My knowledge of basketball consists entirely of the most rudimentary understanding of the pick and roll. I learned this in grade nine when my height and running speed deceived a high school coach into believing that I could be something more than awkward and gangling with a basketball in my hands. I was Darko Miličić before Darko Miličić.
I’m not really a basketball fan. I admire it from afar. The coordination. The leaping. The running. The endurance. My ignorance to the finer points of analytics and tactics affords me a certain wonderment as a spectator that’s absent from other sports for which I have a greater understanding.
With the start of the NBA playoffs earlier this week, I decided to alter this comfortable hands-off relationship I had developed with the sport. I wanted to end the neutral observer nonsense, and pick a team to support, hopefully, throughout the next month, and if it worked out, perhaps longer.
Typically, this is a less conscious decision for sports fans. We often cheer for teams based on regional bias, or we support a club because our parents supported that club. Or, if we’re particularly rebellious, we swear allegiance to a franchise because its the main rival of the one with which our parents have allied themselves. I’m cheering for the Chicago Blackhawks because you just don’t understand, Vancouver mom.
My forced approach to the NBA playoffs pushed me to reflect on the differences between watching a sport as a neutral observer and obsessing over a sport as a fan with a rooting interest. It’s vastly different. For many of us who support a team, the individual outcomes of tiny instances within a game that all add up to produce a result are the sole responsibility of the players on the team over which we obsess.
As an ardent fan of the San Francisco Giants, competent pitchers don’t successfully strike out Buster Posey. He strikes out, himself. Excellent batters don’t hit home runs off of Madison Bumgarner. The young left-handed pitcher gives up home runs. At the same time, opposing pitchers don’t give up home runs to Buster Posey. He hits them. Just as batters facing Madison Bumgarner don’t strike out. He does that.
Despite it being a competition between two, for many of us, there is ever only one team on the field, court or rink.
This theory was fresh in my mind while watching the first leg of the UEFA Champions League semifinal between Bayern Munich and Barcelona on Monday. During the match, play-by-play maestro Martin Tyler consistently offered his commentary from the perspective of the Spanish side, at one point using the term “robbery” to describe the German club’s 2-0 lead.
For someone who doesn’t fetishize possession based tactics, it seemed strange. Munich was quite clearly the dominant side. Yes, they may have benefited from a misstep or two by officials, but the overwhelming amount of opportunities that Bayern produced against Barcelona put their opponents on the run and flustered throughout most of the match.
Tyler wasn’t just acting as a Barcelona apologist, he was failing to offer anything approaching a neutral perspective. He was behaving as I might act while watching a Giants game. Munich’s defensive positioning didn’t neutralize Lionel Messi. The Argentinean failed to break through. Arjen Robben didn’t confound Jordi Alba with his attack down the right side of the pitch. The left back wasn’t having a good game.
It wasn’t just Tyler. This same sentiment was expressed in the myriad of match reports following Munich’s 4-0 victory. It was as though the outcome of the game had nothing to do with Bayern Munich and everything to do with Barcelona.
Sports are such a vicarious experience that the urge to align oneself with a side is overwhelming even for those whose livelihoods depend on neutrality, or at least the appearance of it. Picking a team to cheer for enhances a fan’s experience, but for a journalist, a failure to recognize multiple perspectives to the action diminishes the experience of others instead of enhancing it.
This strange mixture of bias, perspective, entertainment and experience was inadvertently addressed in a recent column by Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, who suggests that the modern passive aggressive approach to hitting in baseball isn’t only failing, but also ruining the sport’s watchability.
It’s a ridiculous notion, dependent on firmly entrenching oneself in the perspective of the batter instead of the pitcher while imagining one’s personal preferences for entertainment to be universally valued. It’s the type of idea that’s completely acceptable for a fan and absolutely not for a journalist, on whom fans depend.
As fans, we root for teams to make sports fun, and we ask that broadcasters and writers don’t so as to maintain that level of entertainment. It’s an important distinction to make, not only for personal reasons, but also as something for the many fans who express their ideas through social media and blogging. As easy as it is to slip into imagining that all outcomes are the result of one team’s actions, it’s worth stepping out of the fan’s perspective from time to time to embrace a more balanced view of what our hearts tell us is true.
For now, I think I like the Golden State Warriors.