Sports, Destiny and the Sad-Sack L.A. Clippers
This year was supposed to be different for the Los Angeles Clippers. With a new feel-good owner and a new outlook -- and an old, cross-town rival in shambles -- the team seemed destined to end its postseason futility and finally make a serious title run.
In sports, however, "destiny" doesn't make any free throws.
Sunday's loss to the Houston Rockets in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals poked holes through the narrative that the Clippers were basketball's Cinderella -- that fate would reward them for having survived the scourge of Donald Sterling. Becoming the ninth team in NBA history to blow a 3-1 playoff series lead goes a long way to dispelling the mythology surrounding a team that captured America's attention by toppling the defending-champion Spurs after capturing America's heart by toppling racism.
It's a familiar storyline: The 2013-14 New York Rangers were "destined" to win the Stanley Cup as a tribute to Martin St. Louis's mother, who died suddenly during the Conference semifinals. The 2014 Kansas City Royals entered the World Series as the "destiny" to the San Francisco Giants' "dynasty." The 2014-15 Wisconsin Badgers basketball team looked like "a team of destiny" after toppling the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats in the Final Four. None has a championship to show for it.
Unfortunately, the irrational belief that a team with such a shallow bench was destined for glory has given way to the equally irrational belief that a team getting eliminated by a better team marks a downfall of epic proportions. Mythology of destiny, meet the mythology of curse.
Sports naturally lends itself to exaggeration and lofty declarations. The black-and-white nature of wins and losses combined with the favorite/underdog dynamic leads commentators and observers to extremes. In the case of the Clippers, it's amplified by local news media quick to remind you that Los Angeles is still a "Laker town" and that Clippers' loss has restored the natural order of things.
And so you get this Bill Plaschke Los Angeles Times headline: "The Clippers are still the Clippers, and they're still cursed." You get Magic Johnson tweeting the same -- no conflict of interest there. You get Bleacher Report declaring, "The Los Angeles Clippers still aren't cool ... they're still losers who’ve never been to the Western Conference Finals," and chalking up the team's collapse to its "emotional instability." (If the Clippers are overly emotional, what about those writing about them? With the body still warm, the takes are as hot as ever.)
Thankfully, we have Tom Ziller of SB Nation to bring some perspective, reminding us that while the Clippers' loss was bad, "Overreacting to it would be worse." Step outside the narrative, Ziller notes, and you'll see that a bigger surprise than the Clippers blowing a 3-1 lead was that they had one in the first place. And after a grueling regular season and a seven-game first round for the ages, it's no surprise that they would eventually tire out. They lost to a deeper team with two MVP-caliber players. As Ziller asks, "Is that so shocking?"
No, it's not. It's a reminder to avoid the lazy reliance on "destiny" and "curses" in sports. The Clippers finally have an owner willing to invest in talent and proper locker room amenities, but they still have a head coach/president of basketball operations who has failed to make roster flexibility a priority (and is lucky his son, Austin Rivers, exceeded low expectations throughout much of the playoffs). They have a core that should be kept intact and built around, not broken up amid the heat of the moment. And they have a team long-removed from the drama of last year that can make a significant title run, but not because of destiny, or any other cliche meant to lend greater meaning to sports.
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