The Life and Death of Fandom

Brookyln Nets v Boston Celtics

A surprising thing happened in the Lowe household Sunday night — something exciting, unnerving, and that served as a useful reminder about the nature of bias and sports.

The boss of this site calls me Spock sometimes. It’s intended, I hope, as praise for my ability to dispassionately analyze NBA basketball — to search for the root of what happened on the court without being distracted by the emotion of “liking” or “hating” either of the teams involved. A wise man once told me that an NBA game, separated from the noise and the shouting narratives, is a public text waiting for deconstruction. The truth is in there.

But there is something sad about the Spock nickname, which, thankfully, has not caught on. (Spock is boring, right? I’ve never seen an episode of Star Trek.) It is Bill Simmons’s way of lamenting the loss of my fandom, and all the joy and heartache fandom brings. Fandom is a tricky thing. It raises the emotional ceiling, and lowers the emotional floor, in the experience of any sporting event. A sportswriter would never experience Game 6 of last year’s Finals the same way a Heat fan would, provided said Heat fan actually stuck with the game until the end. To us, the 30 NBA teams are just large corporations consisting of lots of people performing various jobs. Many of those people will move from one corporation to the other, blurring the lines between the 30 teams.

Different organizations prioritize different things, and behave in different ways, but they’re all made up of people who enjoy NBA basketball. You get along with some of those people, and have less in common with others — just like life outside the NBA bubble.

Funny thing: I grew up a Boston fan, just like the boss of this site. And that’s not hard to find out, either. It’s not a secret. But somewhere in the course of transitioning into the life of an NBA writer, my fandom died. I can’t pinpoint the exact date, but I know it happened between the 2010 Finals and the start of the 2011 season — the period in which I made that professional shift.

I cared deeply about the 2010 Finals, when the Lakers beat the Celtics in an ugly and brutal Game 7. My then-girlfriend intentionally left New York City the morning of Game 7, ostensibly to visit her sister in Philadelphia, but really, I think, to vacate the premises in case of an emotional crisis. I watched the game alone, the best way to watch a game about which you care deeply. It’s better if no one is around to see the pacing, or hear the expletives fly. The degree of caring is embarrassing. The one exception I made during that playoff run: Game 6 of the conference finals against Orlando, which I watched at a famous Boston-backing New York bar with a few friends. The Celtics had lost two consecutive games after opening a 3-0 lead in the series, and with a potential Game 7 in Orlando, I figured alcohol would have to be involved either way — celebration in case of a win, wallowing if the game ended with Boston on the precipice of the worst collapse in NBA history.

My sister texted me at halftime of Game 7 of the Finals, when the wheezing Celtics were up by six, saying that I must have been so happy they were about to win the championship. I didn’t respond. I am still angry about that text. How could she not understand how much time was left in the game, and the way the basketball gods would react to such hubris?

Flash-forward a year: The new Heat, allegedly the most hateable team in the league, was wiping out the Celtics in the conference semifinals, and I didn’t care. It was my job by that point to analyze what was happening, and that job is all-encompassing. There is no moral outrage when Dwyane Wade gets tangled up with Rajon Rondo, injuring Rondo’s elbow and affecting a series Boston wasn’t going to win anyway. There is just a search for truth: Did Wade really do anything on purpose? Did the refs miss a call? What is the trickle-down effect of any Rondo injury? What do the numbers say?

Last year’s playoffs represented the finality of fandom’s death within me. Five or 10 years ago, a Boston–New York series would have overwhelmed every other aspect of my life. I grew up in Fairfield County, Connecticut, right next to New York City, and in my formative sporting years, the Celtics entered the post-Bird decline phase, while the Pat Riley–era Knicks were ascendant. All my friends were Knicks fans.

It was unbearable. I bet my eighth-grade English teacher on the outcome of the 1990 first-round series between the two teams, a best-of-five series Boston lost after going up 2-0. I think we bet $5. I’m not sure he accepted my money, but I was angry at him for weeks after that series, and generally for several consecutive years as the Celtics transformed into one of the league’s most depressing franchises. The Knicks were really good. All I could do was take pleasure in the fact that they never won the title. I won a lot of money betting on Chicago against my Knicks fan friends in the 1993 Eastern Conference finals, and I got years of mileage out of “Smith stuffed!” 2-for-18, and the Reggie Miller choke sign.

I hated the Knicks. And yet last season, during the first round, I almost found myself rooting for them out of selfish journalistic reasons. I had been high on those Knicks all season, often referring to them as the second-best team in the Eastern Conference in writing and on podcasts with Simmons. I loved the way they played, jacking 3s around Carmelo Anthony at power forward, and the matchup with the always-big Pacers in the next round would be far more intriguing than watching Indiana grind a punchless Boston offense to dust. I also live in New York City, and being able to attend playoff games without traveling is a nice perk.

I caught myself several times during that series: The Knicks were playing the Celtics, and zero emotion registered in my body. I wasn’t happy about it, or sad. It was just part of life now. Every NBA writer has his or her favorite teams, and some writers are quite public about their present and past loyalties. But fandom, for me, was just an artifact of a past life. And if I’m being honest, it was almost something I’d come to attach a negative meaning to. Hard-core fans were the ones calling me nasty names on Twitter, or proposing crazy, cap-violating trades in which their favorite team gave up nothing of meaning and received a superstar player. Growing detached from the fan experience is healthy for an objective writer, but it’s also dangerous. It creates barriers.

And then this Sunday happened. I realized around 5:30 p.m. that I was planning my entire day, all the errands and game-watching, around the absolute necessity of being in front of the television by 6:30. The Boston-Brooklyn game was starting then, and the Celtics were going to honor Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.

Garnett wasn’t super-relevant. I love his game, and genuinely believe that in his prime, Garnett might have been the greatest defender ever to play in the modern NBA. I learned a ton just from watching how he moved around the floor; he was my Twitter avatar for years. But he’s an ornery, unknowable sort, and while he was the best player on the only Boston championship team since 1986, he was a Celtic for just a half-decade.

Pierce, apparently, is the only thing in existence that can rekindle my fandom. Boston and Miami played a shockingly competitive conference finals in 2012, the sort of series that hooks any fan: An aging underdog with no apparent chance of actually winning summons the extra little bit of guts, or magic, or moxie, or whatever makes a champion, and comes within one game of an impossible Finals appearance. (Let’s ignore the fact that Chris Bosh was injured for the first half of that series, or that Oklahoma City’s athleticism would have drowned Boston in the Finals.)

And yet, there was only one moment in that seven-game bloodbath that snapped me out of “cold journalist” mode and forced an involuntary yip and fist-pump from my body:

That was it. The rest didn’t move me out of Spock mode. I broke down the tape to analyze just how a bad Boston offense was blowing away a good Miami defense, and as LeBron blew past Brandon Bass for basket after basket late in Game 7, I logged on to Synergy to start watching film of regular-season games between Miami and Oklahoma City. Garnett and Ray Allen were heading into free agency, and as the game ended, Doc Rivers hugged all his star players and fought back tears. It was the end of an era, it appeared, but it no longer had any emotional pull on me. But there is something different about Pierce. Paul Pierce apparently means something to me, which is ridiculous. He’s just a taller person who plays basketball — a complete stranger.

We are almost the exact same age, which explains some of how this kind of fandom works. You watch him grow as a player, coming to know all his little quirks, but also tracking his progress as a professional human being. He, at first, provided some hope for a franchise that went too long without any real progress, peaking in 2002, when Pierce and Antoine Walker dragged a mediocre team into the conference finals against New Jersey. That series included the defining moment of the Pierce/Walker era — the massive comeback at home in Game 3. He even survived a horrific nightclub attack.

The development sort of stalled out after that. The next half-decade featured some highs, including a couple of memorable Pierce playoff moments against Indiana, but the team never won more than 45 games until the arrival of Garnett and Allen. Pierce became a bit ball-hoggy and arrogant as the team around him deteriorated. He looked like a petulant child getting tossed at the end of an undecided elimination game in 2005 against Indiana, and even more petulant after the game, when he appeared at the podium wearing medical tape to treat a phony jaw injury.

He allegedly flashed gang signs. He became the symbol of American basketball decay during the 2002 World Championships, when Pierce scored a ton but alienated the coaching staff with selfish play, poor defense, and a negative attitude. He was just sort of lost there for a while. So are a lot of twentysomethings, which is why I found Pierce’s journey relatable. I’ve always been drawn to imperfect athletes. Every athlete is imperfect, obviously. But some are “perfect” in the ways we crave from warriors standing upon the pedestals we create. They are selfless and team-first, fearless in crunch time, willing to play through any injury without complaining. They’ll miss some big shots and make some big mistakes, but they will neither show nor admit weakness.

Those guys are boring. You can’t see yourself in them. I grew attached to guys who had flaws by that standard, and owned up to them. It made me like Tracy McGrady more when he admitted how much pain he was in due to a gazillion injuries, and that the pain affected his play. It should be OK to say, “I’m scared.” Chris Webber had me the moment he called that infamous timeout and wept afterward. Pedro Martinez could be amazingly immature when a team roughed him up, even throwing at Jorge Posada in the 2003 playoffs simply because the Yankees were hitting him. He threw a tantrum, and safety issues aside, I enjoyed it. Ditto for his declaration that the Yankees were his “daddy,” a stunning admission of vulnerability for a star athlete.

Pierce was struggling to find himself, and that was cool. I was too. I was a wannabe journalist who didn’t have the guts to pursue the career path, so I hopped around in random directions — from teaching high school, to chasing a PhD in history, to covering high school football in Virginia just to see how it felt.

Pierce eventually grew up, a process that started the year before Danny Ainge snared Garnett and Allen. He became a very good defender, rounded out his game, and won the Finals MVP in 2008. The results were impressive, but they were more rewarding because of the journey he had taken to get there. It somehow felt as if we had shared that journey.

I honestly don’t feel anything whether the Celtics win or lose. They are just another NBA team. That’s in part because my dad has lost touch with the NBA these days. He’s from New Hampshire, a lifelong Boston fan, and the reason I picked the team in the first place. You can never really sever that connection. I mean, I imitated Kevin McHale’s post moves, minus the hairy armpits, in my backyard, and was such a nervous little fan that I felt relief when Houston upset the Lakers in the 1986 conference finals. I didn’t know anything about those cracked-out Rockets. I just knew the Lakers scared me, and that I wanted Boston to win. I’ll always feel some generalized affection for the green team. But that’s not the same as being a fan.

Pierce is a different story. It’s wild seeing him at Nets games now, warming up two feet away from me, greeting the Brooklyn executives on the sideline as I chat them up. HOLY CRAP, THAT’S PAUL PIERCE, SORT OF SMILING IN MY VAGUE DIRECTION.

It’s a useful reminder: There is some fandom in all of us, even if it’s dead or dormant. You have to work to check your biases, while also remembering that regular people aren’t working to check their own. They’re just having fun. Part of me misses being able to do that, and feel that.

Which is why I really cherished, in a way that surprised me, the Pierce tribute on Sunday night. I wanted that thing to last half an hour. It was fun to be a fan again, even for just 90 seconds.

Filed Under: NBA, Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA