Fair-weather fans can go straight to hell

fair-weather fansI wonder, sometimes, if it was fate for me to be a long-suffering UVA sports fan, predestined to revere memories of big leads blown, chances to win championships squandered, or if I just project my own inner insecurities onto my favorite sports brand.

And then I think, the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive, do they?

These topics come to mind again this week after a story in The Atlantic proposed that American sports needs more fair-weather fans, opining that those who choose to make spectator sports a pastime would be better served rooting for “great teams and great players” instead of their “sad-sack local franchise.”

The notion advanced is that what most of us as sports fans do in terms of telling ourselves that it means more when we celebrate our favorite team winning a championship that we had to suffer with them on the way there is so much balderdash.

“Why relegate yourself to such misery?” the writer, Derek Thompson, asks.

I counter: but is it really “misery”?

OK, the long drive home in the middle of the night from Charlotte back to Waynesboro after, you know, don’t want to mention it, wasn’t the way I’d planned to spend those particular wee hours of a Saturday morning.

But my traveling companions, Scott German, who writes for us at Augusta Free Press, and is one of my podcast partners-in-crime, and his son, Andrew, were along for the ride, and a wild ride it was.

I said several times that night that if a tape of what we were saying about that game and the circumstances around it were to ever surface, we would no doubt be banned from ever again walking the hallowed Grounds of the University of Virginia, but it was a statement in jest.

(Mostly. Lordy, I hope there are no tapes.)

The sting of that game was another shared experience that we had to laugh off. Like back in 2016, when Scott and I texted each other at halftime of the Elite Eight game between Virginia and Syracuse, with the ‘Hoos up double-digits, planning our trip to the Final Four, only to, well, you know.

Now, we have a rule: no texting about games we think the good guys are going to win until the stupid game is over.

It goes for me all the way back to elementary school. For whatever reason, I decided – let me set the stage, kid growing up in a trailer park in rural Augusta County, teen parents who were about to get divorced – that I was going to go to college at the University of Virginia, play basketball there for Terry Holland, and later become governor.

All that having been laid out by the start of second grade, it happened that there was this tall fellow by name of Ralph Sampson playing for the basketball team at the time, and with his presence came high expectations about how the basketball team might fare in postseason play.

If you’re reading this, you know how that all worked out, and that after Ralph finally went pro, the team after he left somehow made a Final Four, and damn well should have beaten the Phi Slamma Jamma team at Houston in the national semifinals.

Flash forward to me finally matriculating on Grounds, fall of 1990. It wasn’t in the cards for me to play for Terry Holland, but the degree and future run for governor were still on the table, plus free tickets to games.

Yes, this was the life. Two months on Grounds, the UVA football team is #1 in the country. Georgia Tech comes to town unbeaten, with one tie, back when you could still have a tie game in college football. I remember reading a letter to the editor from an administrator week of the Georgia Tech game asking students not to tear the goalposts down after the game.

Which wasn’t an issue, as it turns out.

Fast forward to 1992, second quarter, 28-0 lead on Clemson, which was still a triple-option team at the time. I turn to my roommate and lifelong friend, Jay, and say, out loud, It’s 28-0, and they’re a running team. This one’s in the bag.

Uh, huh. A lot still to learn. The 1995 team lost three games on the final play, and beat Florida State in Charlottesville when Adrian Burnim and Anthony Poindexter tackled Warrick Dunn inches from the goal line as time expired.

Jay, who had been at the last-play road losses to Michigan and Texas, wasn’t able to watch, and then when I started yelling about how FSU hadn’t scored and the game was over, we win, he punched me in the shoulder so hard, I thought I was going to need surgery.

This is the “misery” we endure. We tell ourselves it’s misery, sometimes. The long streak of losing seasons in football. A postseason basketball tournament called the CBI. Michigan State, twice. Vanderbilt in the 2014 College World Series. (But then, hey, 2015!)

I went out for my morning run on the greenway downtown this morning, and as I was stretching to get ready for the run, a friend and fellow UVA alum that I hadn’t seen in a while, finishing up her morning walk, wearing her UVA hat, came up to say hi, and we talked about the UMBC game, and other things, for 15 minutes.

Shared experiences define us. Me, I look at people who aren’t sports fans, and I wonder what they do with their free time. Sure, probably more productive stuff, but still. For me, being a UVA sports fan – and let me clarify here, I don’t have a favorite NBA team, NFL team, so for me, it’s UVA sports, and the Washington Nationals – is about being part of something that’s bigger than me.

I get, to a degree, where Thompson, the Atlantic writer, is going with his missive. I hold an affinity for LeBron James, the best individual basketball player on the planet, and I love watching the Golden State Warriors, for the way they play, particularly their approach on offense.

I’m not anything close to a diehard NHL fan, but I’ll tune in to playoff games, because I love the intensity. I can think of a million better things to do than watch other people play golf, unless it’s a Sunday, and Tiger Woods is contention.

But I don’t live and die with the outcomes of those other contests. It’s more like going to the movies, or binge-watching Netflix.

What Thompson at the Atlantic wants us to do is to do that, just watch, dispassionately, be entertained, and leave it at that.

I can’t do that, and I’d honestly never want to do that. I want to get emotional, like the first time I was at Davenport Field for a Super Regional game, after going to games there back when I was a student in the 1990s, when hardly anybody went to see those last-place UVA baseball teams, and things got so bad that the athletics department actually considered dropping baseball.

I want to carry with me to my grave the ninth inning of the 2011 Super Regional Game 3, when David Coleman was down to his last strike, and Jay and I stood there in the Hoo Zone in left field, and we turned our backs to the field because we didn’t want to see Cal-Irvine celebrate on our field, and watched what we thought was going to be the last pitch over our shoulder, and then Coleman got a base hit, and we watched the rest of that inning with our backs turned, because we were stupid-stitious, and holy hell, the line shot from Chris Taylor got through the infield, and we won, did just that happen?

My first phone call after Nathan Kirby recorded the final strike of the 2015 College World Series was to Jay.

Dude, we did it.

I don’t call folks after the Warriors win an NBA title, or a LeBron James buzzer-beater, or after leaving the theater after seeing “Hamilton,” which, yeah, if you ever get a chance, do that, it’s awesome.

What this Thompson guy misses, if you ask me, is that somebody had to endure something in the way of misery to do the things necessary to give us “Hamilton,” LBJ, the Dubs and the rest.

Which you can’t fully appreciate if all you do is tune in for the coronation.

So, I guess, sign me up for more misery? Because, see, I like feeling it, and if that makes me weird, then, so be it.

Column by Chris Graham