every season expecting greatness because that’s what I expect out of the things I trust and love, and this organization has consistently earned those from this fanbase, as much as multi-billion dollar corporations that incessantly ask for fans’ money can be trusted or loved. This discussion around the reasons for fandom neglected the idea of competence, and even professionalism, prime reasons I’ve found it hard not to believe in Houston entering these seasons and prior to trade deadlines. I agree that this team could not have been prepared for all of its losses, both record and personnel-wise, and should not be expected to build directly off of the success of the last two years, but that does not justify inertia. This front office still has the faith of its fans and, therefore, its expectations; who or what else will lead us to the promised land?