Gore Vidal once said, “whenever a friend succeeds, a small part of me dies.” Apart from being an honest, small, and mean-spirited sentiment, I think that statement is sports fandom–tribalism, really–boiled down to its most basic human impulse. We want those who we consider ours to succeed to the detriment of all others.
It’s not a terribly rational thing, sports fandom. Perhaps the seed of the impulse was once–when we were hunter gatherers and ours succeeding meant not starving, being trampled by a mammoth, or having your head caved in by a yak bone. And why should the tribalism of sports be any different? Back in the day, you didn’t choose which hunter-gatherer tribe you ran with. You didn’t say, “gee, that tribe over the hills has been much more successful in mammoth hunts and yak club crafting then mine. I should go with them.” No, you were just born into it.
Similarly, I don’t know many people who logically chose their favorite sports team. I got into the NBA from renting those old NBA Entertainment videos. I didn’t become a Knicks fan because I knew anything about the team or their history or because I lived in the area. I became a Knicks fan because I hated my middle school English teacher who was a virulent Celtics fan and the Knicks happened to be playing the Celtics in the playoffs.
I know a guy who became a Pirates fan because his grandfather gave him a Pirates hat when he was eight years old. Why should a guy in New York follow the Pirates when the Pirates vacillate between terrible and waiting for the bottom to fall out and when he has both a terrible and a good baseball team right here in the city to root for? Because his grandad gave him a hat. Sports fandom doesn’t make sense and we keep trying to pretend it does, like a bunch of circus clowns arguing the merits of Kant vs Hume when what we really want to do is smash pies into each others faces.
So, why be a Knicks fan when I live in Brooklyn? With all the troubles and the scandals and bad moves and losing, why not start over fresh with the Brooklyn Nets? Some people have, to be sure. I don’t begrudge them that at all. Life is short and if people feel that switching teams will increase their level of happiness, living in this grim, hurricane ravaged, petrol starved Thunderdome, then why not? But color me skeptical. Not about their motivations, but about their emotions. Picking a team because they moved into your town is like an arranged marriage. Maybe the feelings blossom over time, but is the passion–the tribalism–automatically there?
I’ve been in turns mad, disgusted, annoyed, and perplexed by the Knicks over the last 12 years. And yet when human beings wearing orange and blue uniforms start making baskets, I become happy. There is no rhyme or reason to this.