“Joys are forgotten, but sadness, never.” — Mikhail Lermontov, “A Hero Of Our Time”
This most recent era of Washington sports has delivered many bundles of joy, from individual awards (MVPs for Bryce Harper and Alex Ovechkin, a Cy Young for Max Scherzer, lots of Vine views for Kirk Cousins) to division titles (a combined five over the past two years) to sustained relevance (the Wizards, Capitals, Nationals and Redskins have combined for 10 straight seasons at .500 or better, the longest such four-team streak in the history of Washington sports.)
But when the Wizards were eliminated by the Celtics on Monday night, and Washington’s winter sports season ended with a familiar empty thud, those joys were forgotten, replaced by familiar clouds of depression. It felt like discovering your trusty old hoodie and slipping it back on, only to discover it was covered with rabbit scat, the pockets stuck together with dripping hunks of ripened washed-rind cheeses, the hood well-scrubbed with poison sumac. Brings back so many memories! Pain, it turns out, is a memory. So is nausea.
And so Kelly Olynyk was Pete Kozma was Jaroslav Halak. The Wizards were the Capitals were the Nationals. May 15, 2017 (Wizards eliminated by Celtics) was May 15, 2015 (Wizards eliminated by Hawks) was May 15, 2014 (Wizards eliminated by Pacers). And Washington sports fans were left where Washington sports fans are always left: sitting quietly on their couches, staring at their darkened television screens, wondering whether they should get up and do something, wondering why they care.
“I am convinced more than ever that non-sports fans lead infinitely better lives than those of loyal enthusiasts,” one local fan wrote as part of a lengthy screed he sent me late Monday night, and when your happy hobby has you sending lengthy late-night screeds of depression to already depressed columnists, your hobby needs a prescription. At least one.
You probably already know the numbers, but they’re staggering. Washington has now completed 68 straight baseball, hockey, basketball and football seasons without once appearing in a conference finals, easily the longest drought of any town. In the past 15 times they might have ended that streak, Washington teams are now 0 for 15. Most of these losses — a single game for the football team, or a playoff series for the other teams — are so distinctive that I could jog your memory with just one proper noun. Here, let’s do it, in chronological order.
Dan Turk, Shaq, John Hall, Sidney Crosby, Sean Bergenheim (okay that’s a tough one), Henrik Lundqvist, Pete Kozma, David West, Brandon Belt, Derek Stepan, Paul Pierce, Nick Bonino, Clayton Kershaw, Marc-Andre Fleury and Kelly Olynyk. How does that make you feel? Why do you think you react that way? Have you been working on what we talked about?
Boston teams, by the way, have been to the conference finals 24 times during Washington’s drought: 11 times for the Patriots, twice for the Bruins, six times for the Red Sox and now five trips for the Celtics. San Antonio teams have done it 10 times. Well, San Antonio team. The San Antonio Spurs are a better sports town than Washington, by a score of 10 to zero. The Ottawa Senators are a better sports town than Washington. The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, who no longer really exist, are a better sports town than Washington
“Is it fun for you to torture me?” Vera asks in the above-referenced Russian novel, and think of her as talking to the big-four Caucasus sports teams. “I should really hate you,” she goes on. “Ever since we have known each other, you have given me nothing but suffering.”
Sounds familiar. Just look at some of the responses people sent me Monday, as I picked through the painful numbers.
“At some point this becomes a comedy, right?” one asked. “The Caps had already sapped my spirit to the point I felt nothing tonight,” another wrote. “Feels as bad as it sounds,” someone else wrote. “If karma exists, the next 25 years better be amazing,” a fourth reader pleaded.
You’ve known about this for years, but the rest of the world is increasingly taking note of things like this: In the last decade, the Caps/Wizards/Nats/Redskins have had 16 individual winner-take-all playoff games. They’re a combined 3-13 in those games. And so we had Juliet Macur, writing in the New York Times this month that “The Title of Saddest Sports Town Now Goes to Washington.” Or Jason Gay, writing in the Wall Street Journal this month about “the capital city’s growing image as a pro sports punchline.” There’s a tortured, expect-the-worst mood around town, and each successive playoff loss makes it a little worse.
Now watch me go off-script for a minute. Here’s the list of cities that have won MLB, NHL, NBA and NFL division titles over the past two years: Washington. Here’s a list of cities whose NHL and NBA teams both advanced to the second round this year: Washington. Here’s a list of the cities whose MLB, NHL, NBA and NFL teams all had winning records in their most recent seasons: Washington and Boston.
The Capitals just completed their best back-to-back regular seasons in franchise history. The Wizards just won their most regular-season games since the Carter administration. The Redskins just completed their first back-to-back winning seasons in 19 years. The Nationals are tied for the most wins in baseball over the past six years. At any time of the year, you’ve been able to settle in after a horrible commute from your frustrating job and watch a relevant team play relevant games. The eventual endings have been gruesome, and so there’s sadness in the sense of disappointment, and heartbreak, and agony. But let’s not confuse that with sad as in pathetic, or sad as in punchline, or sad as in … well, sad as in Buffalo.
The Bills have missed the playoffs 17 straight seasons. The Sabres have missed the playoffs six straight seasons. That’s all those folks have. Sure, they have a more recent appearance in the conference finals — that round wistful Washingtonians have started fetishizing — but you can’t convince me that being a Washington sports fan is sadder or more hopeless than rooting for Buffalo teams.
Or for San Diego teams; the Chargers just up and left, and the Padres have missed the playoffs 10 straight years, finishing with losing records eight times in that span. Or for Cincinnati teams, where neither the Reds nor Bengals has advanced a playoff round in more than 20 years. Or for Phoenix teams, where the Coyotes, Diamondbacks and Suns have each missed the playoffs at least five straight years. Did that NFC title game appearance by the Cardinals really counter 15 playoff-free campaigns? Would you rather have one Double-Stuf instead of 14 good, solid, above-average Oreos?
Be sad. Be heartbroken. Be pessimistic. If you’re in your 20s or 30s, by all means, feel sorry for yourself. You deserve it. But you still got to enjoy Jayson Werth’s walk-off, even if Drew Storen happened. You still got to enjoy Sergei Fedorov’s game-winner, even if Crosby happened. You still got to enjoy Kirk Cousins’s 2016 run, even if Aaron Rodgers happened. You still got to enjoy John Wall’s three-pointer, even if Olynyk happened.
This isn’t 2009, when the Wizards were a national embarrassment, the Redskins were a national embarrassment and the Nationals were a national embarrassment. D.C. was a sad sports town then, maybe the saddest. It’s a heartbroken sports town now. The former is awful. The latter is just kind of like life.
“Joys are forgotten, but sadness, never,” Lermontov wrote, and he was probably right. I’m not telling you to forget the sadness. Just remember some of the joys.