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Learning about sports from a 2½-year-old

With a lot of help from his daughter, Bill Simmons is falling in love with the NBA all over again.

This article is taken from the Dec. 3 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

I love fatherhood for the little things. Like having the power to derail any tantrum with five simple words: “Wanna get some ice cream?” Like stepping in on those last few bites of grilled cheese because kids never finish a meal. Like being awakened each morning by a smiling kid instead of a blaring alarm clock. Like having my own mini-McMahon who laughs at every joke I make, especially if it involves flatulence.

As the old saying goes, children make us appreciate what we stopped appreciating long ago. (I don’t know who said it, but it’s been said. And if it hasn’t been said, then please, let me say it.) Ever wonder why Larry King sired two more after turning 125 years old? Because he’s selfish, that’s why. He wanted those last chances to appreciate the little things.

I totally get that. In the past few weeks, I’ve relived the following experiences through the eyes of my 2½-year-old daughter: the joyous celebration after the Sox won the World Series (she loved watching everyone jump on each other); trick-or-treating; a first trip to the movies (she threw an impressive complete game at “Bee Movie”); and, finally, a first real live NBA game (Cavaliers at Clippers).

I most wanted to see her reaction to the game. She has actually liked hoops ever since it became part of her nighttime routine
last spring. As far as she knew, our TVs could show only Red Sox games and NBA playoff games after 6 p.m. (See, I told you kids are great! They’ll believe anything!) She gravitated toward basketball because of its colors and sounds, the running and jumping, the tattoos and chest-thumping and, most of all, the simplicity. Basically, players try to make the basketball rip through the net, and when they do, everyone applauds.

Now, here’s where my demented genius comes in: I think that kids can be brainwashed to believe anything is fun as long as you seem excited about it. You could say to your child right now, “You know what we’re doing later? We’re heading to the yard to watch grass grow!” And if you sell it well enough, they’ll be counting the minutes until the back door opens. Seriously. So when I asked my half-asleep daughter if she wanted to watch basketball in Daddy’s bed, I made it sound more fun than mashing bananas with The Wiggles. In retrospect, I probably didn’t need to sell it so hard. She was so happy to get called up to the majors (Mommy and Daddy’s bed) and maybe get her head rubbed, too. But that’s how she was introduced to basketball: I brainwashed her, lied to her and wore her down.

Fast-forward to the Nov. 11 Cavs-Clips game. When I asked if she wanted to go, I presented the offer as if I were suggesting we
fly in a helicopter to eat M&M’s
on the moon. And I sold LeBron as
a combination of Santa, Elmo and our UPS guy. After a few YouTube clips, she was hooked, screaming at her mom, ”
We’re gonna go see LeBron!” Her excitement only amplified over the next few days. Meanwhile, I started to worry because 150 minutes
is a long time to keep a child entertained. Could she make it through the third quarter? Could she even make it to halftime? Would she melt down like Fausto Carmona
at Fenway?

As soon as we got inside the Staples Center, I immediately bought a bucket of popcorn that was bigger than Eddy Curry. (We learned at “Bee Movie” that a big bucket buys you 35 solid minutes, even if it might cause diarrhea later. Whatever.) We missed the national anthem but caught the pregame intros; she was transfixed when the arena went dark. We found our seats
in time for the opening tip, and within about 3.2 seconds, she was on my lap and promptly entering ”
The ADD Zone,” an
inevitability for any little kid who is
digesting too many images and noises at once. The Zone-Out — and the Art Shell Face that accompanies it — lasted for a good 10 minutes, just her staring straight ahead as she shoveled popcorn into her mouth. It was like the Raiders’ 2006 team video.

She eventually emerged from her stupor and started to ask about the JumboTron, which she mistook for a giant TV. Could we touch it? (Um, no.) Was there a remote
control? (Sadly, no.) After the
57th straight JumboTron-related question, I steered her toward LeBron. She was captivated as she watched him lope around, right up until she became distracted by the referees’ whistles (she wanted one
for herself), the substitution horn (she liked the way it sounded) and everyone who was eating and drinking around us (“Look, he has popcorn too”).

She liked how the players huddled in a circle for
timeouts, as well as my
revelation that the players had their own ”
teacher” (the coach). She liked putting her drink in the cupholder that comes with each seat. In fact, she liked it so much she must have done it 735 times in 20 minutes. She was so delighted by the Clippers dancers that I’m more worried than ever about keeping her off the pole (every father’s most important job). She loved clapping with the crowd after each Clippers basket, and she loved hearing
the crowd boo and yell after a dubious
nontraveling call on LeBron. And she got
a special kick out of the guy behind us
calling one of the referees a jackass. Really, she loved it all.

But two moments stand out above the rest. In the second quarter, LeBron swiped a pass and had a clear path right in front of us to a breakaway dunk. I nudged her eagerly — watch this, watch this! — as the crowd started buzzing and flashbulbs went off. When Bron-Bron delivered the goods with a hellacious double-clutch jam, everyone was delighted, including my daughter, who screamed out loud and
giggled afterward. (She officially loves LeBron now. At least I think she does. She kept getting him confused with Larry Hughes and Daniel Gibson.)

The other moment occurred when the crowd improbably broke out the wave, quite possibly the single greatest moment of her young life. She loved watching it slowly ripple around the stadium, waiting for it to reach our section and then jumping up with her arms raised to yell at the top of her lungs. To be honest, I’ve always thought the wave was
reprehensible. But not
anymore. Anything that makes my kid that happy is fine with me.

Unfortunately, she threw only seven innings because of a Grady Little-level managerial mistake on my part: At halftime, we shared a large Sprite and one of those pretzels covered with cinnamon and sugar. I may as well have administered an eight ball. What was I thinking? By the end of the third quarter, after she’d turned into the Great Cornholio and started to sing ”
Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” at the top of her lungs, I knew we had to leave
before she kicked a hole through the seat of the poor guy in front of us.

The good news: She threw a tantrum; she wanted to stay. I guess if I’d had a moment to reflect as I hauled my wailing child out of the Staples Center, I’d have realized the NBA had itself another fan. Instead, I had to stop the commotion: ”
Wanna get some ice cream?”

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book “Now I Can Die In Peace” is available in paperback.