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Padding the Stats: Sports Fanhood Is Fickle

April 20, 2022

Sports can be an incredibly fickle thing, as I’m sure anybody reading this understands. Tuesday night served as a harsh reminder of that for me.

I’m sure that anybody who follows me on Twitter knows that I’m a Phoenix Suns fan. After a decade of sadness, the Suns made a surprise run to the NBA Finals last year before coming up just short of the franchise’s first title.

This year, the Suns came back bigger and better and tore through the league, securing the best record in the NBA by eight games. As much fun as the ride was, the closer we got to the end the more thoughts shifted to “Let’s just get to the postseason healthy, because if so they have a chance to do something special.”

Well, they got there intact and beat New Orleans fairly comfortably in game one despite a second-half Pelicans rally thanks to some fourth-quarter heroics from Chris Paul. Things weren’t going so smoothly in game two, so Devin Booker put the team on his back.

Booker is the longest-tenured member of the team. He was there through all the losing, all the franchise dysfunction, and through it all he continued to work and get better. He never complained and he never asked out. Now, this season, he’s emerged as the best player on the best team in the league and earned his way onto many MVP ballots.

In the first half on Tuesday, he put his absurd shot-making ability on display. Booker scored 31 points on 12-of-18 shooting including 7-of-10 from 3, turning a seven-point deficit late in the first quarter into a five-point lead at halftime.

He didn’t attempt a single free throw, nor did he score inside the restricted zone. The closest bucket was a ridiculous floater from just outside the circle over the extended arm of New Orleans’ hulking 7-footer, Jonas Valanciunas, with terrific defender in rookie Herb Jones on his hip. Pretty much every other bucket came from outside the paint.

Booker had three step-back mid-range jumpers, a catch-and-shoot toe-on-the-tape long 2 (nobody shoots a better percentage with a foot on the line than him) and seven 3-pointers of increasing range and difficulty. 

He ended each of the first two quarters with a ridiculous shot that fell through the rim with less than a second to go. The first led to what might be the most iconic image of the first round this year. Booker crossed half court with five seconds left, isolated on Larry Nance Jr. and hit a step-back near the right baseline as Naji Marshall helped over. Booker fell down and slid back by the fans sitting court-side, and before he got up, this happened.

That capped a 16-point first-quarter for Booker, but he was just getting started. He scored 15 more points including another shot just before the buzzer. With 3.3 seconds on the clock and the ball out on the side, Phoenix ran him off a screen and his defender fell asleep, giving him space to catch and shoot from the Y in Phoenix’s mid-court “The Valley” logo. NBA.com has it listed as a 28-footer. He buried it to make it 61-56 at halftime.

Miami’s Jimmy Butler set the bar incredibly high with a 45-point explosion in the first game of the day, but it looked like a foregone conclusion that Booker was going to cruise right past that mark. My only reaction after the last few buckets was uncontrollable cackling as he nailed shot after shot and there wasn’t anything the Pelicans could do about it.

Booker didn’t score again. He attempted one shot in the third quarter, then as he tried to run back in transition to contest a breakaway dunk from Jaxson Hayes, he tweaked his hamstring and had to check out with 4:35 to go in the third quarter. He did not return.

The Suns went on to lose the game and the Pelicans evened the series at 1-1, and now we await word of the severity of what the Suns called “right hamstring soreness.” Booker missed seven games with a left hamstring injury during the regular season. Suns fans like me went from the sheer joy of seeing our favorite player operating at the peak of his powers and painting a masterpiece to the despair of wondering when we might see him play again.

All season long, the Suns have continued to plow along and win games no matter who was or wasn’t in the lineup. Their top three scorers — Booker, Paul and Deandre Ayton — all missed significant stretches of time and only two of their top 10 players topped 70 games played, yet the Suns found a way to keep up their league-best pace. The Suns still very well could win this series even if Booker doesn’t play again (and I expect them to).

But it’s going to be hard to feel the same watching this team until he’s back out there at full strength. And if it is a longer-term injury, it very well could cost the Suns the best shot they’ve maybe ever had at winning their first Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy.

I write all of this to offer advice: enjoy the ride. Soak in success and high-level play from your favorite teams and athletes whenever you can. No mater how well things might seem to be going, there’s always the potential for it to turn around at any moment (see Nebraska football’s loss to Michigan State, or to Iowa). Nothing is promised, and nothing is certain.

I think one of the biggest problems with national sports discourse is the single-minded focus on championships above all else and the belief that nothing else matters and anything short of winning it all is a failure.

If the Suns don’t win it all this year, it will be incredibly disappointing and a massive missed opportunity. But that won’t change the fact that this is the best Phoenix team of my lifetime and it won’t wipe away all the fond memories this season has provided for me.

Sports fanhood is fickle. It gives and it takes, and rarely in equal measure. Even so, it is up to you how you consume your sports. As someone who has seen exactly one championship from his favorite teams in his lifetime (shoutout to the 2010 Green Bay Packers), I’m choosing to focus on the journey and draw enjoyment every chance I get. 

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