Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Being a Fan

It's been a long time since I've been a true fan of any one team, no matter the sport. The closest woudl be when I grew up in Lexington, Kentucky and cheered for UK basketball. Even then, though, I always had a sense that we'd really lost a sense of perspective. The zeal of the UK fan was that of a fundamentalist, which one can only truly appreciate after you leave the blue-blooded confines of Lexington and witness it from a distance. In fact, during in college, I ended up developing a special kind of hatred for the UK basketball fan, watching them be too obnoxious in victory (as though THEY had earned the glory) and too vindictive in defeat. I think this experience really warped my sense of sports enjoyment, to the point that I became a lover of sports without any real allegiance.

Sure, while living in Cincinnati I became partial to the Bengals, but this was always more sympathy for the hometown team than real fandom. Their playoff run in 2005 was more of a shock than a thrill. And yeah, I have a definite soft-spot for the Reds, having gone to their games since I was a boy, and will still even go to their games when they visit the West Coast, but I've never been completely sold-out on them either. I couldn't put name to face for 85% of their present roster.

Just prior to my move last April, I told a co-worker that I was going to start cheering for the Golden State Warriors. I'd long wanted a NBA team to rally around, they were lovable underdogs, and since they played in a terrific Western conference I'd get a chance to see a lot of quality teams play in my new backyard. To my surprise, upon my declaration, they went on a winning streak to end the 2007 regular season and squeaked into the playoffs. (I was still in Ohio at this time and thus didn't actually get to see this surge, but instead followed it with growing interest via box scores. I later learned this sixteen-game stretch is where the Warrior mystique truly came alive in popular NBA legend. Plenty of good YouTube videos to be seen chronicling their rise.)

The 2007 playoffs kicked off while K. & I began our epic seven-day trip across the country. While on the road, we watched the Warriors split the first two games in Dallas against the Mavs. I was impressed, but I wasn't hopeful. A number-eight seed simply doesn't win in a seven-game series, I explained to K. Something happned in Game Three, though. I remember watching it from our hotel room in Monterey, balancing an over-priced room-service hamburger on a napkin, and witnessing the strange synthesis of crowd and team at the Oracle Arena. I wasn't there, but I knew there was a "moment" happening -- one of those things that all sports fans watch sports for. This is where the regular script is thrown out and replaced with something infinitely more significant, even when it means your team doesn't win. Maverick fans loathe the Warriors, but I think they have to admit something special happened during that series. Golden State went on to win the series in six games, and though they lost the next round to the Utah Jazz, my absolutely arbitrary decision to become a fan had been solidified.

In many ways, I realize this may qualify me as a world-class bandwagon jumper ... but, I can deal with this aspersion of my character. Bandwagon or not, this has been the first full season of my being a true fan. I've not only watched a good 95% of their games, I've brooded mercilessly when they lost and cheered triumphantly when they've won. K. & I have hours-long discussions about playoff possibilities. She has consoled me mid-game when all hope looked lost; and I've counseled her from the brink when our team has let another eighteen-point lead dip to two. And even now, instead of looking for a job I'm reflecting on who they should draft.

With the joys of being a fan, of course, are the remarkable lows when things do not work out as hoped. To the NBA's loss, the Warriors were eliminated from playoff contention this week when they got beat by the Suns. It was hard to watch, especially after they were up eleven in the fourth quarter. I was without consolation Monday evening following the game. But as I reflected on this yesterday, I realized that I was entering uncharted emotional territory. I'd simply never felt that invested in a team's win-loss record. I don't know that I'd recommend it as a way of life -- knowing at least one Buffalo Bills fan, I can attest that it likely isn't healthy in the long run -- but there is something to devoting oneself even to a losing effort. There is, I now understand, a communal aspect to being a fan -- of the celebratory cheers and mournful moans held in unison amongst strangers.

Perhaps, in the end, what I disliked about my previous experiences in Lexington was that the fan experience was too individualistic. Maybe things have changed, but at the time UK fans were not feared because they could collectively will a team to win, or because their teams resembled their fans to the point that they were an organic whole, but because of the combined weight of their general animosity toward losing. This just seemed to breed a sense that they were owed success, and resulted in unearned bitterness when it didn't happen. (Just ask Tubby Smith.)

Out here in Oakland, though, it's safe to say that I've enjoyed my experience as a fan so far. I don't think I'm likely to extend it beyond the NBA right now. I have issues with the salary and talent distribution of baseball, so I can't take it too seriously; NFL has really begun to annoy me increasingly; and I've long ago turned my back on college basketball & football. In the ranks of professional sports, nothing comes closer to the NBA right now. I've said this before, but I highly recommend that you latch onto a team during this upcoming post-season -- maybe a young & fun 76er team, or a Hornets team everybody overlooked before the season. It's going to be a helluva ride. Who knows, maybe you'll fall ass-backward into becoming a fan, too.