Fickle fandom

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More than two weeks removed from the Golden State Warriors’ absurd defeat in the NBA Finals, when they were manhandled for three straight games by the Cleveland Cavaliers, it feels like the time for mourning is over, and the time to reminisce and more objectively reflect is upon us. So, let’s go back to the night of May 30. The Warriors were playing a seventh game at home against the Oklahoma City Thunder after being down 3-1 earlier in the series, and the entire Bay Area was in a frenzy to see its team continue its historic season.

But the visiting Thunder landed the first blow of the game, imposing its will and physical defense early, holding the Warriors to only 19 points in the first quarter. It expanded its lead to as much as 13 in the second, 35-22, on an alley-oop layup by Andre Roberson from Russell Westbrook. I was at Pappy’s Sports Bar. It was so full that I could barely stand comfortably, but I didn’t even need to look at the person next to me to sense the room’s nervousness. A 73-win team that doesn’t make the finals? That would simply be a disaster. But, oh, on the other hand, add a comeback from down 3-1 in a conference finals to the Warriors’ season narrative, and this team could finally have the resume to be considered the greatest ever.

And just as the Warriors’ faithful had grown accustomed to, their team responded in classic fashion — a barrage of threes. It began immediately, with Klay Thompson hitting his first field goal ─ after missing his first seven ─ to cut the Thunder lead to 10 and revive the suddenly anemic Oracle Arena (and Pappy’s). The Thunder wouldn’t back down, but I could feel the energy shift as Steph Curry hit a ridiculous floater to end the half and cut the deficit to six going into the break.

We all know what happened from there. Golden State hit threes on five of six possessions early in the third quarter to take a 57-56 lead. The Splash Brothers had ignited both their team and the fans and by the end of the third, the Warriors owned an 11-point lead that they never relinquished.

The comeback from 3-1 was complete, but the environment I was suddenly a part of disgusted my inner basketball purist.

By no means am I a Warriors fan, but I certainly had tremendous respect for the game they just played. What bothered me was what I heard from those around me, and the way they celebrated. The bartender popped champagne and sprayed everybody like they themselves had just won a championship. The insolent (and sometimes even blatantly false) remarks of, “Durant you suck! Ibaka go suck one! Referee that’s some bullshit!” were absolutely appalling, especially given that their team had just won.

Maybe I’m ignorant after being spoiled by my Lakers as a child. Or maybe being a sports journalist has broadened and objectivized my view of sports and made me more respectful of teams I don’t necessarily cheer for. Regardless, hearing complaints about officiating even when it was a perfect call or hearing a desire for Durant’s demise at all costs, even calls for injury, was nothing less than cringeworthy. Being neutral, the atmosphere was a spectacle to behold, but not for the right reasons. But it was definitely nothing I wished to participate in.

It was then that I finally realized what fandom is. The incessant desire to see your team do well regardless of the way in which it happens. The complete lack of respect for opponents and the need ─ not want, but need ─ to witness their demise at your (team’s) hands. Wanting the rules to lie in your favor and opponent to choke, instead of wanting to win by fair play and defeat the opponent fairly with your team’s pure on-court abilities. Fandom so rarely acknowledges strong play by an opponent, like the brilliance of Westbrook’s athleticism or Durant’s scoring prowess.

It’s sad in a way, but this is the mindset of millions of the fans who drive multi-billion dollar sports industries. And the worst part is that we are all guilty of it, myself included. When my Lakers are playing, I want nothing but their victory. The same goes for the German National Team in soccer.

Why fandom works this way is hard to really identify — why something that matters so little actually matters so much. Maybe people are just so insecure that they need to cling to something, like a sports team. Maybe people initially start as neutrals and then gain this mentality after they choose whose playing style they like the most. Maybe people just have pride for their city.

But ultimately, it doesn’t matter. This mindset won’t change, because it’s what makes sports so fun, investing oneself in the outcome you actually have no control over. Honestly, I’m not sure if writing this will even make sense to people who haven’t experienced what I did. But maybe, if you watch as a total neutral sometime, watch for the beauty of sport and watch the fans, and you’ll understand the social phenomenon I’m talking about — the undying affliction of fandom.

Vikram Muller covers women’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].