Thanks to the Wizards’ loss in Boston last night, D.C. teams have now gone an astonishing 19 years since last appearing in a conference finals or league semifinals. This ranks as one of the great runs of failure in American sports history, with the clubs’ clockwork-like mediocrity becoming a kind of existential statement. More often than religion, art, or literature, the Wizards, Capitals, Nationals, and Redskins spark moody, often booze-fueled ruminations on the nature of the self and the irrationality of devotion. Why are we doing this?, my D.C. friends and I often ask each other. Why feel any attachment to what are inevitably corporate enterprises fine-tuned to profit off of whatever inexplicable remnants of nostalgia or hope we still cling to? Naturally, the deep reaches of Judaism hold the key.
D.C.’s quartet of losers made it a little closer and a whole lot harder than usual this past year. The Nats blew a 2-1 series lead against the Dodgers in the first round of the MLB postseason. The Skins’ playoff hopes died on a hilarious interception in week 17. Once again, the Caps raised athletic failure to the level of metaphysics, rampaging through the NHL regular season before running up against their ever-stalking reminder of the immovability of the cosmic order, the Pittsburgh Penguins, in the conference semis (the Caps and Pens have now met in the playoffs 10 times, and Pittsburgh has won every series but one). And finally, the Wizards. I nearly trashed my apartment when John Wall sank a last-second three to beat the Celtics and take their series to a seventh game. The result of that contest was both familiar and seemingly inevitable: Hope, for D.C. fans, is a fool’s errand. The Wizards fell by 10.
There’s a long Jewish tradition of coming to terms with what you know you already have, a mentality that implies a weird sort of optimism about the present and future: The work isn’t yours to complete, the sages say in Pirkei Avot, but you can’t abstain from the work either. David’s accomplishments didn’t entitle him to build the temple; Moses freed the Israelites from Egypt and died at the edge of the wilderness anyway. Those two weren’t failures, though. Being a D.C. sports fan is an exercise in finding meaning in the absence of a final vindication; of learning to appreciate the good stuff, even as the ultimate goal remains farcically out of reach. Maybe it’ll always be out of reach. But maybe that’s not the point.