I like LaMarcus Aldridge. I like his stoic and resolute approach to basketball, the way he’s shouldered the burden of leadership in a steadfast and dignified manner, sharing the Portland Trail Blazers’ successes with his teammates, consistently using his growing stardom to communicate a one-for-all/all-for-one ethos within the team. I have watched him over the last few years evolve from a being a pretty good power forward into one of the best ten or fifteen basketball players on the planet—night after night, against good teams and bad, delivering a version of the game that is simultaneously workmanlike and world-class. I could be wrong, but I choose to believe that a man who plays like LaMarcus Aldridge plays has to be a pretty good guy.
I admire LaMarcus Aldridge. He doesn’t fly or glide, he doesn’t dunk and roar. His signature move, if he has one, is a nice little spin on the block followed by a fadeaway mid-range jumper, devoid, before, during or after, of any facial expression whatsoever. I’ve enjoyed watching this become one of the NBA’s lethal weapons. But I’ll tell you what: I’m about to enjoy it, and everything else about LaMarcus Aldridge’s game, an awful lot less. That’s because he’s about to go from being LaMarcus Aldridge of the Portland Trail Blazers to being LaMarcus Aldridge of the San Antonio Spurs. I don’t care about the San Antonio Spurs.
Being a sports fan, which at least in my youth was one of the primary engines of a boy’s existence, doesn’t age that well. In my twenties and thirties, I thought of it the way I thought about music: Why should I abandon my affection for NBA basketball, English football or the Seattle Seahawks when I still listened to the Beatles and the Stones? But I’m closer to 50 now than to 40, and I’m willing to admit that most forms of fandom are at least mildly embarrassing. It now feels more awkward than rewarding to idolize athletes in their twenties doing things I can’t kid myself into thinking I might try one day. I can only watch SportsCenter on mute. I can’t kid myself that certain teams represent certain ideals, or that certain players truly represent certain teams or certain cities. Those kinds of things can happen, of course, but they’re rarer by the year and entirely anomalous. There’s not a basketball fan in Portland, Oregon, or anywhere else who thinks LaMarcus Aldridge could have a more successful career here than he’ll have in San Antonio. The only decent reason I’ve heard for him staying in Portland is that he could’ve gone down as the “Greatest Blazer Ever,” a fan-fiction of an accolade that precisely <1% of all young basketball players are dreaming of achieving some day.
Obsessing sports—and more specifically teams and players—feels less cool by the year. For all the joy it brings when the teams I like do great things (I grew up thinking that the Seahawks had roughly the same chance of winning a Super Bowl as the Washington Generals had of beating the Harlem Globetrotters) it more often just kind of sucks. Eventually, the teams one likes convert that affection into misery (throwing the ball when they should run it, for example). And it leads to conditions such as liking LaMarcus Aldridge less and having to root for the 2015-16 version of the Portland Trail Blazers, which is not going to be fun. So here’s a question:
Why be a fan?
I have stood at the top of the ski jump in Park City, Utah and watched some of the greatest ski jumpers in the world descend, and then rise, and then land and I’ve thought, “My god, how is that even possible?” I have sat in close proximity and watched Manchester United players play keep-away from each other; the simplest of childhood games transformed into a crisp and quick series of geometric and physical miracles. I once saw Paul Pierce and LeBron James engage in a four-quarter-long one-on-one duel at the Garden that was probably the best basketball I’ve ever seen in person. Two guys playing a game millions upon millions of people play, but playing it better—that night—than anyone on the planet. It was beautiful. I don’t remember who won.
Amongst people who don’t care about sports, being a fan is considered a little ridiculous, or worse. Unflattering phrases like “man cave,” “fantasy league,” and “face paint” linger in the more detailed descriptions of the tribe. Noam Chomsky, who is a lot smarter than most people, thinks of sports as “training in irrational jingoism,” a mere distraction from things that actually matter. Jerry Seinfeld famously thinks we’re all just rooting for laundry. They might be right, in their limited way—and they probably have a point. Sports fans should probably all relax a little and give everyone else a break from our hyperventilation. (And most of us probably know this deep down.) But we’re like the crowd at a Dave Matthews show: Whether the music is any good or not, no one’s ever going to take them seriously—and they don’t care.
What Noam Chomsky or Jerry Seinfeld think about my relationship with sporting achievement, or with my favorite teams, does not matter.
I’m not alone. Most people, as a matter of fact, are fans of something to do with sports. Maybe not yell-at-the-TV fans, but I watch a lot of sports—I can see that those seats are full. Somebody cares about the Columbus Blue Jackets and the New Orleans Pelicans and the Tampa Bay Rays. There are scores of people checking in on the Chicago Fire, the Connecticut Sun, the Cleveland Gladiators (look them up). What exactly are they—we—all rooting for?
1) Athletes inspire us to a greater ideal of the human condition.
I know exactly how that sounds, but it’s true. And when they do it with one’s city or state’s name on their jersey, or in the name of something to do with one’s nostalgia, even better. It was cool to see LaMarcus Aldridge hit for 40+ in two straight playoff games in a Portland jersey. Did he do it for Rip City? Did his success in our colors make people admire our city any more than they had before? No. Did any of us think that maybe Portland might go from that long-ago first-round win to an NBA Championship? Oh, no—we most definitely did not think that. But LaMarcus is cool, and that version of the Trail Blazers was cool too, and I’d watch them grow into a team, and I thought it was cool that they were ruining the fun of a team I didn’t like. (Totally irrational, though I will say for the record that if James Harden, who is awesome but who I do not like, wants to shoot free throws so badly he should just get to the gym earlier instead of wasting everyone’s time.) When athletes I admire do great things, I think maybe I can too. This may be ridiculous, but that doesn’t matter. Ridiculous feelings that are harmless and potentially positive are the stuff of a well-lived life. What do ski jumpers have to do with my life? Hey—I’m trying to finish a novel. If they can fly that far that dangerously to get an extra few inches out of some unexplainable longing deep in their souls, I can finish the damn book, even if no one will read it.
2) Being a fan, while it can try the soul, isn’t that hard.
It’s like growing a beard. But it’s even easier than that: You don’t do anything at all—other people do. If they succeed, we win; if they don’t, they suck. They work their asses off and suffer withering public scrutiny and comment from people who don’t do or know shit, if you’ll pardon the term. Have you ever really listened to sports radio? Like really listened to what they say about those guys? It would be infuriating—if sports radio were a place where you could gain credibility. I used to live in Massachusetts; soon after moving there, I received the sage advice that if I wanted to understand the New England lizard brain, I should listen to WEEI. One summer, when the Red Sox had a 10+-game lead in mid-July, I tuned in to hear caller after caller bemoan the situation at middle relief. The hosts thoroughly agreed, openly complaining about the sixth or seventh pitchers on a team that probably had ten All-Stars. Yes, it’s laughable, but these are people who lead anger-based lives—if they didn’t have a bullpen to complain about, they’d probably take it out on someone else.
3) It’s all a meaningless distraction.
Some people really do believe this. Chomsky calls sports “a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority.” Jerry Seinfeld told David Letterman, “I want my team’s clothes to beat the clothes from another city.”
Game 6 of the 2014 NBA Western Conference Playoff series between the Rockets and the Blazers was one of those gritty possession-by-possession games that aren’t much fun to watch if you care who wins. The Blazers led the series 3-2, and conventional wisdom held that Game 6 was do-or-die for Portland. A loss would doom Blazer fans, who had not celebrated a series win in fourteen years, to another off-season sobbing in our artisanally crafted microbrews after the Rockets’ cruise to an inevitable Game 7 home win. As the deadlocked game entered its final seven seconds, a Houston shot bounced around the rim and off two or three players before falling into the Rockets’ Chandler Parsons’ hands right under the basket. Parsons laid the ball in, the most important shot of the series so far and a shot almost anyone could have made, and the Rockets led by two with nine-tenths of a second on the clock. That was an eventful nine-tenths of a second. Fortunately, Chandler Parsons lost track of Damian Lillard, who caught a perfect inbounds pass from Nic Batum, and Lillard launched a perfect three which went in perfectly, and I, like many many thousands of other Portland people, lost my mind. I jumped off the couch and belted a meaningless thoughtless wordless scream which startled my seventh-grade daughter and troubled my wife (they were both happy for the Blazers too, but they were a little…concerned). When I stopped screaming, I was as surprised as they were. I knew I’d cared—I’d watched the whole series, but I didn’t know I cared that much, and I wouldn’t have guessed I would have ever let out such a sound in my own house. I’m a normal person. Mostly. I have a normal life. I have long since given up on the idea of another Blazer championship. Why was I screaming?
Because my team’s clothes had just beaten Houston’s team’s clothes. Or, to put it another way, I just happen to love sports and admire athletic achievement, and part of loving sports means having a favorite team. It’s just the way it works. That scream felt great, and I hope to feel that way again sometime soon.
Maybe it’s a lingering human memory of how important people who could do astonishing things with their bodies were in another time: They could slay beasts, escape danger through feats of derring do, lead masses of less daring followers; or maybe it’s because we’ve all had the wind in our hair while riding a bike down a hill or outrunning our friends, or we’ve been on a team, any team, moving a ball downfield or up court, and realized: Hey, this feels good.
Of course, most people admire human greatness of most kinds. Musicians, astronauts, teachers, soldiers. I know they’re not all the same, but let’s wind down the fear of jingoism a little and start here: People risking their dignity doing cool stuff at high levels is cool. Helps give life meaning. That’s all there is to it. Sports are a little easier to relate to—I will never produce a soaring sax solo and I will never orbit the earth—but I’ve made a free throw. I’ve kicked a field goal. I’ve run a mile as fast as I possibly could. I even once played in a high-school athletic contest with cheerleaders and a band. But: I have done none of these things with giants running at me, with thousands of people yelling at me, with columnists questioning my character, with the daunting concept of millions of people watching and depending upon me, with millions and millions of dollars on the line.
How do they do it? I don’t know. I’m impressed as hell that they invite others to crush them—their bodies and their dreams—over and over while the rest of us lounge upon our couches or clutch our drinks and yell at them to fix damage done by championships other people should have won but they didn’t.
I like LaMarcus Aldridge. Seems like a nice guy, and he did some nice things with “Portland” on his chest. I hope things work out for him in San Antonio. But he’s not Portland’s nice guy anymore. I’ll be rooting for the new Blazers, whom I know nothing about, and who are most definitely not in LaMarcus Aldridge’s class. Not close. But they have better laundry. That I know for sure.
Photo: LaMarcus Adridge by Keith Allison