For people who know me, to say that I tend to think a bit differently from most would probably be an understatement.
This isn’t some sort of chest-thumping boast; when I say “differently”, I am not saying it in a sense of superiority, suggesting that my thoughts are deeper or clearer or of more import than others. It’s just different, that’s all. One example would be that, when I was young, instead of choosing things to like which would make me most similar to others (thus, having things in common with others, thus making the ability to make friends easier), I tended to choose things which made me different from everyone else.
This was especially true with sports. Now, it is true that when I was an eight-year-old boy in the tiny town of Bovard, Pennsylvania, I followed the local teams with passion, especially the Pittsburgh Pirates. I even pitched sidearm, emulating my favorite player on the 1978 Pirates, whippet-thin relief ace Kent Tekulve. Playing strikeout (one-on-one baseball, hitter vs. pitcher) against my twin brother, Kevin, for hours at a time, I realized that since my brother was the far-superior player, I needed deception to get him out. Emulating “Teke” was my best shot. That, and the fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers were right in the middle of their glory years, winning four Super Bowls in five years, as well as the Pittsburgh Panthers being one of the elite college football programs, I was moving closer and closer toward being indoctrinated fully into the loyal cadre of Pittsburgh sports fans. Hockey wasn’t an issue, yet – the local Penguins, for all intents and purposes, sucked.
But in 1979, before full indoctrination could kick in, my mother moved my brother and I from a town of less than a thousand to Santa Monica, California. Immediately a culture shock kicked in, leaving me a bit overwhelmed and suddenly searching for identity. That change in scenery, as well as the fact that I was a twin (which instantly meant that people assumed that you were alike with your brother in every way), led me to finding ways to make myself stand out on my own.
Clothes weren’t the way to do it, not in elementary school (one piece that was out of place in the traditional polo shirt and Ocean Pacific shorts look of the time would cause a Scarlett Letter-type shunning and chastising). It was too early for me to be influenced by music. Z Channel definitely gave me the opportunity to watch movies that the average kid wouldn’t watch, but I wasn’t developed enough to discuss the intricacies of A Clockwork Orange or The Deer Hunter with my friends (although I did become deeply influenced by the early works of Woody Allen, which helped me develop a dry sense of humor that played horribly in my preteen years, but improved as I got older).
This left the one thing that could always be discussed with the friends I made during my time at school and at the Santa Monica Boys’ Club (my brother and I were there so often we were named Junior Boys of the Year in 1981) – sports. While my brother stuck to his black-and-gold loyalty like a badge of honor. I, on the other hand, started experimenting with finding the right teams to fit my identity. It was a painful process, to say the least. The following are the paths that led me to where I am today.
My brother will answer the question as to how I became a fan of the Chicago White Sox by saying that it’s because they wore shorts. That is most definitely not the case, but it would be a simple enough answer. I go back to a pre-season article in either Inside Sports or Sport magazine in 1981. The White Sox had signed several free agents, including Carlton Fisk, Greg Luzinski and Ron LeFlore. I remembered Fisk from seeing his most memorable home run on This Week in Baseball, and although the Phillies were the Pirates’ enemies in the 1970s, I still liked “The Bull”, Luzinski, who looked like a softball player on the field. LeFlore’s TV movie (with Levar Burton) was still fresh in my mind. I started following them, and shortly before the 1983 season, with rookie Ron Kittle and sweet-swinging Harold Baines (who would become my favorite player, just barely ahead of Fisk) taking starring roles, I was locked in. When the Sox, with their “Winning Ugly” team, won the division in 1983, I figured I was on to a successful relationship. Little did I know.
1984 was a crushing disappointment. The team went through fits and starts for another decade, until 1994. With “The Big Hurt”, Frank Thomas; Black Jack McDowell; Robin Ventura and future manager Ozzie Guillen, I thought I had my chance. The strike ended that season, and, thus, my hope. Finally, in 2005, I got to celebrate, and in semi-drunken glee, I literally streaked for a quarter-mile in joy, only wearing shoes and a single white sock (properly placed). Of course, the Red Sox and their 512 books about their championship the year before sucked all of the publicity out of that season, but no worries. I got mine.
How did I give up on the Steelers? What was I thinking? Trust me, it’s a question that has haunted me over the years as the hometown team kept winning Super Bowls and the team I chose – the Seattle Seahawks – fell to ignominy.
Why did I choose them? I think it has to do with Jim Zorn, Steve Largent and Efren Herrera. I used to buy football cards at the local corner store, and something about the name “Jim Zorn” sounded cool to me (after his coaching mishaps of recent years, that sounds impractical now). When I was around 12, my father rented an RV and we went to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. In the gift shop they had jerseys of the star players of every team, and I chose to get a Zorn jersey. For a young boy, a jersey represents a bond that you made with that player, one that wasn’t easy to break (of course, my brother got a Harold Carmichael Eagles jersey, and he never was going to be an Eagles fan, ever. Go figure).
What I should have gotten was a Steve Largent jersey. My first year of flag football, I patterned myself after Largent, a receiver not known for his speed, but more for his hands and his guile. Playing catch in the back alley with whomever would throw the ball to me, I’d imagine I was Largent, running into the seam and catching the ball in traffic, avoiding the Raiders defense. I may have had a jersey of a quarterback, but I was a split end, running a post pattern.
Efren Herrera? He had one of the greatest plays ever on Monday Night Football, running a fake field goal in for a touchdown. Never underestimate the power of television.
I became such a fan that I went to the 1983 AFC Championship game, when the Raiders (and their unruly fans) beat the Seahawks. Nothing like being a 13 year-old in a Seahawks T-shirt getting threatened by adult Raider fans. I figured after that game, I’d get another chance soon to see the Seahawks make the Super Bowl. Coincidentally, I had to wait until the 2005 season – same as the White Sox – to come close, and the Super Bowl put my Seahawks against none other than the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was yours truly against my family. Brother against brother. If it weren’t for a horrible holding call, I might have gotten two championships in the same year. Well, at least my family was happy. It actually was a comfort, of sorts. If the Raiders had beaten them, I might have punched a hole through a door, like my brother did when Neil O’Donnell threw his second pick against the Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl years earlier.
This is the sport that’s led me down the most nomadic path. I have tried for years to stick with an NBA franchise, and the only lasting result that has come out of it is a hatred of one team.
To me, I’ve been more of a fan of players than teams. I started with George “Ice Man” Gervin and the San Antonio Spurs. I had the “Ice Man” poster hanging proudly in my bedroom, and I even had a variation of his patented “finger roll” shot in my first years (as I moved from 8-foot to 10-foot baskets, my shots became more conventional). After several years of the Spurs losing to the Lakers in the playoffs, Gervin left the Spurs. In the same off-season Gervin left, my favorite college player, Chris Mullin, was drafted by the Golden State Warriors. Now, if I had just stuck with the Spurs, I would’ve enjoyed the David Robinson/Tim Duncan championship years. But, no, I followed Mullin to Golden State, which led to many entertaining, but fruitless years.
I used to joke that Mullin and I had a lot in common - we were both pale, left-handed, sweet shooters and alcoholics. Three out of four ain't bad. Mullin also owned the hell out of the word “crafty”, maximizing the most out of his ability. I can’t say I did that, but it was a nice thought, at the least.
When Mullin left Golden State to play in Indiana, I followed Mullin. Since they also had Mark Jackson (his teammate at St. John’s) and Reggie Miller (from my alma mater, UCLA), Indiana was an easy team to follow. They actually made it to an NBA Finals, losing to…the Lakers (you see a pattern here).
When Mullin retired, I tried to find another team (or, more specifically, another player) to champion. I tried Baron Davis, who was at UCLA when I was there, but if you’ve followed Baron’s career you know how frustrating that can be. Really, all I have right now in the NBA is a hatred for the Lakers. Basically, I just root for the team playing them.
I admit that this is not healthy. I actually want a team to root for, instead of a team to root against. However, the Lakers of the last decade or so have been so easy to hate.
(Here come the Laker fans, not understanding one bit why I feel this way. That’s part of the problem. They have absolutely no idea how annoying they are. I’ve had this argument many times before, but here it is again: when it comes to Laker fans, I can deal with ignorance, and I can deal with arrogance, but not both at the same time. Whether it’s the first 10 rows of dilettantes at Laker games, or the idiots on sports talk radio who think that the Lakers could get Kevin Durant for Lamar Odom and the washed-up corpse of Derek Fisher, or the battalion of cars with those idiotic flags that come out around playoff time, Laker fans are some of the most exasperating people alive. But not you – if you’re reading this, you’re great. Also, Kobe Bryant is such a smug little prick that he could be a Republican in Congress.)
So, if any PR person in the NBA happens to read this, I am looking to be recruited. Make me a fan of your team. My proof of still being a White Sox and Seahawks (Tarvaris Jackson????) proves I can be one hell of a fan. The Lakers, you don’t have to call. I won’t give in on that one.
The one home team I root for – the Pittsburgh Penguins. It’s all about Mario Lemieux. I still think that he could play and score 50 points. I don’t think I have to go any further with this point.
If you go back to 1982, I’ve had about 120 seasons of sports where I’ve had teams to root for (or against). If you take out the Penguins (who have won three Stanley Cups in my lifetime), I’ve had only one championship celebration, from the 2005 White Sox. As is something that I think has become more commonplace with sports fans around the country. I almost think that I’m more loyal to my fantasy teams than to my real sports teams. My NL-only baseball team, Shawnic Youth (puns are your best entertainment value) has three titles in recent years, two more than the Sox. Maybe it’s because there’s a financial value put to victory with them, maybe it’s because I am in control of the rosters (I doubt that I would ever sign Tarvaris Jackson), I tend to feel more satisfaction after a big victory with them. Or maybe I’m still bitter about that holding call in the Super Bowl.
P.P.S. I'm completely serious about looking for an NBA team. I am open to suggestions.