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Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Seasonby David Shields
"Just Win, Baby"
I went to graduate school in Iowa City, at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where the most passionate thing I did was attend University of Iowa basketball games. My closest friend at Iowa, Philip, liked to say his childhood was about Walt Frazier. Every night he'd hear his mother and father screaming at each other in the next room, and he'd just stare at the Knicks game on the little black-and-white TV at the edge of his bed, trying to will himself into "Clyde's" body. In the spring of 1980, when Iowa beat Georgetown to qualify for the Final Four, Philip and I jumped up and down and cried and hugged each other in a way we wouldn't have dreamed of doing otherwise.
Twenty years later, both Philip and I live in Seattle. Our team is now the Seattle SuperSonics, and whenever he and watch I their games on TV, Philip seems to go out of his way to compliment good plays by the other team. I always want to ask him: is it a conscious effort on your part to not succumb to jingoistic cheering, or are you constitutionally incapable of the monomania required? I admire his equanimity, but I can't even pretend to emulate it. Unable to say exactly what the disease is, I want the Sonics to cure me.
Sports passion is deeply, infamously territorial: our city-state is better than your city-state, because our city-state's team beat your city-state's team. My attachment to the Sonics is approximately the reverse of this. I've lived here for less than a quarter of my life, and none of the players is originally from the Northwest, let alone Seattle. I revel in our non-Seattle-ness. My particular demigod is Sonics' point-guard Gary Payton, who is one of the most notorious trash-talkers in the NBA. He's not really bad. He's only pretend-bad--I know that--but he allows me to fantasize about being bad.
You might have to live here to entirely understand why this is of such importance to me. The ruling ethos of Seattle is forlorn apology for our animal impulses. When I castigated a contractor for using the phrase "Jew me down," he returned later that evening to beg my forgiveness, and the next week he mailed me a mea culpa and a rebate. Seattleites use their seat belts more, return lost wallets more often, and recycle their trash more than people do in any other city. The Republican (losing) candidate for mayor is the man who (allegedly) invented the happy face. Last month, an old crone wagged her finger at me not for jaywalking but for placing one foot off the curb while she drove past, and my first and only thought was: this is why I love the Sonics; this is why I love Gary Payton.
Growing up, I was a baseball fan. My father and I shared an obsession with the Dodgers (he was born in Brooklyn and I was born in L.A.), and recently I asked him why he thought the team was so crucial to us. He wrote back, "For me, it comes out this way: I wanted the Dodgers to compensate for some of the unrealized goals in my career. If I wasn't winning my battle to succeed in newspapering, union-organizing, or whatever I turned to in my wholly unplanned, anarchic life, then my surrogates — the nine boys in blue — could win against the Giants, Pirates, et al. Farfetched? Maybe so. But I think it has some validity. In my case. Not in yours." Oh, no: not in my case, never in mine. Sometimes what being a fan seems to be most about is nothing more or less than self-defeat.
For me, baseball and the Dodgers have been supplanted by basketball and the Sonics. The basketball high is quicker and sharper. In fact, the oddest thing about it is how instantaneously the game can move me, like a virus I catch upon contact. In a fraction of a second, I'm running streaks down my face. It's a safe love, this love, this semi-self-love, this fandom. It's a frenzy in a vacuum--a completely imaginary love affair in which the beloved is forever larger than life.
I live across the street from a fundamentalist church, and whenever the Sonics play particularly well, I'm filled with empathy for the church-goers. They go to church, I sometimes think, for the same reason fans go to games: adulthood didn't turn out to have quite as much glory as we thought it would; for an hour or two, we're in touch with something majestic.
The psychoanalyst Robert Stoller has written, "The major traumas and frustrations of early life are reproduced in the fantasies and behaviors that make up adult erotism, but the story now ends happily. This time, we win. In other words, the adult erotic behavior contains the early trauma. The two fit: the details of the adult script tell what happened to the child." This seems to me true not only of sexual imagination but also of sports passion--why we become such devoted fans of the performances of strangers. For once, we hope, the breaks will go our way; we'll love our life now; this time we'll win.
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