Lemons to Lemonade with Matt LeMoine: The Eternal Optimism of a Struggling Sports Fan
Every year around this time, I tend to have the same items on my to-do-list as I prepare to move to Camp. I make sure that I dust off my duffels, start setting aside the clothes and costumes for packing, restock all the toiletries I need for the summer (sunscreen!), and I watch the NBA Playoffs. While the latter of these pre-camp traditions is clearly the least important for preparing to be at Camp, it is still my favorite thing to talk about from Late April to June. The last few years I have been fortunate to cheer for my team in the playoffs, an opportunity that has been rare for me the past 20 years!
In the optimistic spirit of this blog, however, I felt it might be compelling to talk about what it means to be a “Fan” of a team, especially when that team has had inconsistent levels of success. As we know from Camp, Inter-Camps, or any time we engage in competition, we cannot always win, but in loss there is a lot to learn and takeaway, and the way we respond is more important than the actual result.
On October 20, 1997, I entered a fan-base that would test my positivity, optimism, and overall resolve until the present day. On that day, I attended a Pre-Season NBA exhibition game in Halifax, Nova Scotia called the “Naismith Cup.” It was an annual match between Canada’s two teams at the time, the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies (Now Memphis). While I do not remember many specifics from that game, I do remember that Toronto’s Damon Stoudamire threw a sweet alley-oop to rookie Tracey McGrady, and I have been cheering for those Purple Dinosaurs ever since.
At the time, I only loosely followed professional basketball after seeing Michael Jordan in Space Jam the year before, but with how much fun this young raptors team seemed to be, I was hooked. Unfortunately, that season the raptors really did not have much of a chance at success. Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls went on to win their 3rd straight championship (6th in 8 years) and the raptors missed the playoffs with only 16 wins in the season. This early lack of success, however, did not deter my friends and me from cheering for our team!
In the 3-5 years that followed, Toronto Drafted a very exciting player out of the University of North Carolina, Vince Carter (now, ironically, a member of the Grizzlies). He was amazing! He could pass, shoot, score 30 points on any given night, and he could dunk better than anyone in the league! Everyone wanted to wear the number 15 in our basketball league, everyone wanted to fly like VC, and everyone was excited for out team’s future.
After 2 or 3 seasons with Vince Carter, we were finally a competitive team. In 2000/2001 we had our first ever winning season with 47 wins and 36 losses… I genuinely thought we were going to win the championship (naively). After even winning our first playoff series ever against the New York Knicks, we faced Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers in the Conference Semi-Finals. It was a great 7 game series that could have gone either way, but in the end the 76ers beat us and went on lose to Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neil, and the LA Lakers in the championship.
What followed were early playoff defeats in 2002, 2007, and 2008, losing records and missed playoffs in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013, and the departure of our only two star players in Vince Carter to the New Jersey Nets, and Chris Bosh to the Miami Heat. In 2014, however, the future once again looked bright, we had a good young team and the sky seemed to be the limit. Although we lost in the first round of the playoffs that year, we managed to put together enough positive pieces that have made us a competitive team every year since then… it is a great time to be a Raptors fan!
For any fan of a struggling team, you know the feeling of missing the playoffs or feeling like your team will never win. In the 20 years that I have been a fan of the Raptors, we have made the playoffs nine times, and made from the first round three times (including 2017). That is not a bad record! In contrast, however, in that same period (1997-present) the San Antonio Spurs have made the playoffs all 20 of those 20 years.
Regardless of whether we win, lose, come close, or totally miss the mark, at the end of every season I take stock of all the positives. In the Vince Carter years, we may not have had great success, but every time he touched the ball you could not help but take notice of his athleticism and skill. In the Chris Bosh era, the offseason was exciting and full of optimism because it always felt like we were just a player or two away from being competitive. In recent years, the Raptors have had more success, but have still fallen short each season. As a member of a historically struggling fan-base, however, every time we reach a new milestone with our current team, I take great joy in the accomplishment.
At Camp, we cannot win all the time. Whether it is Tribal, Inter Camps, Challenge Night, or Free Play, we always have a great sense of pride for the teams we cheer for, or participate with, over the course of the summer. In some cases, we win, and it feels great to be a part of those moments. Other times, we come up short, and in those moments, it is much healthier to learn from the experience, appreciate the positives, and move on with a more prepared and optimistic view for the future. In the case of cheering for professional sports, there is ultimately nothing I can do to help the Raptors get better each year, but at Camp have a unique opportunity to learn from our loses and get better for the future.
For now, I am still optimistic that the Raptors will make a great run at a championship this season, but if they fall short again… there is always next year!