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November 15, 2018

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Sports offers partial refuge from politics

I suspect I share this with many others: Over the past 500 or so days, I often wanted to ditch politics entirely. Sports became my shelter from the storm, a field of competition in which performance can be judged with a degree of objectivity and blustery hot takes on Twitter do not threaten the republic.

True, it says something about my attitudes toward President Donald Trump that a political obsessive like me would want to escape the news — and, I’ll admit it, not hear that voice.

And sports are by no means an airtight sanctuary from political discord. Trump’s war on NFL player protests and the capitulation of the league’s owners to his campaign of intimidation are maddening for many reasons. One of them is the president’s inability to allow a sphere of life to remain independent of his influence. He always needs to divide, and he insists on being the center of attention, whether he’s welcomed or not.

Nor do I forget that professional sports are about making money. Owners make cold decisions to move teams from one city to another, breaking the hearts of the faithful. Players serve their own financial interests, aware that they’re negotiating with people who are doing exactly the same thing.

For all this, I am willing to suspend disbelief so I can enjoy both the nobility of achievement and the simple delight of the fans.

As a long-standing resident of the D.C. area, I was elated when the Washington Capitals finally captured the NHL’s Stanley Cup last week. Sports devotees in a city whose pro teams have lost, and lost, and lost again deserved a reprieve.

Area residents who a month earlier didn’t know a blue line from a chorus line suddenly became experts on penalty kills and cross-checks. It was beautiful. New fans joined long-timers in devoutly wanting good tidings for a place they care about, a brand of loyalty we can treasure.

And although I’ll always be a baseball fan, I truly fell in love with the NBA this season.

What a relief it was to immerse myself in the youthful grace of Jayson Tatum, the driven genius of LeBron James, the joyful smile of Steph Curry.

I’m a down-the-line Boston fan (despite my rooting with my neighbors for a Caps victory) so I reveled in the overachievement of a very young Celtics team after injuries sidelined its stars, Kyrie Irving and — in the first game of the season — Gordon Hayward.

Nobody expected them to go very deep into the playoffs, yet they kept winning, taking LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals.

Concerning the up-and-coming generation, I’m a hope-monger. So I loved it that a bunch of guys on the youngish side of 20-something — Tatum (20), Jaylen Brown (21) and “Scary Terry” Rozier (24) — shocked the skeptics with their grit and skill. And being rather beyond my 20s, I also admired the dependability and leadership of Al Horford, the wise elder at 32.

We didn’t quite make it all the way this year, but just wait till everyone comes back healthy in the fall.

And while the Golden State Warriors’ four-game sweep of the Cavs took some of the fizz out of the championship series, the Warriors’ almost other-worldly dominance earned this team a place in history. The question of whether LeBron could carry his team all the way made for good drama (even if the answer was “No”), as did gritty moments from Kevin Love and, despite his big mistake in Game 1, J.R. Smith.

OK, politics are inescapable, and I respect the NBA’s progressive attitude toward racial equality and players’ rights to speak out against injustice. The NBA owners should give the NFL owners seminars on these matters. Oh, and after both LeBron and Curry said they wouldn’t go to any White House victory celebration if his team won, Trump said he wouldn’t invite the NBA champs anyway.

The president might learn something if he had them over, because the biggest lessons that politics can take from sports concern judging people by whether they deliver on what’s expected of them; how teams work together across many divides of personality, race and nationality; and how partisans can be passionately loyal without really hating each other (the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry partly excepted).

And wouldn’t it be lovely if politics could be fun again?

E.J. Dionne is a columnist for The Washington Post.