ZHENG: What it takes to be a fan

It’s not easy to be the fan of a bad team. But it can be even harder to be the fan of a half-decent team when you can foresee its inevitable collapse (if you’ve been to The Game in recent years, you’ll know what I mean).

Halfway into the lockout-shortened, 66-game NBA season, my team, the Houston Rockets, is doing well. The team currently sits at 19–14, good for sixth place in the competitive Western Conference. Yet somewhere in every Houston fan’s heart lurks a deep feeling of resignation. It doesn’t matter if we make the playoffs. It doesn’t even matter if we win home-court advantage. With our current roster, we just don’t have it in us to run with the Thunders and the Bulls of the league come playoff time.

What’s most heartbreaking is that only two months ago, we were so close to becoming contenders again. In early December, the Rockets had a three-team deal in place that would have landed the Los Angeles Lakers’ power forward Pau Gasol. The Lakers, on the other hand, were ready to ship out Gasol for the chance to pair Kobe Bryant with another bona fide superstar, the Hornets’ Chris Paul.

While the trade itself seemed to benefit the Lakers more than anyone else, the Rockets had more moves in mind. With the additional cap space gained from the trade, Houston expected to sign free agent center Nene Hilario. Hilario, along with the immensely versatile Gasol, would have formed one of the strongest frontcourt combinations in the league.

The “could-have-beens” don’t stop there. Since the trade would also have sent backup point guard Goran Dragic to the Hornets, chances were that the team would never have cut Jeremy Lin, then still on a nonguaranteed contract, from its roster. Presumably, the Rockets would have eventually recognized Lin’s talents, and Linsanity would have taken off in H-Town rather than the Big Apple.

Of course all of this was too good to be true. In professional sports, nothing ever goes quite as planned. The NBA owned the Hornets at the time and could make the final call on the team’s decisions, though NBA officials had promised to stay out of team affairs. Citing “basketball reasons” that were never quite explained, NBA Commissioner David Stern nixed the trade at the last minute. Soon thereafter, the Hornets traded Paul to Los Angeles anyway, except this time to the Clippers. The Rockets were left coughing in the dust, wondering what could, and should, have been.

When is it most frustrating to be an NBA fan? It’s not when your team is struggling at the bottom of the standings chart. If Tim Duncan and Kevin Durant taught us anything, it’s that high draft picks can change the fortune of a team in ways that can hardly be exaggerated. What’s truly scary is perpetual mediocrity, that awkward state in which a team is caught between an inevitable first-round exit in the playoffs and a draft pick at the bottom of the lottery.

As much as I hate to admit it, the Rockets are the kings of mediocrity. (The Kings are not far behind.) For two years in a row, they have missed the playoffs despite a winning record and ended up with the cursed 14th pick in the NBA Draft. Sometimes I find myself wondering — why do I still follow them? After all, like countless other Chinese fans, I only learned of the Rockets through Yao Ming. Yet the last time Yao played significant minutes was during Houston’s playoff series against the Lakers in 2009.

Perhaps I should have ditched the Rockets and found another team to root for. A team that has a legitimate shot at the title, a team with a likable superstar talent — heck, even the dreaded Miami Heat (the mere thought of supporting LeBron gives me chills). So why didn’t I climb into the Kevin Durant bandwagon, or hop onto the Derrick Rose train?

Somehow, something doesn’t feel quite right. When you can name every assistant coach on a team, when you find yourself working the ESPN Trade Machine every time a rumor pops up on Twitter, when you’re always clicking on the same logo in Association Mode on NBA 2K12, you have to fact that it’s hard to let go. You can’t help it; you just care too much about that team. It’s like telling yourself not to check your ex’s Facebook wall, unless you can find a way to change the privacy settings on SportsCenter, that is.

The willingness to endure hard times is what separates the real fan from the bandwagoner. If you only start following a team when they’re already up 3–1 in the Conference Finals, you’ll probably never come close to understanding what Spike Lee felt when he beamed in front of the camera wearing his brand new Harvard #4 jersey. After all, the beauty of sports lies in its spontaneity and irreversibility. Anything can happen at any given moment — a trade, a trade called off, an injury, a comeback, a buzzer beater, a miracle — and the wait is what makes all worthwhile.

So I’ll probably stick with my Rockets. This season probably won’t lead anywhere, nor will the next. Yet I’ll know when that magical season comes because I’ll have walked with my team every step along the way.

After Houston’s second NBA Finals appearance in 1986, Rockets fans had to endure a drought of five first-round exits in seven years. But what lay at the end of the tunnel? They witnessed Hakeem Olajuwon dominating Patrick Ewing, then dismantling league MVP David Robinson, and finally overwhelming a young Shaquille O’Neal en route to back-to-back championships. That’s a story they’re still telling their kids today. That’s a story for the ages. The Rockets fans of the ’90s got their magical season. I’m still waiting for mine.

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