The Agony of Game 7: Can Sports Be Too Exciting?

In preparation for tonight's NBA Finals decider, two Atlantic staffers chat about sports fans' competing desires: maximum drama vs. efficient domination.
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Reuters / Mike Segar

'Twas the Wednesday before Game Seven of the NBA Finals, and Atlantic staffers Ashley Fetters and Chris Heller were both nursing some residual disappointment from watching Game Six the night before. The Miami Heat, to their shared dismay, had beaten the Spurs 103-100 in overtime to tie the best-of-seven series at 3-3.

"But now we get a Game Seven!" Chris reasoned. Ashley, however, simply wished San Antonio had closed out the series the night before and saved her the extra two days of anxiety.

Which raised a big question. Who's the superior fan: the one who wants to see his or her team win in dominating fashion, or the one who wants to see more basketball? As Chris and Ashley weighed their differing feelings toward tonight's seventh and final game of the series, the following chat about emotional investment, self-preservation, and the nature of sports fandom (plus a little trash talk that's since been scrubbed out) ensued.


Chris: Do you wish the finals had ended before Game Seven?

Ashley: I'm torn. Because I know Game Seven is a sports fan's dream, supposedly; I'm supposed to love any occurrence of a Game Seven because it means it was a close series between two well-matched teams. And it's definitely preferable to a 4-0 blowout series where one side just doesn't show up. But when it gets to this point, I find myself thinking something like, "Oh God, how did we let it get this far?"

Chris: Haha. "We."

Ashley: Right!? It's almost like "my" franchise has let things get out of hand by not just closing it out earlier—and the more "we" struggle to seal the deal, the more anxious I get.

Chris: But you're getting more entertainment! If Ray Allen didn't hit that absurd circus shot, it'd all be over now. I'll take another game—the last game—over the silly "What It All Means" bloviating we're sure to get once it's all done. But maybe I'm being a bit too practical about this.

Ashley: It's true—I AM getting more entertainment from this series going to Game Seven. So part of me feels a little bit guilty that I'm not more appreciative of what's sure to be more excellent basketball. It's just that when Ray Allen hits an insane circus shot and I want the Spurs to win, that's the kind of entertainment that hurts at the end. Every game I watch in this series, I get more invested. So the later in the series, the bigger the payoff/heartbreak.

Chris: And now it's too much to handle?

Ashley: Yes! Am I an ungrateful sports fan for getting to a point where I just want the tension/excitement to stop?

Chris: I don't think so. I mean, it depends on your intentions. You can root for the Spurs and be a good fan—rooting for LeBron to lose, though... Do you want to see the Spurs win or LeBron lose?

Ashley: Hahaha. I mean, I'm a bandwagon LBJ-eye-roller, for sure. And to be fair, even I'm surprised at how much Spurs devotion I feel—I've never been a Spurs fan whatsoever before this post-season.

But I've noticed this extends to other sports when I watch them, too. Rafael Nadal, who's basically my favorite human, won this epic five-set match against Novak Djokovic in the French Open earlier this month, and I didn't even watch the fifth set. I turned it off. I got too scared! Maybe that's part superstition, I don't know—but I was just so invested in the outcome that a loss would have been too much to handle.

HOWEVER: I went back and watched later. Once I knew the bad guy didn't win, I was OK with watching it.

Chris: What's "too much to handle," though? If Rafa lost, what would you have done?

Ashley: Not rewatched!

Chris: But if you watched and he lost?

Ashley: I'd probably just be cranky for a little while. Actually, that's an understatement—I would have been pretty damn sad.

Chris: And that's enough of a reason not to watch?

Ashley: IS it a good enough reason not to watch? That's a big question, and a crucial one. If your team comes THATCLOSE and doesn't win, is it worth it to you to have seen the whole thing and then seen it all collapse?

Chris: I say yes. Maybe it's different when you're casually rooting for a team, but when it's your team, the disappointment matters just as much as the success. I guess this kinda relates to the bigger question of fandom at large. Why do people like watching sports?

Ashley: I feel like the noble-sports-fan response to that is "to see great achievements in sports," or "to see great games." And maybe this outs me as a blasphemous, non-noble sports fan, but I like to watch sports to watch the teams/players I feel loyal to win. Like, maybe a nobler basketball fan than me can watch Game Seven of the NBA Finals and appreciate that it's great basketball no matter who wins. But now that I have this burning desire for the Spurs to win, I'll look back at this series and sigh a little if they don't, and maybe wish I didn't have the depressing memory of them almost winning but then not.

Wait, why do YOU like watching sports?

Chris: Ehh, I don't buy the noble-fan thing. It's lame to watch sports without a rooting interest.

I watch for two reasons: 1) It's a pleasant, addictive form of escapism that lets you feel like you're a part of something outside of your day-to-day life. 2) It's an opportunity to see extraordinary people do extraordinary things. I like getting to see what I've never seen before.

Ashley: Maybe you like the spectacle and I like the team. So that means in this instance, you're a great basketball fan, and I'm a great Spurs fan (with less than one whole season of Spurs fandom under my belt).

Chris: I want the Spurs to win! I'd just like to see them win in the most dramatic way possible.

Ashley: I would have liked to see them win it in a way that was equal parts dramatic and efficient. Partly because of how much stress-eating I was doing in front of my TV Tuesday night.

Chris: "Equal parts dramatic and efficient" is the best description of the Spurs I've ever read. But that's what I don't get: If you're not attached to the team, would the loss really be devastating to you? I feel like you'd shrug it off after a while.

Ashley: Oh, I would totally feel it more if I were a lifelong Spurs fan—just like my heart still hurts when I think about the men's final at Wimbledon in 2007. That's a memory I sort of wish I didn't have. But the fact is that, however nascent my fandom may be, I do feel like I have a team in this series. That makes it a little bit different from times when I watch NBA basketball with mild or no investment in it and can just watch, you know, "for the great basketball."

I guess for me, watching in the cuddly noble-sports-fan "just for the objectively great athletic achievements/entertainment" sense can only happen when I'm not actively pulling for one team to win and the other to lose and leave crying.

Chris: Oh, totally.

"I can't watch 'just for the objectively great athletic achievements or entertainment' when I'm actively pulling for one team to win and the other to lose and leave crying."

Ashley: So if you're really excited about Game Seven and I'm kind of dreading it—what's the difference between us as sports fans?

Chris: I think the difference is that I have a higher tolerance for disappointment. I've been hardened to the point that I won't be crushed unless the team that loses is a team I already love.

Ashley: You ARE a Cubs fan. Jaded.

Chris: Being a Cubs fan is the worst. What do you think?

Ashley: I think you're probably right. I'm scared of Game Seven because it could mean that the team I have this (yes, sudden and random) loyalty to got that close to triumph and then lost it to LeBron and the Monstars. And despite knowing that sometimes that happens—that sometimes, in sports, the "good guys" lose—I would have some sads about that.

Chris: Ha, Monstars. So it's too stressful to watch? Will you stop watching if it looks like the Spurs are gonna lose?

Ashley: I think stressful is the right word. By nature, a decider game or a decider set means somebody is about to come so close and then be so bitterly disappointed—and it may very well be my team. If I'm particularly invested, I have to fight the urge to just disengage and save myself the sadness. Which I think is probably representative of why I break out in hives when it gets to Game Seven.

Chris: That's so pessimistic!

Ashley: ... I dunno, is it?!

Chris: It is. You're Eeyore.

Ashley: That must be it.

Chris: Maybe you're just more sensitive than I am?

Ashley: Like I watch sports with my feelings? I do, that's true. Isn't that kind of what it's about, though? I feel like you're supposed to watch with your feelings.

Chris: I do too, in a different way. I don't enjoy watching people lose, but it adds depth and drama to sports. "Watching with your feelings" is the opposite of "watching for the sake of the game." I think we all do a bit of both.

Ashley: I may do both when I watch this next game. Or, I'll try. But if it's especially close, maybe I'll just watch partly from under a blanket.

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Ashley Fetters & Chris Heller

Ashley Fetters and Chris Heller are associate editors at The Atlantic.

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