The concept of greatness is the primary fixation of sports discourse. Who has it? Who used to have it? Who might have it? Sports fans and commentators fixate on greatness today, because they have seen it before, which informs the contextual conversation — is this better/worse/the same than things in the past? — that drives like 37 percent of ESPN’s programming. (Even a player like LeBron James, arguably the best basketball player ever, is subjected to conversations by losers about whether he’s better than his forebears.)
Mediocrity is different. Mediocrity rarely receives specific focus in our sports discourse and media, which prefers to focus on the transcendent and transcendently awful. But a lot of sports are just kind of… there. Hundreds of games where nothing particularly interesting are played every year and the majority will never be memorable to anyone outside of diehard fans and people professionally obligated to pay attention. And this is just intuitively understood by everyone, because sports are so permanently lodged in the national culture that even people who don’t care about them recognize they’re “important.”
A few months ago I attended a game at Barclays Center between the Brooklyn Nets and the Charlotte Hornets. Going into the game, the Nets were 5-8 and the Hornets 6-8. Only one player on the court — Brooklyn’s DeAndre Jordan, who played for 20 minutes — had ever made an All-Star game. Beyond Jordan, none of them would be recognizable to the average non-sports fan, except maybe for maybe Iman Shumpert, because he’s married to the singer Teyana Taylor. Everyone else was a completely anonymous schlub — a highly talented schlub, given that they play in the NBA, but anonymous nonetheless.
There were at least seven air balls in the first quarter. At one point, Brooklyn’s Jarrett Allen was running the fast break with nobody in front of him, and just sort of… fumbled it into the crowd. (He redeemed himself with a dunk a few minutes later.) The crowd didn’t fill out until the second quarter, and even then it was pretty thin. My girlfriend and I got excellent seats in the mezzanine for not that much money because it was not a basketball game anyone cared about. The halftime entertainment was Afro B, a fun rapper to whom almost nobody in the crowd reacted whatsoever.
I would probably feel differently if my teams were good, but they are just sort of there.
Was it a bad time? Absolutely not. It was very endearing to watch these very muscular, very tall men just sort of run alongside and into each other. We held a vocal conversation whenever we weren’t paying attention to the court, and nobody cared. Absent the energizing aesthetics of a superstar player (Brooklyn’s two, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, were injured), any particular competitive stakes, or a locked-in crowd eager to cheer for either of these things, long stretches of it felt more like a messy scrimmage rather than a professional game. I felt like I was rooting for a room of young children to just do their best and not worry about the outcome. Just try! You’re doing great! (Also, I was drunk by halftime.)
I don’t mean to contort myself into some “so bad, it’s good” explanation for why I spent more than $0 to watch a game that objectively sucked. (Though I am also doing that.) But this model of mild engagement with the thing in front of me is, I think, an optimal way of engaging with most sports. Most likely you root for a team that is just not going to compete for the championship, no matter what happens. The conventional logic, as a fan, holds that you must agitate publicly and privately for things to get better, so that your time is not being wasted, and everyone can be happy when the inevitable victory happens.
On the other hand: That’s fine. I can still go to this game, because doing stuff in person is fun (especially when the tickets are cheap, as they often are when you’re watching a mediocre-to-bad team), and I can put the game on mute in the background at home while I read a book, and I can meet my friends in a bar to talk about our day (or, if we are emotionally repressed, other sports) while occasionally looking up to clap and cheer for whatever’s happening. It doesn’t have to be the attention-grabbing, zero sum cultural fascination that marshals more attention than all the combined arts. It can just be a game.
I would probably feel differently if my teams were good, but they are just sort of there. The Chicago Bulls are years deep into a disastrous rebuilding plan spearheaded by managerial incompetence and player apathy. The Chicago Bears are alright, but semi-seriously fucked over by their then- and now-baffling decision to draft a mediocre quarterback whose defining trait is this tweet, over the guy who just won the Super Bowl MVP. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series in 2016, and have spent the years since cutting budget and insisting they have to be financially prudent despite the fact they’re the Chicago Cubs, a globally-recognized brand worth $3.1 billion, hovering persistently in the “good, but not really that good” lane that leads to nothing.
Incompetence, baffling decision-making, duplicitous accounting — none of these reasons for mediocrity are things I, a fan, can affect. What I can affect is my approach to these teams, which is to regard them as things that exist and are fun at least some of the time. (Though when these crappy teams break a social contract by trying to extract civic resources to build a new stadium — this is when all bets are off, and warfare the only option.) You want real, sustained devotion? Get back to me when you’re good, because for now, this is all the energy I have. Thankfully, the Nets are doing much better since the game I went to. They should sneak into the playoffs, and I hope to attend a game, assuming tickets aren’t so expensive.