Anti-Duke

I used to really like March Madness. I was lucky enough to attend Stanford when its men’s team went to the Final Four. And I was smart enough to know that that success wouldn’t stay around forever. So my interest has waned a bit as my rooting interests have stopped being competitive. Coupled with Taylor Branch’s article last October, I was half expecting to not be interested in the tournament at all this year.

But as always, once the brackets came out and games started being played, I found myself lapsing into old habits and following the scores, supporting the underdogs, and rooting against Duke.

This year though, I found myself questioning why I’m anti-Duke since, in many ways, Duke embodies what I like seeing in the teams I support.

At the same time, there’s something which turns me off. Still. To the best of my understanding, it’s a reaction to how Duke is constantly portrayed as having the best coach, best fans, and what the sport should be about. Which makes me realize that I would probably root against Barcelona now had I not jumped on the bandwagon before they were the “greatest team ever.”

This isn’t just about gloryhunting or being a sports hipster. It’s about the sense of entitlement and expectation of success which accompanies certain teams* and their followers. And I’m disappointed to see that Barca is one of those teams now. When a fanbase takes on the persona that it feels entitled to victory, I instinctively root against that team. Same thing when the media hype machine seizes on a team or athlete.

*e.g. The Yankees, or Real Madrid

In many ways, I think this encapsulates a lot of my approach to all sports. I tend to root for the comeuppance storyline. People feeling entitled to a win?* Root against. People making the storyline about something bigger which has nothing to do with sports?** Root against. Big time media hype? Root against.

*This includes conspiracy theorists, referee blamers, and the irrationally angry since those are all manifestations of entitlement—i.e. we only lose unfairly.

**Basically any story except plucky underdog (e.g. Jeremy Lin) or redemption (e.g. Ghana’s 2012 ACN)

Especially with those sports where I don’t care as much about the style of play. I would have a hard time truly rooting against the current Barça team because of how they play the game. Ball movement, the use of space, pulling defense out of shape, etc. are all what I consider beautiful about soccer.* It’s what I like about hockey too. And what I enjoy when I watch basketball.

*I used to dislike North Carolina even more than Duke but I don’t anymore. I’ve found myself enjoying watching UNC play, mainly because the secondary break is closer to what I enjoy watching.

With basketball though, things too often degenerate into one-on-one play, impatient three-point shots, and tunnel-vision fast breaks. It’s too easy for one player to take over. So my interest wanes and I end up rooting for the team in dark jerseys.

I suppose this also explains why I can’t stand watching the NBA.

Linsanity

A brief  jump into pro basketball since pro basketball just kind of jumped into my life recently. Most of America has been talking about Jeremy Lin all week and he’s been an even bigger hit in the Asian-American world.

It is a fantastic story in it’s own right. We love cinderella stories in sports. We love watching underdogs come out of nowhere. Sports is still able to surprise us. Linsanity is a national story right now.

At the same time, it’s huge in the Asian-American world.* It points out a lot of stereotypes that Asians have to deal with—all of which are nice to see blown up. And it shows how hungry Asian-Americans have been for their own sports stars to identify with.

*A world which I half-identify with. I’m lucky enough to be able to pass as just about anything now but I definitely grew up as non-white.

But as much as this is about turning stereotypes on their heads, I can’t help but wonder if the fact that he still corresponds to the standard Asian model-minority stereotypes fuels the hype. Would Asians still like him as much if he weren’t a Harvard grad and were instead a college dropout?

I’m not sure. Yes, it’s nice to see an Asian athlete in the big American sports.* The fact that he’s a nerd** though means he’s that he’s truly on of us.

*So far it’s really just been Tim Lincecum and Hines Ward. And both of them are half.

**In the way that anyone who goes to a top-tier college is a nerd.

Sports Purist

As I watched this year’s SuperBowl, I found myself wishing that I could just lose myself in the raw emotional responses to sports. I was rooting for Green Bay. Sort of. But since I have no real emotional attachment to Green Bay, I couldn’t get too wrapped up in the emotions of the game.

My brothers in law did not have this problem. Nor, I suspect, did most people. They were jumping off the couch whenever Green Bay did something good and yelling at the TV whenever they did something bad. It certainly seemed like a lot of fun. Meanwhile I found myself critiquing the playcalling and enjoying the tactical battles despite the result. Yes it’s still fun. But it’s not the same.

I noticed the same thing while watching March Madness this year. I could enjoy an exciting upset but it really bothered me to watch teams play badly. I’ve found that my interest in the tournament has waned as a result. I’d rather watch the later games when (hopefully) the better teams have survived and I can see a game between two well-coached, tactically-sound, and athletically-gifted teams rather teams relying on a hot hand, enthusiasm, and luck.

I’m not sure when my conversion to sports purist occurred.

But I now enjoy the competition and tactics of the game almost more than the result.* While I touched on this previously here, it’s really been something that I’ve been noticing in myself for a while. And as a result, I’ve been thinking a bit about what, exactly, I find enjoyable about sport.

*This isn’t to say that I don’t get excited when one of my teams wins. But even then, I find myself wrapped up in the quality of play rather than concentrating on the scoreboard.

I attribute much of my mindset to the two sports I grew up enjoying. As vastly different as they are, baseball and soccer are both sports which require a lot of situational improvisation and awareness of the bigger picture. The focus of the sport is not set pieces and understanding the game is about learning the flows and rhythms of how things develop. These aren’t games where coaches call plays for players to implement. These are games where the players have to be smart enough to know what to do and when to do it.

It’s probably no coincidence that the best examples of both of these sports are often very low-scoring affairs—mistakes lead to higher scores.

Baseball, in particular, due to its sheer quantity of games and the fact that the best teams only win 60% of the time forced me down the path of appreciating the quality of play rather than the result. You can’t be overly invested in the result of a ballgame when you attend. So instead you hope to see a good game and learn how to appreciate those games when you get them.

While soccer games involve higher stakes, a mythology has built up around those teams which played well and lost (e.g. Brazil 1982) rather than the teams which ended up winning despite playing ugly. I wasn’t conscious of my preferences when I settled on a soccer team to support. But my subconscious appears to have been fully on top of things. Xavi says it best.

Other teams win and they’re happy, but it’s not the same. The identity is lacking. The result is an impostor in football. You can do things really, really well – last year we were better than Inter Milan – but did not win. There’s something greater than the result, more lasting. A legacy.

And so by following soccer and baseball, I’m now applying the same principles to all the other sports I watch.

Playoffs

While I’m still basking in the afterglow from the Giants’ World Series win last year, being in the midst of the BCS incompetence and seeing the outcry over the Seahawks making the NFL playoffs has given me cause to think about how we crown our athletic champions.

What amuses me most is how most of the bitching and moaning occurs at the beginning of the playoffs and involves teams which have no hope of actually winning the thing. This is especially noticeable with College Basketball where the complaints all involve teams that would be happy to win a single game and be ecstatic to make it out of the first weekend. And this is especially justified with the BCS since only two teams are even considered for the playoff.  It’s one thing to be “snubbed” from an overly-generous sample, it’s quite another to be excluded from a one-off “championship” game.

In the case of the NFL, the Seahawks won’t win the Super Bowl (and if they do, it will be the Cinderella story of all Cinderella stories) and did not make it to the playoffs instead of a contender. By the time we get to the championship games, no one will remember or care about who made the playoffs.

Now, I am, in no stretch of the imagination, a BIG playoffs guy. The way I see things, there are two types of tournaments:

  1. Those which pit the winners of multiple leagues against each other. The NCAA, and the Champions League are both examples of this where the teams in question don’t play each other much (if at all) outside of the tournament.
  2. Those which follow a regular season and pit teams which have already played each other against each other again. This is the standard playoff situation in most American professional sports.

In example 1, I’m all in favor of having a big tournament. The more leagues involved, the bigger the tournament can become. The only rule I have is that the regular season league champions have to be involved (this is my biggest complaint about the NCAA basketball tournament). But the comparisons between leagues and having additional samples in order to really see how good a league is create a fascinating tournament. Also, this type of tournament doesn’t devalue the regular league season.

In example 2, the bigger the tournament gets, the more I hate it. Divisions don’t count. In the NFL, the 49ers only play 6 divisional games. The other 10 are against the rest of the league. Who cares who wins the division in this case? Major League Baseball is also trending toward this by adding more and more Wild Cards. Give me a real pennant race and if you want to make things super exciting, make the league consist of four 8-team leagues, play a 154-game season like before (no interleague play), and have the four pennant winners face off afterwards.