WASHINGTON — Before the NBA playoffs had begun, I asked someone who works in Washington about the perception of the Toronto Raptors in the United States.
“Oh, everyone assumes the Raptors will lose,” came the reply.
“Except in D.C.. Everyone there assumes the Raptors will win.”
That might sound like a line delivered for comic effect, but it takes a certain kind of consistent losing for a city’s fans to move past nervous to fatalistic. Washington sports is well past that point. And with some of the cities that have competed for the mythical title of Losertown having recently burst through to the other side — Cleveland, Philadelphia, Houston — it is the United States capital that can presently lay claim to being the saddest of the sad sacks.
As Raptors-Wizards turns to the Capital One Arena for Game 3 on Friday night, the question is whether the visitors from Canada can exploit some of that angst.
Washington does not immediately leap to mind when considering crushing sporting failure. It’s not Buffalo, where the heartbreak happened in the Stanley Cup final and in the Super Bowl(s). It’s not Cleveland, which until the triumphant return of LeBron James had been struck by so many playoff failures that were unusual enough to have iconic names: The Shot, The Drive, The Fumble. Also, while not technically a playoff failure: The Decision.
But when you start poring over the collected whiffs and splats of the teams based in the D.C. area, it doesn’t take long before you start to wonder if you are missing something. Could all of this really have happened to the same fan base? The thing about Washington’s teams isn’t that they fall flat on the big stages, it’s that they sputter and collapse just before getting there.
The Capitals are the relative success story: they made the Cup final in 1998 and have been a playoff fixture in the years since. But they have not made it back to even the conference finals, and have made it as far as a Game 7 in the conference semis four times. The Caps are 0-4 in those games. This year, despite winning their division again, they started the playoffs with two straight overtime losses on home ice, although there was that sweet video of the little blonde girl who was super happy to finally get a puck. The Capitals could yet even their series with Columbus on Thursday night, but considering that eight of their previous 10 playoff games have gone to overtime, one could forgive the team’s fans for skipping it and giving their hearts a rest.
The Redskins have not made an NFL conference final since 1991, and then had a franchise quarterback who blew out his knee in a game in which he probably shouldn’t have been playing, and if you want to see all that as karma for the fact that the team has a racial slur as a nickname, then that’s as good an explanation as any. Actually, the first explanation is that Dan Snyder is a terrible owner and a bad human. The second explanation is the racist-nickname karma.
The Nationals, a damn fine baseball team for several of the past seasons, have made it to the NLDS four times since 2012 and failed to advance each time. Three of those losses came in a deciding Game 5 at home. In 2012 they blew a 6-0 lead in Game 5 and last fall they had a three-run lead, and then a one-run lead in the fifth inning, with Max Scherzer coming in to nail it down — and gave up four runs in an inning that included four straight batters reaching base without a hit, and just one of those being an unintentional walk.
The Wizards have not specialized in that kind of anguish — they just haven’t made it to the conference finals for 40 years — but you can see how they are part of the mix, part of a legacy of failure at crucial moments that has developed into a fan base’s existential dread. Washington’s teams have had 12 shots over those years in a game with a conference-final berth on the line. They are 0-12.
This is the kind of thing a visiting team can turn to its advantage. Should the Raptors jump on the Wizards early in Game 3, there’s a good chance they could turn the Washington crowd into a sea of nervous murmuring, as has occasionally happened to the Air Canada Centre in recent playoff years. If it doesn’t take the Wiz crowd long to assume the worst, I mean, could you blame them?
I do recall, though, writing something similar about the mindset of the Cleveland fan, having touched down there for the East finals two years ago. A couple of weeks later, Cleveland was the city of champions.
Washington’s fans will probably keep such ideas to themselves, at least for now.
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