Friday, November 18, 2005

A Fan's Predicament

Who is your real favorite team? No, don’t list them by sport. Who’s the real favorite – the one that takes precedence over all others? We all have our one true favorite, though we may not want to admit it. We secretly dread when they play on television because we know we’ll be miserable until the score is final – and even longer if they lose. However, when they’re not on TV, we are constantly checking the score on the Internet or trying to tune in the radio broadcast on the AM dial. When we talk to friends that don’t share our passion for them, we fear we will go over the edge and enforce our opinion with Bruce Lee-like fists of fury, or at least a muttered curse word followed by a wicked stare-down. We are secretly superstitious that we are somehow able to jinx our team, be it how we sit, what we wear, the thoughts we think or even when we go to the bathroom while they play.

Hopefully, we don’t feel this way about every team we root for, because that may not be entirely healthy. But there is probably one team that stands out in our heads and our hearts. It’s easy to figure out which team makes you feel this way – just ask yourself this simple question: If you had to trade 100 years of losing seasons for all your favorite teams in all the different sports except for one, but that one team would win the next championship in their sport, which team would you choose?

The answers may be different for everyone. I have a brother-in-law who would trade everything short of the health and safety of his wife and child for a BCS Championship for the BYU Cougars. One of my best friends from college lives and dies with the Utah Jazz, enduring the mind-numbing, heart breaking pain of seeing them come so close before losing to Michael Jordan’s Bulls in the late 90s. We’ve spent the last year reading about the personal fulfillment of the likes of Stephen King, Bill Simmons and countless others after the Boston Red Sox’ 2004 World Series triumph, because no matter how many banners lined the rafters of the Boston Garden or the outer rim of Gillette Stadium, the one they truly wanted could only be raised at Fenway Park. So, these kinds of allegiances to one “special” team are not new, nor are they anything to be ashamed of. We’ve all got them.

And for me? The answer is simple: All my other “favorites” could finish last for years to come if only I could see the Kansas Jayhawks cutting down the nets at the end of the Final Four. You see, I’ve made no secret of the fact that I love the Kansas City Royals. (By the way, I think the Royals took the above challenge seriously, not having sniffed the post season since the early 90s. The only problem is none of my other teams have won, either!) I commit major league baseball bigamy because of my lifelong affair with the Chicago Cubs. A Chiefs loss on Sunday can put me in a sour mood for the rest of the day. I want my alma mater, the Cougars of BYU, to return to national prominence and make a run for the BCS bowls. But, in truth, each of those teams could become perennial cellar dwellers if I could be guaranteed the opportunity to see Bill Self and his team parading down Massachusetts Street in early April.

I was 14-years old the last time it happened, in 1988. I remember watching Kevin Pritchard, Archie Marshall, Scooter Berry and the immortal Danny Manning leading the way to victory with Larry Brown and his huge glasses watching from the bench. I still get chills when I see highlights from that season. My wife rolls her eyes every time I point out Danny sitting behind the bench in his current role with the Jayhawks. I remember the euphoria, the party that spread from the campus to downtown Lawrence to 23rd Street that night – people honking horns, splashing in the fountain, running through the streets. It was amazing. I’ve always regretted the fact that my older brother was out of the country when Danny and the Miracles won it all. He didn’t get to see it. There’s a small part of me that wants the Jayhawks to win so he can experience that joy firsthand. But, to be honest, that’s only a small part of me. The selfish part just wants it for me.

So, with the 2005-06 NCAA basketball campaign underway and a young and promising Jayhawks squad ready to tip off, I’m prepared again for a season filled with the highest highs and the lowest lows. This edition of the Jayhawks is ready to erase the memory of last year’s shocking first round loss to Bucknell and an off-season to forget. They aren’t expected to win the Big 12 and will most likely need an at-large bid to the tournament in March. But that doesn’t matter to me when I’m watching them play. For me, each game is a mini-drama. I get nervous about any lead that is smaller than the number of minutes remaining in the game. When my kids were babies, I would rock them while I watched, hoping they wouldn’t wake up so that I wouldn’t have to change positions. I seek out any advantage I can find, convinced that my little actions will affect the shot selection and three-point percentage of my team.

You see, I probably take KU basketball a little too seriously. One of my wife’s biggest pet peeves is people who refer to their favorite team with the pronouns “we” or “our”. You’re not on scholarship, the team doesn’t send you a paycheck, Nike doesn’t spring for your shoes. You’re not a player, a coach or even an athletics department employee. Now, I’ll admit that, especially in college sports, if you are a high level “contributor”, it’s easy to consider yourself part of the team. You paid for the jumbotron, you’re allowed a vote. However, the vast majority of us don’t fall into that category.

Here’s the thing. For many of us, when we’re dealing with that “special” team, we really feel we have a say in their success or failure. When my team holds on for a close win while I make sure my right foot is tapping to the beat of “Lola” by The Kinks, I know I contributed to the victory. When the Jayhawks blow a ten point lead right after I have to help a three-year old use the potty, I’m certain it is somehow my fault. But, it’s that kind of impaired mentality that makes fans everywhere lament when “we” didn’t go for it on fourth down or start the runners on a 2-2 count or switch to a zone defense, and now we are saddled with a loss to an obviously inferior team.

Now, I have to admit, I’ve gone farther than just the simple mental games that help bleed off the stress from the opening tip to the final buzzer. Some of these things are fairly harmless. In 1997, I wore the same pair of shorts every time I watched them play, even wearing my fabled “Jayhawk shorts” under a pair of jeans while watching at a friend’s house. The next year, I committed an even more egregious crime. My heavily favored Jayhawks had just lost to Lamar Odum’s Rhode Island team in the second round of the NCAA tournament. At the time, my wife was my girlfriend and she had another friend, who we’ll call Jeff, who decided to have a laugh at my expense. A few choice words later and Jeff didn’t come around anymore. Now, I believe that Jeff was really just hanging around because he wanted to date my wife, but I certainly let my own emotions get the better of me – and all because my team couldn’t win a simple game, even though they had the most talent in the country that year. Heck, even right now, I get more frustrated thinking about that game than I do thinking about the confrontation that followed. Is there something wrong with me?

The answer is no, though there may be some room for a little anger management. The point is we all have these weak spots for a certain team. Now, I’m not saying that our blind devotion to a sports team should make it okay for us to lash out at the friends of our loved ones. I am saying that, as the seasons change and “that team” starts playing, it’s entirely possible that we will exhibit some of these obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Please bear with us. Please don’t make fun of us. And, whatever you do, don’t ask us to stop tapping our foot. If I can just get to the chorus before the next television timeout, the Jayhawks are sure to win! Lola. . . La La La La Lola. . . .

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Friday, November 04, 2005

A Whole Lot of Nothing I

I wasn’t moved this week. That’s all there is to it. I looked and looked for something that would inspire me to write a complete column that I could post on this space. What did I come up with? Nada. Nothing. Zip. Zilch. But, that’s okay. That allows me to introduce a new feature, called “A Whole Lot of Nothing”. These are simply random thoughts about different things. They won’t be interrelated. It won’t be the normal flow. To me, each of these thoughts are free-standing, but I just don’t have enough to create a full column out of them. So, enjoy and feel free to chime in with how you feel. In the meantime, go ahead and click on the link at the top of the page. You’ll be glad you did. (In reality, unless it’s an ad where you win a million dollars, I’ll be glad you did probably more than you. I believe in truth in advertising! However, if you do win a million dollars, I want a cut!)

1. The Major League Baseball playoffs

I promised no more musings about the Kansas City Royals until next year, and I am going to be true to that promise. In fact, that should be pretty simple since I’m talking about the playoffs and the Royals haven’t sniffed the post-season since the early 90s.

I was much happier when the playoffs finished up on ESPN and moved to FOX full time and I’ll tell you why – Joe Morgan. I respect the fact that Morgan played 2nd Base for many years in the majors. I respect the fact that he was a very good player. (Contrary to popular belief, I refuse to admit Morgan was the greatest 2nd Baseman of all time. That appellation belongs to a certain recent Hall of Fame inductee who played at Wrigley and wore number 23.) Anyway, why is it that, every third sentence Morgan speaks during a broadcast must include some reference to the fact that Joe used to play major league baseball? Is it in his contract? Or does he just think that his career was the benchmark against which all other events in major league baseball must be compared? And, more importantly, how does Jon Miller not strangle him? Joe, we get it. You played major league baseball. Enough already.

By the way, congratulations to the White Sox and their fans. Now, unlike those whiney fans in Boston, I don’t want to hear any more complaining. You got your championship. Your ownership is willing to spend enough money to let you compete. Remember the vast majority of major league baseball fans know in mid-March that their team is not going to be hoisting the trophy.

2. The National Football League

Contrary to popular belief promoted by NFL broadcasters and sports writers who are “in the know”, Patriots coach Bill Belichick is not the smartest man in the world. He coaches football. He hasn’t found the cure for cancer. Heck, he’s only been really good with 50% of the teams he’s coached. If he is such a genius, why didn’t the Browns win the Super Bowl while he was in Cleveland? It’s more than just one coach, guys. And, in case you haven’t noticed, the Patriots are barely surviving in a really weak division this year. So let’s stop acting like the Nobel committee needs to make a stop in Foxborough.

Frankly, this argument goes for Teddy Bruschi, too. The doctors said he could play and I respect that. But, let’s not get too excited about what he’s doing. He’s a football player. He’s not fighting in Iraq, or some other hot, nasty, dangerous place. The recent FedEx Ground commercials featuring NFL players are great. You know the ones, some office work shipping problem comes up and so someone throws out a football analogy and Jerome Bettis or Joe Montana runs in and says not to take the football analogies too far and just use FedEx ground. Good stuff. The NFL needs to apply that to the Bruschi situation. He’s a football player guys. Ease up.

3. The beginning of the NBA season

I’ve watched parts and pieces of a couple of games so far this season. My reaction? One giant yawn. Every year, I go through the same routine with the NBA. I try to get excited. I try to pick a team to follow. I say to myself, “I am really going to try and enjoy the NBA this year.” But it just doesn’t happen. Why? The vast majority of games are unbelievably boring to watch on television. Isolation. Shoot. Brick. Rebound. Fast break. Defense recovers. Isolation. Shoot. Brick.

Now, every once in a while, you’ll see a player take over a game – like LeBron James or Dwayne Wade or someone else. That’s pretty exciting, but it usually only lasts a few minutes of one quarter. The only offense worth watching last year was in Phoenix, but they are struggling to find their groove this year with Amare Stoudamire hurt. So, we are one-forty-first of the way through the regular season, and I’m ready to throw in the towel. Thanks, NBA. See ya next year!

4. The BCS

I’m a playoff guy. Always have been. I think, if you’re going to crown a champion, it ought to be definitive. In college football, the bowl system and the new and improved BCS is anything but definitive. It’s a muddled mess of great teams that will never get a chance to face each other, so they all pat themselves on the back and say they are number one, but the truth of it is, we may never know.

Right now, there is potential for four teams to finish the season undefeated. USC, UCLA, Texas, Virginia Tech and Alabama have not lost. USC and UCLA play each other in December, so one of those two will have a loss. But four teams could claim to be number one when the bowl invitations come out. In fact, I'm rooting for this to happen. The Bowl Championship Series is designed to establish who the best two teams in the land are so that they can play in the “National Championship” game in early January. (The fact that the college football season no longer ends on New Years Day is a story for another time.) The super-important BCS formula is comprised of several polls, several “important” statistical factors, the most powerful computer in the world, two chickens that only lay eggs on Saturdays and a dog that can bark the chorus to “Sunrise, Sunset”.

Now, with all these very impressive factors contributing to the formula, you’d think they’d be able to come up with something that makes people happy, right? Wrong! In fact, in the history of the BCS, only the friends and families of the winning team have ever been happy with the outcome of the BCS title game. Everyone else spends January 4, 5 or 6 trying to figure out why this team didn’t get a shot or saying how that team was playing better football than the so-called “champion”.

And, my absolute favorite part is when the powers that be claim they can’t go to a playoff system because it would take too long and keep the student-athletes out of class for an extended period of time. Like they’re really that concerned about the study habits of Texas quarterback Vince Young! It’s ridiculous. It’s all about money and sponsorships. So, here’s my solution: Use your precious BCS poll and move the top 8 teams into the playoff, with one exception. If any team is undefeated, but not in the top 8, they get moved into the top 8 automatically. Then, it’s a simple, three week playoff to decide the champion. Get off your scheduling high horse and get it done!

Now that I think of it, this idea is going to take more time. I’ll devote a full column to this later. You just wait! It’s going to be awesome!

5. Everything else.

An American icon, no doubt. But, do you think Rosa Parks ever got tired of photographers asking to take her picture on or near a bus? Just wondering.

I watched “Starship Troopers” the other day on television. That has to be one of the greatest movies of all time. It makes me laugh just thinking about Rico, Dizzy, Ace and the gang. “C’mon you apes. You wanna live forever?”

I should really spend more time playing board games. They are fun, even though I usually lose to my wife. My favorite board game is “Beyond Balderdash”. What’s yours?

All you can eat restaurant buffets are never as good as you think they’re going to be before you sit down. A lot of that food has just been sitting out for too long.

My favorite idea for the rebuilding of New Orleans is the one where all the buildings are on stilts and encased in giant bubbles. That would be awesome.

Every time I see Tom Cruise, I hope this it the time when his head actually explodes and the Martians pop out of his skull. And it pains me to have to say that about Lt. Daniel Kaffee.

At what point do you say to yourself, “I’m a grown man. I’m the Chief of Staff for the Vice President of the United States. I’m going to stop going by ‘Scooter’.”