The Root of All Fandom

September 28th, 2012 by Nate Smith

Friends, family, Cavs lovers, playa haters… I ask you, why are we fans?  Are we just  rooting for laundry: empty jerseys, uniforms, sponsors, and corporations that may leave this town the minute it is no longer profitable?  No city in America knows abandonment any better than Cleveland, and no sports fans know it any better than Cavs fans.  So why are we fans?  What are we rooting for? I’ve been asking  those question for the last several years here under the moniker, “HoopsDogg.”  I’ve yet to get a good answer.

I don’t know why — we don’t know why, and  yet we persist: playing, watching, reading this blog, scouting, buying tickets, watching drafts.  Where does this persistence come from?  Isn’t the overwhelming question in some of your heads, “Why should I care?”  “Why do I care?”  “Why am I a Cavs fan?”   Those are questions every Cavs fan, and I imagine, every Cleveland sports fan has asked themselves at some time during his or her life  Yesterday, on Mallory’s podcast, Robert Attenweiler answered with a reference to Pete Beatty.

Sports fandom is one share of stock in a joint venture that ties you to the experiences, attitudes, company, licensed apparel lifestyle choices, etc of others. It gives you something to talk about with male relatives that doesn’t involve actual feelings or anything inappropriate like that….

Fandom delivers exciting narratives of perseverance and eventual triumph, or underdog striving capped with honorable defeat. These narratives function as portable emotional currency, with little illustrations of mythological scenes printed on them, legal tender that you can swap with other people in conversation over beverages or phone wires, across class and race and age boundaries.

That’s a pretty reasonable argument, but it seems superficial at best.  The real answers seem more ephemeral: things all fans, save maybe ever-winning Yankees fans, have to figure out for themselves.  To answer is to define identity — hopefully in a way that transcends cheap western brand preference and base consumerism. A sports fan seeking truth asks, “Why this sport?”  “Why this town?”  “Why this team?”   For myself, I can pretty much sum up the love of basketball, with one phrase: I grew up in Alaska.

When you’re a kid in Alaska in the 80s and 90s, and there’s nothing to do for months on end in the winter, you have to find vices. You either get fat playing video games, find some obscure, expensive winter sport like cross country skiing, turn your skin into sandpaper at the nearest high school pool (me), or play basketball. In the villages and small towns, football, wrestling and basketball seasons are spaced out to keep the boys from dropping out. If a village high school can muster five boys or girls, they’ve got a basketball team. There’s more than one story about a player fouling out at the state tournament and teams having to play four on five. Alaska is basketball crazy, and like Phil Berquist said of Baseball, it was one of the few things my Dad and I could talk about without us trying to kill each other.

We did play indoors in the winter...

Alaskans are weird, and a lot of us are sports nuts. It’s one of the ways you keep yourself connected to the rest of the country, so you have something to talk about when you call down south. So we follow the national sports like crazy, though that craziness often has to start at 9 in the morning. There’s really no “regional” teams either. Sure there were the Sonics and Seahawks, but everyone’s from somewhere else, and the Lakers are probably #1. Myself, I was a Celtics fan. I wasn’t old enough to like them when they were championship contenders. By the time I came to them they were aging: clinging to the vestiges of health and stardom that had propelled them through the 80s. My favorite player was Kevin McHale, probably because he was thin and pasty and had razor elbows like me. And definitely because he guest starred on Cheers.

I had a bit of serendipity with the Cavs, though. My best friend Luke was a huge fan, and the first summer out of high school, we spent $200 in a summer playing NBA Jam at the arcade with Reggie Lewis and Kevin McHale constantly battling Luke’s Price/Daugherty lineup.

So I was familiar with late 80/90s Cavalier pain.

By the late 90s, basketball had reached a zenith in Alaska, Trajan Shaka Langdon who was a rock star in Anchorage, was playing for Duke. By extension, if you weren’t a hater and didn’t have a familial tie to a lower 48 college, you rooted for the Blue Devils. I moved here the year after he was drafted, and spent a lot of time watching his games. You know how that turned out. (I’m still convinced they gave up on him one year too soon. Knees are tricky and it takes some guys a couple years to come back. The Alaskan Assassin ended up becoming one of the greatest Euro players of all time… Maybe he was the NBA’s proto-Boobie Gibson. And yes, I realize that NO ONE reading this cares or remembers T.L. besides me. I’m a sports elephant.)

I watched a lot of depressing Cavaliers basketball from 2000-2003 – the abysmal post Shawn Kemp era.

Shawn Biggums

It wasn’t hard to still wear the green. In 2002, the Cavs drafted the 2nd Alaskan NBA player, Carlos Boozer, 34th overall. I remember going to see him play that year. Man, the Gund was depressing: those blue seats, those uniforms that were so boring you wished for a return of the electric blue, DeSegana Diop, Dajuan Wagner (can you believe he’s only 28?), Tyree Ricardo “Ricky” Davis… It was a murderer’s row of awful. But it led to something great, something that caused me to abandon an allegiance I’d had for fifteen years. I think you know what it is. Yep, you guessed it, in 2003 the Celtics traded half their team to the Cavs. The Alaskan kismet, my favorite Celtic becoming a Cav, and a kid with the initials, LBJ — it was fate. I checked the rules. It was ok to switch.

So then I made it to 600. Six hundred games. That’s how many Cavs games I figure I watched between 2003 and 2010, give or take. Where does it go? Through two daughters, two presidents, two wars, hundreds of beers, and thousands of Tim Misney commercials, I watched the Cavs. 600 games to talk about the next morning at work. 600 games to jump around in my living room. 600 games to curse Paul Silas and Mike Brown. 600 games to watch a power forward stab a blind man in the back. 600 games to come up with fantastic nicknames for Andy. 600 games to make “Boobie” jokes. 600 games to wonder WTF is wrong with Delonte West? 600 games to cringe at Austin Carr. 600 games to shake my head at “Tragic Johnson.” 600 games to try to listen to Joe Tait while the game is on TV (it was impossible). 600 games to realize that J.J. Hickson can’t catch. 600 games to watch Wally Szerbiack dunk. 600 games to watch posing. 600 games to see Big Z putbacks. 600 games to pretend Jamario Moon isn’t tragically flawed. 600 games to worship divine, God given, Bruce Lee channeling, time stopping slams. 600 games to mute Reggie Miller. 600 games to sit in Ira’s Newblehood.  600 games to stagger around, unable to sleep after this

and this.

From insane highs to devestating lows (eff you, Mickaël Piétrus), the Cavs consumed me for seven years. That’s at least 1500 hours of my life. And then came “the Decision.” I’ve already walked down amnesia lane enough this post, and we’ve all rehashed it eight million times. That day sucked (well, actually the next week sucked). I’m not going to engage in the hyperbole that it was the worst day of my life, blah blah blah. But it sucked. It sucked because it seemed as if the place I lived, the things I loved, the people I knew – they just weren’t good enough, and every time I turned on the TV, the radio, the computer… I was reminded of that. We had something no one else had, something that made us special and unique, and it was gone. To top that, from Cleveland to Youngstown to Akron to Canton, and all points in between we were in the middle of a suckass recession. We’d all lived through 2 years of forclosureville. We’d taken solace in sport, in the Cavs. During those playoff runs, a lot more people than maybe should have grinned with irrational smiles on their faces the morning after a great win. It took me a long time to realize that what made this area awesome had nothing to do with LeBron. It had something to do with this feeling that we’re all in it together.

I’ve always rooted for underdogs. No team I’ve loved has ever won any kind of trophy: from the 1995 Mariners, the 2003 Chiefs, to the 2007 Indians, to all those Cavalier teams. But I remember the players from those teams because they weren’t just empty uniforms. They were strange individuals; likable personalities; living breathing forces of nature surrounded by midges that were assembled into something larger than the sum of their parts. That’s something LeBron never got when he was here: a team has to be bigger than life, bigger than self, <insert corny platitude here>. I feel the same thing about the whole region: from northeast Ohio to the whole purple state, to Detroit, to Buffalo. There’s something special about the rust belt: something more earnest and honest than those towns on the ocean coasts. Maybe it’s because we’re stuck with each other all winter so we have to learn to like each other or leave. Maybe it’s because we’ve been hit hard, and even if we’re doing well, we all know a lot of people who aren’t. Maybe I’m hearing the voice of the “Pure Michigan” guy. Maybe I’m full of crap.

The point is about my adopted rust belt homeland: we’re underdogs. We always will be. Those coastal assholes will always look down on us. We’re flyover country. And even if you don’t live here anymore, and you’re relegated to being, “people from Ohio,” as Mallory coined it, you can take a perverse joy in that.  No one decent from Akron roots against Cleveland, and vice versa. There’s so much FUS out there that it doesn’t even make any sense not to pull for all those little communities around you, and hell, Detroit’s so gashed I can’t even hate the Pistons anymore.

And even if you find the idea of regional allegiance bizarre, as Colin did in one of his best pieces, I still hope there’s a character to the region that rubs off on even the most distant fan. “Cities –” Colin wrote, “though they’re really just a mass of flesh, concrete, and steel—breathe. They are frighteningly organism-like. And what better way to celebrate that almost-organism than by watching your favorite sports team— ambassadors of your favorite city.” I still hope that the guys on my team represent some of what I value: hard work, individuality, class, humor, diversity, decency, effort, originality… And I hope they can split double teams, hit corner threes, and convert around the basket.

There is a point at which players – those ambassadors – have been a part of the team and the area for so long that they’re not “players” any more. They’re people. They exist outside of the game. They become part of the mythology of the realm. Instead of our team/our place leaving their marks on them, they leave their marks on us. Jim Brown, Bernie Kosar, Bob Feller, Jose Mesa, Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel, Zydrunas Ilguaskus, and LeBron James (for good and ill), have imbued our folklore with spirits that it didn’t have before they were here. That’s why we’re not “rooting for laundry.” Rooting for people instead of shirts transcends that banality.

So you’ll never see me arguing to trade Andy or Boobie. I love those guys, and unless they want to go, I’ll be happy to see them eke the marrow of their talents out onto the floor until they pass on to that great broadcasting booth in sky. But I know that’s not realistic.  Even I have my limits. I finally broke my streak, during “the streak,” and years of watching every Cavs game possible, while still remaining on speaking terms with my wife, came to an end. But all things renew. And even my favorite game ever came during the 2010 season (ok, 2nd favorite.. It’s hard to beat the Boobie Gibson game).

It’s pretty obvious that John, Kevin, and Colin were doing some yeoman’s work during those dark days of Cavdom. In looking back at all the writing that’s gone on at this site since Krolik started it. I’m pretty honored to be a part of it.

Colin prayed to the basketball gods that year.

Hope is a mysterious power. Battered as Cavaliers fans are, one dreadful season cannot drain us of our hope. We have experienced the euphoria of serendipity too recently to forsake hope. Drunk with its fervor, I send a plea into the ether of cyberspace, perhaps into the ears of someone who can help: build us a future. Build us a young team with talent and promise for whom we can desire victory.

That prayer was answered.

That team is here, perched on the cusp of a new season, ripe with possibility. The air here is always crisp in the fall, and the leaves greet you more brilliantly with each new morning sojourn. Kyrie, Tristan, Dion, Tyler, Andy, and company: it’s my fervent belief that the whole of the rust belt, which has been kind enough to take us into its autumnal bosom, is in for a renaissance as well. I’m sure Krolik (wherever he is), Colin, Kevin, Mallory, Dani, and Ryan – whether they live here or not – hope so too. For as Ohio goes, so goes the nation, in so many more ways than one. Though my hyperbolic screed seems to belie it, I look forward to explicating the x’s and o’s of the Cavs here this season, trading beer and music suggestions with the guys, living and dying with each Tristan Thompson free-throw, and conveying the flavor of purplest of purple states.

So Probst! Here’s to pick and rolls. Here’s to drawing charges. Here’s to alley oops. Here’s to the Princeton offense. Here’s to Krispy Kreme stories. Here’s to the inscrutable Austin Carr. Here’s to Andy drawing flagrants. Here’s to Klutch Kyrie. Here’s to Saint Weirdo. Here’s to 2 AM recaps. Here’s to new nicknames. Here’s to 3G. Here’s to Byron Scott’s dirty looks. Here’s to sublime blog posts. Here’s to breaking out of mid season slumps. Here’s to comment wars. Here’s to insane trade machine scenarios. Here’s to epic podcasts. Here’s to rooting for people. Here’s to a long and lustrous winter.

Why am I a Cavs fan? Every game is something to look forward to. Every season gives new hope.

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