Dreams of Losing a Sports Hero

5 min read
Kelly Bulkeley

Kelly Bulkeley

In a forthcoming article, a colleague and I report that dreaming about sports is most frequent among people who are interested in sports, not necessarily those who are actively practicing a sport. In other words, fans seem to have more sports dreams than the players themselves.

These findings testify to the strong emotions that people invest in their favorite teams and players. Sports provide a cultural arena filled with larger-than-life figures (in many sports literally so) who reflect a wide range of psychological qualities and personality traits—some we admire, others we loathe. As fans we project heartfelt meanings onto their dramatic experiences of victory and defeat, thereby enlivening our sense of human possibility and striving for excellence.

What happens, then, when your favorite player leaves you?

Mourning a Sports Hero

Sports as a psychologically stimulating, culturally bonding experience for fans often conflicts with sports as a cold-hearted, for-profit business. This conflict becomes especially sharp when a fan-favorite player is traded or leaves for free agency. It’s an agonizing moment of double loss: our favorite player is gone, and so is our illusion of a personal, inseparable connection with them.

Sigmund Freud wrote a brilliant essay on the psychological effects of loss, titled Mourning and Melancholia (1917). For Freud, the pain of loss can actually become a source of inner growth and greater emotional resilience. Whether it’s the death of a loved one, the end of a phase of life, or the departure of an idealized public figure like a sports star, we mourn by internalizing a living image of what has been lost. This image enables a withdrawal of the original projection and a reintegration of those energies within your own psyche. The suffering is real, but the ultimate gift of mourning is a more complex and dynamic inner world, which can be a source of strength in trying to deal with an increasingly challenging outer world.

Dreaming of Dame

In addition to survey research, I draw on painful personal experience as a fan of the Portland Trailblazers basketball team and their best player, Damien Lillard. A perennial All-Star, he led the Blazers to eight straight playoff appearances. And yet, for all his amazing success, he has no championship rings to show for it, not even close. As the seasons went by and other teams rose from worse than the Blazers to become top contenders, Dame’s loyalty was tested. It’s hard to know what the final straw was, but earlier this year he asked to be traded, and after several months of uncertainty he was finally dealt to the Milwaukie Bucks.

Once the immediate shock was past, I reviewed my dreams about Dame over the past several years—a total of eleven between 2017 and 2023. What immediately struck me was their emotional ambivalence. I’m not saying they were precognitive, but the dreams do suggest that maybe a split was inevitable. I began mourning his loss in my dreams before I did in waking.

A couple of the dreams are purely heroic portraits of his amazing capacity for leadership. Here’s one from 12/16/19:

Damien Lillard and other players on the Blazers basketball team are defending a house, which is being attacked from all directions….it is a very hard process, a losing battle….But Damien is an awesome leader….

Other dreams raise concerns, though, which I didn’t really notice as a theme until now. I remembered the positive heroic dreams, but not the more ambiguous ones, such as this one from 10/20/21:

Damien Lillard goes onto the basketball court with a gift someone gave him, a white rectangular box with a few things in it….he is happy, but I am confused….Won’t this distract him from the game?….

My thought was that Dame has a gifted musical career in the works, too, and Portland may not be an ideal platform for that emerging future. The dream anticipates a divergence of our interests, and the mourning to come.

The strangest dream came on 1/3/22, just as the Blazers’ fortunes began a steep decline, and their streak of consecutive playoff appearances would end:

I am watching a Blazers game on television….Damien Lillard drives to the basket and is fouled….He and the other guy fall to the floor in a tangle of legs….Damien is angry, and kicks the other guy….The referee immediately blows his whistle and ejects Damien from the game….I immediately turn off the television in dismay….Yes, Damien definitely kicked him, he should not have done that, and of the course the ref is going to throw him out….But I do not want to watch any more of the game now….

His behavior in the dream is wildly out of character with his waking-life demeanor, which is consistently cool and collected even in the most intense moments. But now, I see an indication that I may not like or agree with everything Dame does, and at some point I may need to let him go. This seems to be the message of the most recent dream in the series, from last summer (6/22/23), after his trade request but before the Milwaukie deal:

I am with a group of people, we are helping set up the new NBA basketball draft players….Is Damien Lillard a part of this?….that seems strange….

What feels strange is that Dame is part of our, Portland’s, draft preparations. It’s odd because, in the dream at least, I have already accepted that he is gone. No longer one of us, he is now one of them.

In waking life I haven’t quite gotten there, but looking at this series of dreams reassures me that eventually I will. I truly do hope Dame gets a ring out of this, no one deserves it more. And a new era has begun for mournful Blazers fans, with talented, eager players ready to take us on another psychological roller-coaster ride.

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