/Stephen A. Smith and the Lure of Losing

Stephen A. Smith and the Lure of Losing

SPN’s Stephen A. Smith.
Photo: ESPN

If you will forgive this Deadspin founder who spent many years making giddy sport of the man, I have to admit: I have sort of come around on ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith. He’s a completely absurd character whose commentary is designed to be the precise opposite of enlightening, and that he has become the signature opinionator on everything for that network is a daily open admission that many of the once-grand journalistic ambitions of that network have been dropped entirely. (My friend and Deadspin successor Tommy Craggs once joked that Smith’s one talent was “the ability to be emphatic on command.”) If Stephen A. Smith is more powerful than ever, and he is, it’s definitely a sign that the early sports blogosphere lost the war.

All that said, I am not immune to the charms of this.

It’s a video with everything, beginning with Smith simply screaming, “DAMMIT!!!! DAMMIT!!!” into his phone, seemingly from a moving vehicle, before putting his head in his hands and mournfully shaking it as if he’d just witnessed a cute animal being run over by a train. For reasons unbeknownst to any sentient person, this television professional, one of the highest-paid media personalities on the planet, has not provided any light for his close-up, giving the video a confusing Blair Witch feel. I might love the way he closes the video the most, wailing in his best Leave Britney Alone voice before nearly breaking down and moaning, in a startling Stephen A. admission, “I don’t even know what else to say.” He ultimately sticks the landing: “Hopefully I’ll calm down before First Take tomorrow,” bringing the whole thing home to nail the promo this was all about in the first place. Friends: Two million people have watched this video. I give up. Stephen A. wins. I accept it. In a sports-media world of disingenuous hucksters, blatant liars, and Barstool, this sort of lunatic performance art has a certain dignity to it. Good for you, Stephen A. If someone has to reign, it might as well be you.

Anyway, the reason for Smith’s kabuki rant is perhaps instructive, not just for Smith’s (mostly wrong, however amusing) histrionics but for what it means to be a sports fan in the year 2019. Smith — who, I feel obliged to point out, is a national commentator and therefore technically not supposed to be so directly aligned with one team (go Cardinals) — is bemoaning the fact that his beloved New York Knicks did not get the No. 1 overall seed in Tuesday night’s NBA Draft Lottery, dropping to the No. 3 pick, which will thus deny the Knicks the opportunity to draft all-world talent Zion Williamson, who will now play for the New Orleans Pelicans (whose disgruntled superstar, Anthony Davis, the Knicks had considered trading the rights to draft Williamson for in the first place). In watching it, you would have thought that obtaining the No. 1 pick was a layup for the Knicks that they nonetheless contrived to choke. “I knew it,” Smith says, almost tearing up. “They get close, they tease us, then they never get it done!” He then yelps a few times and punches something soft, hopefully fake leather car upholstery. “Typical Knicks!”

Of course, this is not what happened last night. The banshee-like shrieks of Knicks fans in the wake of the draft lottery, it must be said, made no logical sense. The draft-lottery balls did not fall against the Knicks; they fell for them. As Nate Silver noted, the Knicks had a 60 percent chance of ending up with the No. 4 or No. 5 picks, which means they beat the odds to pick as high as they did. (They had only a 14 percent chance of landing Zion with the No. 1 pick.) The two teams with the exact same odds to receive the No. 1 seed as the Knicks did, the Cavaliers and the Suns, will actually pick behind the Knicks with Nos. 5 and 6, respectively. The Hawks had nearly the same odds and ended up all the way back at No. 8. This draft is generally considered to have three superstar-level talents: Williamson (a step above the other two), Murray State’s Ja Morant, and Duke’s RJ Barrett. The odds were against the Knicks’ having the opportunity to land any of them. And yet now they’ll get one. The Knicks were lucky. The Knicks won.

But Smith is hardly alone in feeling like his team failed him again. “A ZION SHAME,” the Post blared, and the Daily News went with the always-clever “RIGHT IN THE BALLS: Knicks take one last kick from NBA gods as they draw No. 3 pick and miss out on Zion.” Part of this is simply life as a Knicks fan, which always begins and ends with the basic assumption that everything is going to be terrible and is only going to get worse with time and that your job as a Knicks fan is not to have hope but instead simply to sit there and take it. But the larger issue is the sense that, by having had such a terrible 2018–19 season, the team and the fan base somehow deserved the No. 1 pick. We have suffered so much. Give us what we have earned. The Knicks’ missing out on the top pick wasn’t a statistical probability; it was just another kick in the balls.

Thus has the dubious logic of tanking — the art of intentionally losing (or not trying to win) in order to increase the odds of receiving a high draft pick — gained respectability. Of the major American sports leagues, the NBA is the only one in which tanking is a proven strategy, and for good reason: In a sport where one franchise player can be the difference between a losing record and a championship, in many cases the most direct strategy, if you don’t have that player, is to try to lose enough games so you have a chance to get one. In an age where fans are more sympathetic to the perspective of team management than ever before, they’re likely to tolerate — even embrace — a strategy of losing to win later. You take your medicine for future reward. This wasn’t just the Knicks’ plan: It was the Suns’ and the Cavaliers’ and the Bulls’ and the Hawks’. Sow pain now; reap glory later. Fans of the Philadelphia 76ers famously turned this emotional-investment plan into a rallying cry: Trust the Process.

But sports can never fulfill all these promises: By design, only one team gets to win. Fans feel betrayed by ping-pong balls when they don’t get their Zion, but it’s their teams — and, really, themselves — that are truly responsible for the betrayal. We only get a few spins around the Sun in this life, after all, and sports are supposed to provide us with a distraction and escape from all the fear and suffering that surrounds us. You watch your games and if your team wins, you are happy; if it loses, you are sad. There is a simplicity in sports that is unavailable to us elsewhere. But tanking messes this whole process up. It tells us that losing is good and winning is bad. These games are finite; the opportunities to cheer your team to win are rarer than we realize. I humbly submit that if your first instinct when you turn on a Knicks game is “Please lose, Knicks, my favorite team,” I am not sure how much of a fan you really can be.

Tanking, to paraphrase an old David Mamet line, is like paying interest on a debt that never comes due. It allows teams like the Knicks to get away with bad management for years and call it Process. That yearslong 76ers tank? The one that much of the NBA is now modeling itself after? It has resulted in Joel Embiid, which is great, but they still lost in the second round of the playoffs and are now facing a potentially destructive offseason roster reckoning. And that’s the best-case scenario! The Cavaliers and Bulls and Suns made the same deal with their fans that the Knicks did and ended up even worse off. Losing doesn’t guarantee later winning. It just guarantees that you are currently watching your team lose.

The NBA has done what it can to minimize tanking, and the results of this year’s lottery are the proof. The Knicks’ horrible record, the worst in the sport, got them that 14 percent chance at the No. 1 pick, nothing more. But knowing that being the worst team gives you only a minuscule chance at the No. 1 pick and actually accepting it as empirical truth are two very different things, as witnessed by all the crying Knicks fans this morning. It is almost as if there might have been value in the Knicks’ not being as terrible as they could last year. But then again: What else were fans to do? If you don’t have hope in sports, what do you have?

So what did the Knicks ultimately get for their lost season? Furious fans, more pain, the mockery of the sport, and the continued sense that the universe is out to get them. And they were the lucky ones. Tanking doesn’t guarantee anything but wanting to beat up the upholstery and scream.

Will Leitch’s Games column runs weekly. Email him at will.leitch@nymag.com.