I have spent over four months trying to forget that night. Standing in front of the TV, I watched as the Cleveland Cavaliers ran onto the court in Oakland, as they had just won game 7 of the NBA Finals. I could feel my girlfriend staring at me from behind, waiting for me to explode with rage like your typical sports fan might do. Instead, I watched as the celebration on TV began, I nodded as if I was trying to convince myself that what I had just seen was real, and then I uttered two words: “That’s it.”
I couldn’t even enjoy the Game of Thrones episode that aired that night. I had been waiting almost three years to watch Jon Snow kill Ramsay Bolton (spoiler alert: Jon Snow kills Ramsay Bolton. Unless you’re someone who doesn’t watch Game of Thrones and has no idea who Jon Snow or Ramsay Bolton is, and in that case please carry on) and I couldn’t even enjoy it. I could only stare through the screen, my body numb and my mind wandering. The Golden State Warriors had just blown a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals.
There isn’t any way to prepare for a loss in sports, especially one with the magnitude of last year’s NBA Finals. I am sure there are plenty of sports fans out there who can attest to the absolutely crippling dread you feel the moment you realize the outcome will not end in your favor. It is like a withdrawal from the greatest high you could ever know; that feeling of invincibility when your team is winning that feels like anything but temporary. Yet, even the great teams have even greater falls.
Take the 2007 New England Patriots, for instance. An almost perfect team defeated at the hands of Eli Manning, a man with, objectively, the worst face of all-time. Yes, he was a perfectly decent quarterback who turned it on when it mattered most, but he was also known for his sporadic play and quite mediocre regular seasons. Now, imagine for a second that the Patriots were defeated by entire team of Eli Manning’s and you now have yourself the result of the 2016 NBA Finals.
The Warriors weren’t just a good team, they were a great team. One could even argue they were the greatest team of all-time. Golden State had mastered the pace and space offense, if the pace was a full sprint and the spacing, more specifically, was a team of jump shooting monsters. Match that with quite possibly the league’s scariest defense and, oh, maybe the first ever unanimous MVP in Steph Curry, and you have the first NBA Voltron.
You never see the fall coming, though. Sure, you may see signs of weakness along the way; Steph Curry’s mobility and quickness were clearly limited due to his knee injury, and Steve Kerr couldn’t seem to inspire more than five consecutive minutes of basketball out of Festus Ezeli. Yet, the Warriors, time and time again, had overcome those obstacles and pulled out victory from the jaws of defeat simply because they were just better than everyone else, and we as loyal fans never dared to question the madness. We had survived Oklahoma City with one of the most spectacular playoff games of all time in game 6 of the Western Conference Finals. We had utterly dismantled the Cavaliers during the first four games of the finals. The euphoria of not only winning, but watching as the greatest season of all-time unfolded in front your eyes was beyond anything I could attempt to describe. We really did feel invincible.
The NBA season starts in just a few short weeks, and I haven’t watched a single second of Warriors basketball outside of a couple of summer league games; I’m not sure my mind is fully capable yet. Sure, Golden State now has Kevin Durant and has already assembled a team far superior to the 73-9, record-breaking team from last year. The Warriors have gone full Monstars and have put together a real life basketball wet dream. With three of the greatest shooters of all time in the starting lineup, the league’s most unique two-way player in Draymond Green, an upgraded bench, and a promising rookie in Pat McCaw, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that the Warriors could even beat their previous regular season record from the year before. So, why is there this ominous weight that takes over whenever I hear them mentioned?
Becoming an internet meme is a lot harder on the psyche than one might imagine. The Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals, and it appears everyone on this planet is here to remind one of that fact. As a “Crying-Jordan” meme aficionado, and as someone fascinated by the trends in social media, especially pertaining to our culture’s relationship to memes, I did find the aftermath of what happened to the Warriors to be quite amusing. Although it took several months, the creativity to which people on various social media platforms had implemented that particular headline has evolved in a way no other sports moment has before. However, there is still a pain that is triggered every time that phrase is uttered.
Those of us who are Warriors fans attempt to laugh with the jokes, most of the time. We do our best to spin our own narratives of the Finals, such as Steph Curry’s health or Draymond Green’s suspension, as some sort of defense mechanism to facing what really happened; we choked away a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals for the first time in the history of organized basketball. It is the Scarlet Letter that we must bear every single day, regardless of the free agents we acquire or the regular season games we win this upcoming season. To accept what happened to Golden State during those last three Finals games is to accept that the euphoria of that season was, ultimately, for nothing. This does not mean we won’t win four straight titles with the team we have now, but we will never have that 2016 Title.
As a Warriors fan, all one can do is accept and learn from our mistakes. I don’t just mean the mistakes the players made, either. We, as a fan base, achieved a level of arrogance only Dallas Cowboys or New York Yankees fans might be familiar with. We were uncomfortable playing the villains, though, even as we prepare to enter that role once again next season. For years, we had been the laughing-stock of the league, only to become its revered, up-and-coming franchise that managed to bring itself out of the darkness with smart front office moves and draft picks that fit the system in mind. Yet, when it came time for breaking records, “#ArrogantSzn” seemed almost forced and unnecessary. We were the last picked kid in sports who had hit an enormous growth spurt over the summer, and we just couldn’t wait to brag about it in front of everyone else. The hubris was intoxicating because it was engrained in the team’s style as well. Yet, when that style no longer works, that hubris no longer seems welcome or logical.
That isn’t to say what the Warriors organization and its fans should learn from last season is that confidence and swagger should be removed from this upcoming season, but rather it means that we must channel that confidence into something more sustainable. The squandered 3-1 lead in the Finals is made worse by the fact that, for as confident as a team the Warriors seemed, they buckled when it mattered the most. That is the only real lesson the team and its fans can learn from. In order to truly be as great as they can potentially be, the Warriors need to learn the difference between greatness and the appearance of greatness. That is a lesson even we as fans should also learn; arrogance and confidence are not the same as arrogance is ultimately rooted in insecurity, and if there is anything to be said about the Warriors, it is that insecurity with winning has always been to their fault. Even when we had won the championship in 2015, both we as fans and the team felt as though they needed to prove to everyone that this was a winning culture and not a fluke. That chip on our shoulders eventually became so engulfing that running other teams off the court was not only uncomfortably satisfying, but also allowed us to mask our ever-present insecurities in braggadocio. It, ultimately, was a recipe for disaster that we thought we were smart enough to avoid.
It is quite possible that the Warriors crash and burn again this season, and we as fans will continue to bear the burden of last year’s embarrassment. Clearly, the Warriors organization is fully committed to being even better, yet it still remains unclear whether the dismantling of last year has been fully realized in an attempt to learn from it. For me, that scarlet letter, the never-ending meme that haunts me every day, is something, as a sports fan, that I want to be rid of more than anything. As a fan, all I can do is accept the past for what it was, do my best to grieve for what was lost, and look ahead, modestly, towards another chance for redemption. Then, just maybe, I can make a meme out of someone else’s team.