Hold the rose, feel the thorns
A rare sports-themed edition of G&GFY in which I process the Damian Lillard trade
Howdy, and welcome to Good And Good For You, a newsletter about music and feelings. I know I keep saying I’m gonna paywall stuff, but that’s not this one. This one’s for Rip City. If you’re here for music and don’t give a shit about sports, thanks in advance for bearing with this one—our regular programming will resume soon.
When Mitski said “I bet on losing dogs,” do we think that maybe she was talking about the National Basketball League’s Portland Trail Blazers? Those are the losing dawgs I bet on (metaphorically; I’m no sinner), and it’s always felt natural. Rooting for the underdog runs in my blood: I grew up with my dad, Mr. Texas Tech, shaking his fist at all the adverse circumstances that were keeping our football and basketball teams from finally hitting their stride. Plus, you get a lot of (frankly insane) hate for being a Red Raider in Longhorn Town (UT is a state school too, for crying out loud. You’re not fucking Harvard! Get over yourselves!!). Cheering for a scrappy, unpredictable team—in red and black, no less—feels as natural to me as breathing. Where’s the fun in winning every time?
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People who know me well will say I haven’t always been a sports fan. Besides my fervent but mostly latent emotional tie to Texas Tech sports on account of my dad, that is true.
I moved to Portland, Oregon, in October of 2016 and didn’t give a shit about any of the city’s teams until April 2019. I’ll get to that in a second. This post is about Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers legend and former point guard, but before I can talk about him, I have to talk about Texas Tech basketball again.
Toward the end of March 2019, Tech had made it to the NCAA Final Four. We decided to, uncharacteristically for us at the time, watch the game at a sports bar. It was a special occasion, and we hesitantly cosplayed sports fandom for the night, motivated mostly by boredom and duty. By the end of the night, screaming with raw delight at the cutthroat win against Gonzaga, I knew something had changed in me. THIS was what people liked about sports, I realized.
Tech lost the championship, and as quickly as I had stumbled into basketball ecstasy, I plunged into its agony. It might have been a short-lived affair, my basketball fandom, if not for The Shot a few weeks later.
If you’re a Trail Blazers fan—or, let’s face it, even if you’re not—you know where I’m going with this. After a fraught 5-game NBA semifinals series, Damian Lillard hit a three-point buzzer beater to win the Trail Blazers’ home game against the Oklahoma Thunder, sending Russell Westbrook—who had been on his biggest butthole behavior—packing. It wasn’t really The Shot that won me over, though. It was The Wave.
It wasn’t points or plays that cemented me as a sports fan. It was The Wave. It was Dame.
In the weeks and months that followed, I eagerly consumed all the Trail Blazers media I could get my hands on; followed dozens of new accounts on Twitter; showed up at pop-ups and watch parties. To my astonishment, every encounter was immensely warm and welcoming. Not at all what I expected from a city that had, to be honest, heretofore treated me pretty coldly.
Moving to a new city—to a West Coast city—is fucking hard. I’ll get a cute little job in a plant shop, I thought. WRONG. Portland, for better or worse (mostly worse), is a much smaller city than it seems, and getting a job anywhere is a nightmare when it all boils down to who you (don’t) know. Eventually, I clawed my way into an entry-level role at a tech company, mostly by luck, but never really felt like I belonged in that world, either. Making friends was hard, too. I used to explain it to people by pointing out that I always thought I was outdoorsy growing up in Austin, but to me, that means being out on the lake with a beer; in Portland, that means climbing a fucking mountain. I joked about it, but secretly cried. I felt I’d never belong in the city I’d risked it all to try.
Trail Blazers fandom gave me a place to belong. Dame was easy to love; the underdog ethos of the team was one I understood at the deepest level; jumping into the Twitter sphere was effortless. By that point in my Portland tenure, I had a collection of wonderful individuals I called friends, but Blazers Twitter gave me a community.
And, of course, Damian Lillard, at its center, its beating heart of larger-than-life lovability, providing endless fodder for our adoration. I’ll never quit my addiction to his impossible half-court shots; when you watch one sail in, for just a second it doesn’t matter if the Blazies are down to the worst team in the league—it’s still good to be alive. He was always up to something off the court, too: throwing an unbelievably adorable birthday party for Dame Jr.; goofing around on Instagram Live with his partner in crime CJ McCollum; schlepping cars at Lillard Toyota that we all jokingly daydream about buying. Feeding our elusive, ever-present hope that maybe, just maybe, TBAGTWTC (for the uninitiated: The Blazers Are Going To Win The Championship).
It physically hurts to think back on that long, slow autumn. That season of Portland that treated me so beautifully. Games at—what was that one place on Dekum?—Tough Luck, with the fantastic fried chicken. Nurk’s purple suit while we waited for his leg to finally heal. I was always shy to go to the full Blazers Twitter meetups (one time I went to that hotel bar near the Moda and saw everyone and got so nervous that I walked right back out), but online, we were great pals.
We had tickets to the early March game in which Nurk was supposed to make his return. Uncle Nurk, as Dame (and Dame Jr.) called him—in return labeled “Babo” by his friend, which is Bosnian for “daddy.” We were supposed to see Nurk finally play again. And then, the world shut down.
I wondered if the NBA players kinda liked quarantine. On Instagram, we saw glimpses of Dame in his mansion, finally getting some god damn peace and quiet with Kay’la and the rest of his family. In our popcorn-ceilinged apartment, bringing in a friend to live with us to avoid going into debt, we binge-watched Succession and The Bachelor and anything else that would numb the pain of the world, as we knew it, ending.
And somewhere in the midst of the virus, we also took to the streets of Portland to protest police brutality and other injustices of racism. We didn’t know that much about Covid yet, so logically, there was the chance that getting sick could cost us our lives. Still, there was, Dame, out at the front of the crowd, leading the march. I’ll never forget looking over as we tried to find our place, seeing him in the flesh with us, yards away, knowing in that moment that he was, and always would be, my hero.
When the NBA “bubble” finally happened, I swore I’d never take basketball for granted again. Slowly, the league resumed operations to varying extents, Gobert shenanigans aside. While basketball went back to sorta normal, my personal Portland never did. Shattered by the loneliness of quarantine and irreparably disillusioned by the city I never planned to stay in forever anyway, I put in my successful bid for us to wish it all goodbye.
Three years/eons later, a song catches my attention in this Austin coffee shop. It’s a cover of one of my favorite Billy Joel songs, “And So It Goes.” I feel like it’s not cool to like Billy Joel??? But I can’t help it. I’m listening to the song, and I’m thinking about how it hasn’t hit me yet that Dame is actually leaving. I watched a goodbye video this morning and honestly felt nothing. I read a gorgeous Rolling Stone piece by Corbin Smith and felt nothing. To be fair, I’ve been a little inundated with feelings about other things recently. Losing your career and marriage will do that to you.
The lyrics of the song struck me, though. “And every time I've held a rose / It seems I only felt the thorns,” Joel wrote. Portland, City of Roses. That’s how it feels to root for a team, a hero that only ever breaks your heart. “And so it goes, and so it goes / And so will you, soon, I suppose.”
Perhaps another part of my emotionlessness about the Dame trade is that, like my Twitter friend and Roman Roy have said, maybe I’ve pre-grieved?
The day Dame requested a trade, Twitter broke. Literally. It was down for hours, and I was forced to cry alone, because I couldn’t participate in what surely would have been the social media pity party of the century.
I couldn’t be on Twitter, so I cried alone. I cried and cried. I cried for the lost years in Portland that were supposed to be fun, but weren’t. I cried for the marriage those hardship-riddled years eroded. And yes, I cried for all the frustrating fucking losses I’ve watched this team take, and every time we consoled ourselves with the knowledge that at least we have Dame to lead us into the frightening unknown. Casual fans may not know, but he’s a boxer at heart. It was his first love, before basketball. Damian Lillard, forever a fighter, drumming up inspiration where others would only see adversity. Holding a torch, holding a rose. Holding the promise that when all else fails, we’d still have basketball and loyalty and a place to feel like we belong.
But isn’t all this why I became a sports fan to begin with? Perhaps it makes me a masochist, but I can’t imagine the glory without the pain.
How boring, to root for a team that always sweeps. How dull, to love the one who you are not afraid to lose.
Billy Joel said it better than I could:
So I would choose to be with you
That's if the choice were mine to make
But you can make decisions too
And you can have this heart to break
And maybe I’m not talking about Damian Lillard anymore. Even though he did fully break my heart, the bastard. But he also made me a sports fan. My money will always go to the underdog—surely, one of these days, it’s got to pay off.
P.S. Go Bucks.
P.P.S. Fuck Miami hahahahahahaha
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