Deconstructing Fandom: Digging Deep and the Damage Done

Posted on Thu 20 June 2013 in 2013 Playoff Coverage by Aaron McGuire

Miami's message to San Antonio near the end of Game #6.

Sportswriters are a fickle bunch. We hoot and holler about elevating the game in poetry and prose. We laugh off cracker-jack cliches and pooh-pooh fortune cookie analysts. "Take this away, Alfred!" we say, to our pet goldfish named Alfred who isn't nearly as anthromorphic as this phrasing suggests. "We cannot have this! We are men of intellect, poise, and guile! Bring me the Hammer Play! Bring me the Longform! Away with this pablum, away with the cookie-cutter phrasing, begone!" But in moments of utmost confusion and despair, we realize something. Sometimes, there's little more to say. Sometimes, the cliches of the world are all we have left.

And so, my single thought on Tuesday evening's thriller: Sometimes, you have to dig deep.

You know the drill. You wake up in the morning and you just don't have it. Whatever it is, you simply don't have it. Me, I'm a professional statistician. If I have one of those dead days, and I can't dig deep? It's alright. It's OK. I'll struggle through the day and work twice as hard the next. Deadlines are deadlines, and I'm not stupid enough to pretend I've never missed one. But I've yet to miss one simply because I didn't try hard enough. I may not be able to dig deep every one of those days, but I sure as hell try my best.

I don't envy the task of the world's best -- firefighters, doctors, lifeguards, soldiers, pilots. If they don't dig deep, on the wrong day? If they have one of those days where they just can't hack it? People could die. In that context, it's often hard to feel much in the way of sympathy for the sports team that couldn't hack it. After all. Nobody dies if their favorite team loses the finals. One fanbase rejoices, the other laments. What's at stake? One loss. One win. History and infamy. The lore of the sport and the hearts of fans. In a refreshing twist to the miasma of everyday life, when it comes to sports, the winner and the loser is always brutally clear. There is no tie, in the highest reaches of sport. There is a winner and there is a loser. And there is never doubt.

On Tuesday, Miami dug deep.

• • •

For many devotees of sport, their favorite team's true legacy isn't measured solely in the beck-and-call of the team's accomplishment. The public accomplishments are one thing. The personal accomplishments are quite another. To many, there's a complex interplay between the fan and the team, a strange symbiotic relationship that lends sport meaning and lends sport feeling. What's a title to you if the you didn't have to sweat it to get there? What games did you see? How did the team impact you? Did you ever take a sick day just to watch your team? Did you ever feel the sweat glaze your brow as you collapsed into nervousness and succumbed to sport's whimsy? Did your favorite sport make you feel? Scream, gasp, cringe, shiver? Have you ever? Do you even lift, bro?

Ahem. Sorry. The main point is thus. Sports is a beautiful, all-encompassing distraction. That's what it is. A distraction. It's a distraction that gobbles the fan up and turns madmen out of empiricists. It turns statisticians to superstitions. It makes the strong tremble and the weak holler. It lends a screeching barroom baritone to otherwise mild-mannered folk.

We can talk all we want about what a fan "should" be -- but that's bunk. At their core, a sports fan is an individual who contracts out a bit of room in their heart with the hope for comparative greatness. Some fans put in little, switching from teams for a short smiling burst in between an accomplished life. They wave their fandom's flag one or two days a year, letting it fade to the back of their mind. If the team wins, they get to smile and call them "their guys." If their team loses, they feel little pain. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. In many ways, I envy the individual who can separate themselves from the proceedings. That's their way of enjoying things, and more power to them for it. It's just one of the many ways to be a fan.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have those who toil in their love for their team behind struggling institutions and hope that someday their luckless warriors will pay their loyalty back with a miracle season and a promise upheld. You have the ones who sweat every game and tear out their hair and stress about minutiae for hours and hours each and every week. You have, in short, the diehards. And that's me, too. What is sports, to this fan, if it isn't the hope for resplendent victory couched in overreaction and despair? We cannot allow visceral emotion to control us in our everyday lives. We can't go sobbing when a politician screws up their promises, we can't go screaming fecklessly at coworkers who aren't up to par. We must modulate.

But when it comes to sports and the distractions we know full well are meaningless, we can assign as much meaning and import as we'd like. We can drum ourselves into righteous fury and not a soul can stop us. We can watch our pet sport's title game and pin glory and greatness to those who win the game. We assign immortality. Because at the end of the day, sports are meaningless distractions whose meaning is derived entirely from the soul of the fan and the love of the crowd. It is our molding clay, and diehards see fit to mold it.

• • •

sad zoos

When I embarked on last year's Player Capsule project, I was well aware the thing wasn't going to be easy. In every sense of the cliche, I knew I'd have to dig deep to finish the project up and put a product on the table I could be proud of. I knew that. But I didn't really expect things were going to be quite as hard as they were. I didn't grasp going in how much of my time would be consumed by a project that few people I knew even realized I was doing. Although I'm still young, I didn't realize that my ability to pull out a degree and a thesis in three years of school wasn't an easily replicable process. I didn't realize that spending months on end with three to four hours of sleep a night, a 10-hour-a-day job, and seemingly impossible self-expectations was going to be so painful.

In a weird way, the project has loomed over the entire season for me. I don't know if I'll ever take on a writing project as enormous or all-encompassing again. I'm a pretty crazy guy, so maybe I will. But probably not. And ever since its completion, writing about basketball has gotten -- strangely enough -- more and more difficult for me. I worked so hard to come up with 370 distinct essays with feeling and love that I lost sight of the fact that the grind would continue for the entire remainder of the season. Gothic Ginobili's writers sort of vanished. The traffic we got from the project waned quickly. And before I knew it, the glow of accomplishment wore off and I was right back to where I was before it started -- tik-typing away, just a fan at a computer. And the work got harder. The narratives didn't present themselves as readily.

But that isn't to say my love for my favorite sport was heavily impacted. When you spend that much time on a project, you draw the project's subject closer and closer to your heart. I mentioned the "contract" a fan signs with a team -- give the team a certain-sized piece of your heart, and reap the accordingly-sized heartbreak or triumph. In doing the player capsules, I didn't really realize it at the time, but I was putting more of my heart on the line than I'd ever expected. I poured myself into this game, this silly game, and I now feel the consequences. Sports -- this meaningless exercise -- has become all I can think about in the run-up to this Game #7. This lingering dread, this shaky excitement. It is thrilling. And it is a terror.

And it is hard, now, to write about such things without drowning in the moment and intensity and love.

• • •

On Sunday afternoon, I was asked by everyone's dear friend Alex Arnon what it was like to visit San Antonio for Game #4 of the NBA Finals. I described it thusly, not yet aware that the description would fit just as well for the torturous proceedings in Game #6.

"Okay. Here's the situation. Have you ever had a friend who's really, really, REALLY into this thing they think you'd love? They're just SUPER into it. And they hype it up and get you pumped and get you raring to go. You may not have wanted it earlier, but you definitely want it now. They make you want it. Build it up. You gotta do it. Then, one day, they're like 'oh, hey, dogg... I got you tickets to that thing. You know, that thing you'll LOVE?' And you're all 'HELL AND DAMN YES' and you guys are running and running and you get to the car and you drive to the thing and you get a speeding ticket because it's so close but you don't even care. Man, it is right at your fingertips. You're just like 'AW HELL YEAH LET'S GET IT' and you look to your friend for tickets. And they reach into their jacket but instead of tickets they take out a glock and shoot your kneecaps and kick you in the face and shoot you in the chest, leaving you to die on the grass outside the gate, bleeding and broken. ... Well, OK. That hasn't happened to me either. But I imagine it was like that, you know?"

Someday, I'll write the book on Game #4 and Game #6. Someday I'll reach into the well of discontent and extract only the best fish from my sea of thoughts and impressions. But now? I can't. Because, at the end of the day, there's no avoiding the truth of the matter. I'm burned out. I never thought -- after so much effort and energy -- I'd find myself here. But them's the breaks. I worked and I rose and I fell and I hurt. And at the end of the day, I am here. Nervous, twitchy, proud. The Spurs are phenomenal. They are great. Are they the greatest? I do not know. Nobody does. Not yet.

There is a creep of expectations that occurs when your favorite team overachieves. Most know the type. When the Spurs overachieved in 2011, I expected little and received little. When the Spurs overachieved once more and looked invincible in 2012, I began to expect history. I did not get it, and that was crushing. And now, this year? I expected a flawed, old, and broken down Spurs team that would be lucky to get to the Western Conference Finals. What I got was perhaps the finest Spurs team that's ever stepped foot on the court, a beautiful symposium of offensive quintessence and defensive grind. As the playoffs began, I wanted little more than the second round. Then I wanted the Western Conference Finals. Then I wanted a competitive NBA Finals. Then I wanted the title.

Some people have asked me why I get so consumed by sports. I have a simple reason for you, beyond the burnout and the contract. The way most people's expectations creep for their sports team is also an apt description of the way I expect things of myself. Early in high school, it was enough for me to graduate with decent grades. Then it needed to be all-As. Then I needed to take more AP tests than everyone else. Then I needed to get more fives than everyone else. Then I needed to get into a good school. Then I needed to graduate in three years. Then I needed to get a great job. The tyranny of high expectations can consume a sports fan in unexpected grief -- imagine that, but applied to one's own life. A constantly rising bar, floating higher and higher as though the previous accomplishment meant nothing. In life, there is no end to this creep. There will always be a higher level. There will always be a step beyond.

But although I can critique my own performances into the infinite abyss, sports end.

The consequence is stark. One team will win, the other will lose. No matter which is which, there will be tears and sweat and the rejoice of millions. There is always a loser. That's the beauty. It's what assigns sports meaning, and it's what makes it hurt. There is hurt, today, for San Antonio's devoted fans. There isn't much else, after game six. There's frustration and hurt and the rap of fate's hammer against one's skull. But the game is not yet over. There is one more night, one more chance for the Spurs to make history. They may fail, as many have before them. Or perhaps they've got one last sports miracle left.

And in the end? This is why we watch the game. This is why we cheer.

Game seven is tonight.