After being thoroughly dominated by the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the NBA playoffs last week, Denver Post sports columnists lamented the woebegone nature of the helpless Nuggets. As this was happening, the Minnesota Timberwolves were doing what Minnesota sport’s franchises have done since the dawn of creation: indescribably blowing sure-wins and simultaneously crushing their fans’ tender Norwegian-Lutheran hearts and souls.
In 75 NBA seasons, no team has ever blown a 10-plus point fourth quarter lead more than once in a playoff series. The Wolves must have heard that as a call to action. In just their 12th playoff series in team history, they did just that three times in losing 4-2 to the Memphis Grizzlies.
Interestingly, as I witnessed the game four debacle wherein we blew not one but two 20-point leads, I was numb. This apathy is a result of, even at just 31-years-old, the amount of abuse I’ve received at the hands of my home state’s teams.
It all started in 1998, when the greatest football team ever assembled rocketed out to a 20-7 first-half lead on the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC title game. After spending the following 29 minutes trying to help the Falcons make it to the Super Bowl, the Vikings trotted Gary Anderson, who hadn’t missed a field goal all season, in for a 38-yard chip shot to send us to the Purple’s first Super Bowl since 1977 (the most recent of our four Super Bowls losses).
For you skiers who care about football about as much the French-Canadian fur trade economy, let me provide a metaphor. The difficulty of Anderson’s task would be the Alpine equivalent of Mikaela Shiffrin needing to simply make it down Gopher Hill without falling in order to claim a crystal globe. Well, in the Gopher state, nothing is automatic, and of course, Anderson missed, we lost, and wouldn’t ya know, the Denver Broncos went on to win the Super Bowl.
Had we been there, your Broncos would have lost by 50-points to my team. Now, you might say, “Well, if that’s true, how come you couldn’t beat the Falcons?” The answer is simple: demonic forces. Or maybe aliens.
There is some kind of dark curse over the land of 10,000 lakes. In fact, I’ve received actual voicemails from locals accusing my Northstar heritage as being the reason for River getting fourth at the Olympics and Mikaela skiing out of three events. It turns out, I have no rebuttal.
I remember grown men literally weeping at our family’s 1998 NFC title game watch party. Since then, many Minnesotans have grown increasingly self-aware and have actually embraced our squads’ ability to absolutely blow it. While listing off every blunder could consume this entire column, the fact that a Minnesotan author recently published a book called “Land of 10,000 Aches: A History of Minnesota Meltdowns,” ought to suffice.
I’ve actually seen people leave Sunday potlucks at the two-minute warning with the Vikings ahead by 17. They have the social and sporting ineptitude to utter, “Well, this game’s pretty much over.” Trust me, at the bait shop the next weekend, you don’t tell that guy where “the fish have been biting.”
I once went over to the college house of my twin brother, Dan, to catch a Vikings-Packers game. We were up in the second half when one of our receivers dropped a pass. Without even thinking about how it would impact the cosmic spiritual domain, my vocal cords — out of sheer reflex — uttered, “This has a collapse written all over it.”
I know you might think this is embellishment, but my brother’s roommate looked at me and yelled, “See, this is the why we lose!” as if Adrian Peterson fumbled on the next play because I whispered a premonition into the TV. I was never invited back.
The last time a meltdown really bothered me — I mean to the point of altering digestive operations — was when Brett Favre single-handily gave the 2009 NFC title game to the Saints. Of course, three years later my older brother was in the crowd when Blair Walsh did even worse in a Wild Card game against Seattle. With a 29-yard chip shot separating us from the next round, Walsh went wide left, and my brother’s fiance — a Washington native — stood up amidst the stunned, silenced crowd, and mustered every ounce of her art teacher voice to shout: “Goooooo Seahawks.” My brother ended up marrying her, though this moment undoubtedly tested their love.
I know I’m rambling here, but let me give you some hard data to support just how hard cheering for the Vikings, Wolves, Wild, and Twins has been compared to reasonable sports markets.
Since I’ve been born, those teams have combined for a whopping 59 playoff game wins. The Wild have 28 of those! The Twins are currently on an 18-game playoff losing streak, something so unfathomable I have to reexplain the stat to my grandma — who might be the only person still tuning in for all 162 of the franchise’s meaningless games — every year.
No team has been to a league title game in this three-decade span, and in fact, we’ve only had seven semi-final appearances. Tom Brady has as many Super Bowl wins as every Minnesota teams’ combined semi-final round appearances!
If I had grown up in Boston during that same time period, I would have enjoyed 341 playoff game wins, 33 semi-final appearances, and 12 World Championship titles between the Patriots, Celtics, Bruins, and Red Sox.
The far right could legitimately accuse me of child abuse for raising my kids up to be Minnesota fans. Ironically, this type of grooming is totally accepted across the state.
When I was a kid, our desperation forced my brothers and I to wear out our VHS copy of “Twins Win! The Story of the 1987 World Series.” My twin brother has memorized most of Star Wars — and ALL of “Twins Win.” He even wrote Kirby Puckett, who responded with — and this is essentially a direct quote — “Choose. A. Different. Team.”
Granted, the women have rescued our state, and not just by providing the watch parties with hamburger hotdish and mean bean dips. They’ve also been the state’s sporting bright spot.
First, Jessie Diggins. Enough said — though Diggins relocated to Vermont, and on her annual three days back in Minnesota last year, got pushed off the road by a lunatic truck driver while rollerskiing.
Additionally, Hutchinson’s own Lindsey Whalen, who deserves to have Lake Superior renamed in her honor, helped the Lynx dominate the WNBA for 10 years, winning four titles. Even that team, however, wasn’t immune to the curse. They should have won more titles but the gods intervened on behalf of the Los Angeles Sparks for an impossible buzzer-beating win in 2016.
When the Lynx were making one of their Finals runs, Dan and his entire DII track and field team — many of whom were testosterone-filled linebackers on the football team — got together and, I’m not even making this up, had watch parties for the WNBA playoffs. Please, don’t take this as an attack on girls basketball, for it was quite the opposite. Those corner-house get-togethers were more popular and (required less beer) than the football gatherings, largely because the team actually won.
There’s a point hidden here, I think.
When I think back to those dreary Sunday afternoons after yet another blown game by my idols on the field, court, rink or diamond, I’m reminded of the multitude of athletes today who seem to care less than the fans who follow them.
They will deflect questions about outcome and say things like, “It’s not about winning, it’s about the process.” There is truth in that statement, of course and I’m all for proper perspective when it comes to sports, believe me (if there’s anything being a Minnesota fan has taught me, it’s that you can’t get too hung up on wins and losses). But, I think two things can be true at once. Athletes can know the game they play really isn’t life or death, and still play, train and compete like it is.
I’d rather see an athlete bothered by the sting of defeat than listen to a 25-million-per-year player talk about how the game doesn’t really matter much to them. Can you imagine Michael Jordan saying such a thing? Now, Jordan ultimately harbored a great deal of bitterness — which fueled a lot of his greatness — and that isn’t good, but as a fan, I’d love to see more carry a chip on their shoulder, cry when they lose, and vow to never let it happen again.
The pursuit of winning is not mutually exclusive with any of the deeper transcendent values sports provides — rather, it works in tandem with them.
The other lesson?
If possible, never watch the Vikings in front of your children. You screaming, “Minnesota!? …..nice…..” at the TV is not what the phrase “Minnesota nice” is really about.