Epigram the 1st:
“Have you noticed how their stuff is s— and your s— is stuff?”
Epigram the 2nd:
“Do me like the woman from my town would.”
I traveled to Portland a couple years ago to spend a long weekend with a friend. Portland, if you’re unfamiliar, is like if NPR built a city, which is exactly as wonderful and horrifying as it sounds. We didn’t attend a Blazers game while we were there—I had just paid to fly 2,100 miles; NBA tickets weren’t happening—but Blazers paraphernalia is something you can’t miss in Portland. Or at least I couldn’t. As an NBA junkie, I’m sort of preconditioned to spot Blazers flags in bar windows, but I suppose you could miss such signage while spending hours in the city block-sized Powell’s Books, grabbing a food cart burrito downtown, or while resisting the urge to propose to a pretty twentysomething in a sundress. (You’re a very attractive city, Portland.) But one of the most interesting things about the city of Portland, at least to me, are the pockets of direly committed Blazers fans scattered across the city like so many snowy clumps of powdered sugar on a piece of artisan french toast. (You do breakfast correctly, Portland.)
Being a fan of a sports team is an identity marker for a lot of people—note how many Facebook and Twitter profiles mention a person’s allegiance to a specific team—but in Portland, being a Blazers fan is an especially unique identity marker because A.) Portland isn’t a sports town in the vein of Boston or St. Louis or Cleveland and B.) Portland doesn’t have a professional baseball, football, or hockey team. (Here I note the existence and rabid fanbase of the Portland Timbers, but being an American soccer fan is an identity marker all its own.)
Being a Blazers fan is, I think, being both a part of the city and apart from the city. It’s like being a fan of Z-Ro, but not Jay-Z. Sure, a lot of people like Z-Ro—they compose a not-insignificant portion of the rap nerd landscape—but it’s not like you could fill Madison Square Garden ten times over with Z-Ro fans. To be a Z-Ro or Blazers acolyte is to be part of a sizable subculture. Blazers fans are a proud subculture. They rep Portland as adamantly as anyone. Their identity is held in being both a minority within their city’s larger culture and an advocate of it.
I’m speaking in broad strokes, and, of course, cities aren’t monoliths. In fact, their unmonolithicness is sort of the point of them, but for the purposes of not having to describe the idiosyncrasies of every person within their borders, we try to define them with a handful of descriptors. We peg towns with an identity. Think Pittsburgh and industry, Los Angeles and Hollywood, Miami and strip clubs. There are filmmakers in Pittsburgh, blue collar workers in Los Angeles, and strippers everywhere, but we assign certain traits to cities because it’s convenient shorthand and not altogether false. It’s not like Pittsburgh is Mecca for avant-garde visual artists, and we’ve just been lying about it for decades.
I have lived in Chicago, a parochial city in its own right, for the past four years. Despite being a city with manifold cuisine, a theater district. a phenomenal downtown, myriad diverse neighborhoods—a rich cultural identity, is what I mean—some of its residents—natives, mostly; Chicago is kind of a midwestern LA in that it houses a lot of transplants—have a strange inferiority complex toward the coasts. They bristle at the mention of New York or Boston or Los Angeles. No city shall be as great as the one that invented the pickle-adornèd hot dog! It’s weird. Because Chicago’s an immense, sometimes beguiling city. I sometimes wonder why its residents—its advocates, really—can’t be satisfied with being a wonderful town in the middle of the country.
Because there exists no objectively great city or town. Where you live is a matter of fit, and where you’re from is a matter of what city your mother was in when her water broke. It’s sort of an arranged marriage: it will affect you, but you don’t have to develop affection for it. I’m from a smallish city in upstate New York, and I kind of hate where I’m from. It’s too small for my liking (both in terms of population and worldview) and most of its citizens would build a giant metal dome over the town if they could. They deserve to suffocate beneath a physical manifestation of their own insularity. Most of them, anyway.
I’m a Cleveland Cavaliers fan because of this town. There were no local sports teams, so I decided to root for my cousin’s favorite team. So here I am: a Cavs fan, but not a Clevelander. I’m trying to figure out whether or not this is important. Ostensibly, it’s not. I’m about as devoted to the Cavaliers as any fan of the team, and I’ve been to Cleveland a handful of times. If I had grown up on the shores of Lake Erie, I don’t think I would be extolling Cleveland’s virtues to non-residents at parties. I’m also just not wired that way. Some people like to define themselves by the groups they are a part of—fanbases, cities, country clubs—but I’m not one of them. One of my favorite things about living in a colossal city is the anonymity it affords me. I can go days without being recognized on the street by a friend or acquaintance. I can just a be a dude on the corner, waiting for the light to change; that recession into nothingness is comforting to me.
But this strong city-team-self triangle—I’m from Cleveland, I love my hometown, and I’m a huge Cavaliers fan—is a crucial part of fanhood for some people. It’s not something that can be easily dismissed. I’m trying to understand it from the outside. Cities—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—assert their dominance over another city’s athletic ambassadors while in the company of fellow residents of your beloved metropolis. You can do this in places all over the country: they’re called sports bars and arenas.
The point at which this native-sports-fan-as-identity-marker thing becomes problematic is when people indulge in the fallacy that to truly understand their passion, you have to be from Sports Town X. I have heard some misguided Clevelanders engage in this nonsense. Which: I get it. People like exclusivity when they’re on the right side of the velvet rope. Clevelanders are almost never on the right side of the velvet rope. Their city is economically depressed; their sports teams have a history of futility; and they’re often on the wrong end of hacky jokes from Sportscenter anchors. My friend from Alliance once deadpanned “Surely, there is nothing worse than being from Cleveland.” What can you say to someone who condescends to you? You don’t understand. You’re not from here. Erect the ol’ giant metal dome over the Mistake by the Lake and embrace your antipathy for outsiders.
I’m not saying most Cleveland Cavaliers fans are like that. Nor are most Bobcats, Blazers, Thunder, Kings, T’Wolves, Grizzlies, or Pacers fans. But those angry, defensive thoughts happen; I’m perplexed by the people who think them. From what I can tell, one of the aspects of The Decision that most angered Clevelanders was the perception that LeBron had turned his back on Northeast Ohio. In deciding to play in Miami, he had not only abandoned the Cavs, but he had yanked his roots from Cleveland’s soil. He would rather live in South Beach, nestled against the bosom of a glitter-pocked stripper! absolutely no one thought after watching The Decision. But you see my point. Clevelanders didn’t just lose a great player: a native son spurned them. We can find the inverse of that sentiment in columns about the extension Russell Westbrook signed this winter with the Thunder. Sure, Sam Presti wanted to lock down one of the best young players in the league, but mentioned in almost every story about the signing: Russell Westbrook actually likes playing in Oklahoma City. The implication is that a player preferring to play in a small market is rare, which it is.
In a season that’s all over except for the crying and the Anthony Davis-related prayers, Cavaliers fans are tempted to look toward free agency, which I know will invoke some sore feelings from Clevelanders. Why should the Cavs have to overpay to lure free agents to their city? It’s where they live, after all; they like it. Regardless, all money being equal, O.J. Mayo would rather play in LA than Cleveland. As someone who moved from small town upstate New York to Chicago, I empathize, and if you don’t understand here’s a tautology: if more people wanted to live in Cleveland, more people would live in Cleveland. More people prefer Chicago, Boston, Phoenix, Dallas, etc. Why would NBA players be any different? There is the odd Russell Westbrook type, but most NBA players would prefer a swank apartment in SoHo to a McMansion on the outskirts of Sacramento. They don’t hate your stupid town. They just found one they like better. It’s got killer Indian food, and they can live near the ocean. Around such criteria do people make a stupid town a home.