I think that we can all recognize that there is something a little disconcerting about sports enthusiasm in our digital, globalized culture. We develop deep, lasting emotional attachments to entities like a team, or a school, or to complete strangers whom we will never meet.
I get it. Sports can be a weird kind of thing. We invest hundreds and thousands of hours of our attention into arbitrary athletic contests that impact our lives in no direct, tangible way. We spend money to advertise for these teams on our bodies. We, the viewers, are the ones paying the billions of dollars that keep the sports industry running. Non-sports enthusiasts often ask me what the point is, what are we getting in return for that investment. What are we buying with all those hours, all those dollars?
The easy answer is catharsis, the vicarious engagement in a contest with a clear opposition in a culture that has so little clarity, so few opportunities to unabashedly be pro-US and anti-You. Another easy answer is community. We live in such busy, disconnected lives that a sports team might be the only reason I talk to my neighbor, ever. That community travels, also, as I might be in a foreign country, but if I see that red, white, and blue block A, I know that a "Bear Down" gets me a fist bump, and a friend.
I think one of the answers that gets ignored is the consistency. The world is a shifty, scary place. When I am struggling with the fact that the world doesn't work the way that I thought it did, when I am losing faith in my ability to control anything, I can turn on SportsCenter, and know exactly what I am going to get. Smooth and natural, they could have just legally changed Stu's name to butter, because that dude was always on a roll.
I think another answer could be self-expression, what our chosen teams say about us. My early athletic allegiances were all a function of a confluence of proximity in the formative period and perceived excellence. That is to say, I grew up in southern Arizona, and became a fan of teams that blew my mind. From a professional sports point of view, that meant I was not a fan of any Arizona franchise.
Go ahead and examine what Arizona sports looked like during the eighties. Try to convince yourself that a child not living in Phoenix would have any reason to support the Cardinals instead of the glorious football revolution that was happening in San Francisco. Baseball, in addition to being an underwhelming sham of a sport, wasn't even offered on the local scene, and the Suns were a pale shadow of the the basketballing delight happening at the collegiate level 99 miles further south.
All of that combined to make the Arizona Wildcats basketball team the first sports team that earned my deepest allegiance. I was just beginning to awaken to the joy that community sports affiliation could engender as a six year old in a town that had neither sport club nor college. 75 miles north of the miniscule military town in which I grew, a school in Tucson had just hired a new coach, who had snagged this little white kid who looked as much like a professional basketball player as my mother did, but happened to be incapable of missing a shot.
Growing up in the sticks, somehow my parents had email before I was even born, but we didn't get television until I got to high school. I didn't watch sports much at all. I did read the newspaper, though, and bless everything, those local writers loooooved some Steve Kerr.
I got hooked by the intoxication of watching a game, at friends' homes once I made friends, wondering if this was the game that Kerr was going to quit even pretending at mortality, and just go full Pistol Pete on whomever the Cats happened to be playing (I only learned who Pistol Pete was because a kid at school said he was like a long haired Steve Kerr). I got flashbacks to this feeling when Kerr popped into a Spurs game in the 4th to drop 5 quick threes on the Suns.
I don't think that there could be any greater environment to fall in love with a sport than becoming an Arizona basketball fan at the end of the eighties. There are a few things that make prolonged sports fandom easier, proximity, rivality, a great color scheme. Arizona had all of those, but better than that, we had style. Things got exciting through the 90's. Khalid Reeves introduced me to hiphop via Kid-n-Play, while Damon Stoudemire made me fall in love with point guards. That love affair with point guards was only getting started, by the way. Point Guard U was just getting born.
Damon Stoudemire, Mike Bibby, and Jason Terry were the reason I began watching the NBA. Following the awesome, and in the JET's case still ongoing, careers introduced me to the glory of professional basketball in time to catch the end of the Jordan years, and the entirety of the prep to pro movement. Well, I missed Moses Malone, but who didn't?
I tried to cultivate an NBA team. I sported the Bulls gear for those first few years, because Jordan, but then the Wizard years happened, and I was off the Bulls for a number of reasons. I had never loved the team, I just loved that dude. I grew up, and attended Arizona, where I had classes with Andre Iguodala, Luke Walton, Gilbert Arenas, and others, while attending the games in McHale, 15,000 fans going nuts for the latest SportsCenter highlight.
I again tried to cultivate an NBA team as all of these guys made their way into the League, but so many never reached that top tier that would allow them to maintain relevance in the heightened competetion of the professional league, and then, even if they did achieve such heights, the mercenary nature of the League bounced players from team to team.
Two things conspired to nearly secure an attachment. The First was Kevin Durant, and the Second was my introduction to the city of Seattle. I loved Seattle, and was ready to commit to the Supersonics. That burgeoning affection gained traction as the Sonics killed the next two drafts, adding Pac12 players I knew and loved for different reasons - Westbrook for the ridiculous athleticism, with rumors swirling about him walking by the UCLA pre-combine football workouts in his basketball shoes and running a 3.9 in the 40 yard dash; Harden for the beard, his sleazy old man game, and creating the only winning streak on the Devil side of the ASU-UA non-rivalry. Adding Ibaka was the kind of ridiculous bonus that only happens when divine beings are conspiring in your favor.
Or when the league commissioner and his college buddy are conspiring to get the best team imaginable to Oklahoma, for reasons that still defy understanding.
Well, after the great Sonic heist, I couldn't love that team, even as Kevin Durant won me the only cash prize I have ever gotten from a fantasy sports league and blossomed into the dirty love child of George Gervin and Dirk Nowitski.
Then the Golden State Warriors made a series of brilliant decisions. I was already partial to San Fransisco, my second favorite city in the country, home of my favorite football team, and destination of the most ridiculous road trip of my life. The Warriors had drafted my boy Arenas, and then didn't have him when he lost his shit, simultaneously creating the greatest jersey in the history of the game.
You had to be a collegiate student at a basketball obsessed university to have noticed the Steph Curry tease in his first year in the college, but in the Madness he dropped 30 on a good Maryland team. His second year you had to be living under a rock in order to miss the kid. Having seen what he could do the first time around, I picked Davidson to go to the Elite 8. I then spent the first weekend of the tournament calling every single one of my friends in the tourney pool, screaming DAVIDSON into the phone and then hanging up to watch the glory.
The Minnesota Timberwolves, who are doing everything they can to contribute to the Twin Cities collective athletic ineptitude, drafted two other point guards instead of the baby faced assassin, condemning them to be the Trailblazers to the Warriors Bulls, if the Blazers had drafted two shooting guards over Jordan instead of an All-American big man.
Steph was just as delightful in the NBA, showing off the filthy handle that made fools of everyone who said that he wasn't big enough to do his thing in the League. The Warriors added Klay Thompson, who I was thrilled to see not bombing three's on the Wildcats from Wazzu anymore, and signed Steph to the most ludicrous long term contract in American sports. The table was set, but my affection was not yet served.
I should probably make something clear. I love scorers, and Steph's NBA Jam style explosivity is like watching a lightning storm, but the passing is always what makes me giggle like a little school girl. I blame Luke Walton. When I got to school at U of A, we were already great, coming off the Duke robbery of '01. Over the next two years I think Luke probably bounced 173 passes of Rick Anderson's chest by whipping a ball through impossible paths at ridiculous angles.
Luke was the perfect senior mentor for the electric class our iconic coach Lute Olson brought in, featuring two surreal athletes, a lot like this year's team if Brandon Ashley was also the child of the greatest passing big man of all time. Hassan Adams broke my heart by taking that three against Illinois in '05 instead of just pivoting to hand the ball to the best three point shooter in the country, but there was not one moment that Andre Iguodala, affectionately called Jiggaballa, let me down. He soaked up Luke's sleazy passing, but in Dennis Rodman's body. When 'Dre came to Golden State, I was almost in. They were fun to watch, but for some reason they didn't play good basketball.
Then they hired Steve Kerr, and he hired Luke Walton as an assistant.
Done. I was in. The start to the season has been fun, but the winning has been secondary to how surreal some of their basketball has been. Steph is like a cheat code for real life, and Kerr drops at least two quotes every week that remind you that this man spent a lot of quality basketball years around Lute, Phil Jackson, and Gregg Popavich, playing with Duncan, and Jordan. I can't get enough of this Golden State team. They are worth the League Pass by themselves. Add that to the fact that their salary cap is maybe in the best place of any competitive team in the country and you have the recipe for the kind of long term success that can support a long term commitment.
So I pulled the trigger and purchased the jersey, one of the dirty slate jerseys with just the bridge and sleeves. The jersey is always a critical choice for a fan. There are a few guidelines. Don't put your name on the back of a professional jersey unless you are on that team's salary sheet. Vintage is always better, but you can't buy a vintage jersey if you are a recent convert. The great news for everyone else climbing on the Warrior wagon is that there are a ton of awesome Curry jerseys available right now. Not that I got one. I love everything about that dude's game, but he didn't go to Arizona.
In related news, in case you are curious, the NBA store will absolutely allow you to customize a jersey to read Jiggaballa instead of Iguodala.
Meanwhile Across the Pond
I didn't watch soccer growing up. I played, without particular verve or grace, but when I was fourteen I discovered my true appreciation for the game as I began to coach my younger brother and sister's teams in my father's shadow. This dovetailed into the '98 Cup and Michael Owen bouncing through our (new) cable television to enrapture me and carry my infatuation with him to Liverpool, where it happened.
There was little Stevie, bouncing around in the midfield like a teenager on Viagra at a night club. He was like the mighty, fighting baby horses that were my high school's mascot, clattering around the pitch and laying the occasional thunderous challenge on some unsuspecting winger who thought, having beaten the outside back, that he might have time to get his head up for a cross, only to find his next thought rattling around near the touchline as Gerrard turned to unload the ball as quickly as possible to someone old enough to drink in America.
Watching Steven Gerrard blossom from that gangly teenager into our Captain Fantastic not only cemented my deep and abiding affection for the Reds, but redefined how I understood the game. What needs to be clear is that for the majority of sports teams, in any league, the season ends in dissapointment. My love for Gerrard, such an obscene amount of love that I stood in the middle of a bar in California to sing the Gerrard song when he scored on the USA in the World Cup, is directly related to the fact that during my sports life the only trophies my favorite team has won were won by nothing short of heroic efforts of that one man.
In that brief window when Steven Gerrard was the greatest player in the world there was a feeling that Liverpool fans got when it was a tight game nearing the 90, a feeling that maybe only Bulls fans in the '90's can really appreciate. Liverpool was going to win, and they were going to win because the Captain did something fantastic. If a tie game reached the 88th minute, I would start hoping for a clearance from the other team's defence, because that would practically guaruntee the ball falling about 40 yards away from goal. Right in the Gerrard zone.
One of the things that I always loved the most about our boy was that he stayed. When they came calling, Captain Fantastic said no, and stayed at Anfield. In the mercernary world where superstars bounce from club to club, Stevie stayed. Until now. He has made clear all the reasons why he stayed the first time, local boy, love of the club, love for the fans, and none of those things have changed.
Personally, I think he is leaving because of the slip.
For all the trophies Steven Gerrard carried home on his back, the one that always eluded him was the Premiership. Last year was our best shot and it died when his foot slipped on that terrible square ball across the back. If we lift that trophy, I can't imagine that we are having this conversation about an impending move to LA. I think the Captain knows that no matter what shirt he wears, he'll never walk alone.
But if he forgets, I hope to be in the stands when the Galaxy come to Seattle, in all red, reminding him at the top of my lungs.
Thoughts on culture, community, and development.