The Negative Dunkalectics Collective and the Many Shades Of Fandom

Negative Dunkalectics is awesome. It really is. In our pursuit of showcasing great NBA talent around the blogosphere (while simultaneously stealing credit for their success), we asked the fellers to do a roundtable on any subject they like. They chose fandom. Enjoy. -Ed. Chris George, Chris Sampson, and Kelly Innes write at Negative Dunkalectics. They all rooted for Denver in the first round. Follow @negativedunks on Twitter for more of this in 30 words instead of 3,000.   Kelly Innes: At the risk of making too much of a short passage from the first Free Darko book, I think we’re here to talk about “fandom”? As I understand it, the concept of “liberating” one’s fandom entails a sort of free-floating attachment by which one roots for particular players or styles or even interesting teams instead of feeling attached to a team by virtue of place or tradition? I make sense of it by thinking that there’s some discrepancy between “rooting” for a team and being “rooted” to a particular place. We’ve written about fandom quite a bit on Negative Dunkalectics, including most recently a post by Chris George about how living in Pittsburgh – a city without an NBA team – offers one the freedom not to get caught up in rooting for the local team (since there isn’t one) and instead to be a free-floating NBA fan: attracted to particular players, styles, and teams for what are probably aesthetic reasons… and repulsed by others. The website “Negative Dunkalectics” was born in Pittsburgh towards the end of NFL season, and I can’t help but contrast free-floating fandom with the absolutely rooted and unanimous rooting Pittsburghers did for the Steelers. Almost everybody I met in Pittsburgh – from self-identified feminist crust punks to bankers and nurses – had a strong attachment to the team. When I’ve traveled, I’ve noticed that the ‘Burgh Diaspora propagates Steelers fandom everywhere it goes. Apparently Steelers fandom is a really strong element of Pittsburghers’ identities, an element of belonging that roots them into the community, and something they take with them if and when they move elsewhere: a virtual connection to Pittsburgh, even if they’re living in Tampa or Phoenix. I’m invoking all this Steelers-fandom stuff because of its pretty stark contrast with my attachment to the Miami Heat. I’m a Heat fan because I grew up in south Florida and have followed them since their first season. But I’ve not lived in Florida for over ten years and have never really been part of any real or imagined “community of Heat fans.” In our ridiculous playoff preview about the Dallas Mavericks, I wrote some lines about how I excitedly watched the 2006 Finals at home alone. A couple days later I saw someone wearing a Dwyane Wade jersey and it crossed my mind that we should high-five or something even though it would have been totally weird. Now of course there’s a whole host of what we might call bandwagon Heat fans, although I’d prefer to think of them as people who just root for excellence and recognize that LeBron and Wade are two of the best players in the league. Somehow I doubt this will lead to a proliferation of “Miami Heat bars” across the country, like the Steelers bars everywhere. I’ve been trying to unpack why I still care about the Heat. I appreciate excellence and watching athletes flourish and everything else… but I followed them just as closely during the few abysmal years leading up to “The Decision.” I’ve almost preferred watching any other teams play in the playoffs because in those games there’s nothing at stake. But I still can’t figure out what exactly’s at stake for me in Heat games. And I guess my really mundane question for you guys is how and why does fandom even work… especially in the NBA, which might be the most cosmopolitan (and un-rooted or up-rooted) of the major sports leagues? Chris George: You did a really good job nailing the “Steelers Nation” for not living here very long! To start with the obvious, fandom isn’t the same for everyone. A stringent version of liberated fandom – in which you’ve got no primary team – might be a little like being Jewish outside of Israel. I’m a gentile myself, but I think the metaphor holds: a liberated fan lives in an in-between world of assimilation and separation: you can be an NBA fan generally but you will never be the same as the guy in the Utah Jazz jacket who lived and died with MJ’s dagger. However, I think cosmopolitan-fandom’s more common in the NBA than the other sports.Why? 1. One thing I think we can’t deny is the importance of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird (and David Stern) in re-shaping the NBA. Those were players and teams with identities. We’ve heard the cliches, but they became cliches for a reason: the glitzy showtime Lakers and the blue collar Celtics. The team with the white star (and by 1985-86, disproportionately white roster) and the team with the black star and much more heavily black roster. Going back and watching She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing, and even movies that came out later like White Men Can’t Jump and American History X confirm that angle to that story. For progressives then this probably cut both in positive and negative ways, but in a sense then, Lakers/Celtics created a form of liberated (though not always “liberal”) fandom that was occasionally closer to the tribalism of some European sports, but somewhat disjointed from pure geography. The first “BEAT L.A.” chants during an entirely Eastern Conference playoff game were a moment that are a part of this story. 2. The other is the political background of NBA fans. This chart suggests that NBA fans are the most liberal around, with the only exception being the WNBA (perhaps not surprisingly). In a way, my sense is the demographics of many NBA fans somewhat mirror Obama’s coalition: many African Americans and professional whites. There are exceptions where there are clear cross-class fan bases including white working class people in many cities, but not to the extent of football based on my casual observations living in a few different states. 3. Hip hop. I wish I could extrapolate more here, but I think the NBA’s uniquely close relationship to rap culture allow fans, especially fans who grew up entirely in a “hip hop era”, to identify with specific players and occasionally even teams aesthetically. 4. The youth of the league itself. The NBA lacks the older traditions of baseball – but even further, suffered a terrible TV ratings slump before Bird and Magic. I suspect the ABA merger created an odd situation where teams were “legitimatized” differently than in the other three major American team sports. The merger teams generally were more successful than pure expansion teams since then. Much of NBA history for those of us who grew up watching the game on TV has been compressed into a time period after the merger, since hip hop was culturally significant, and since it has become a league of TV-friendly stars. We might also say that many of them are liberal-minded in the first place (and therefore more likely to have catholic rooting interests.)   Chris Sampson: In the end, we all share similar circumstances with different instructions attached, notations that we lend to what we believe in or who we care about. Maybe they’re the rules that our parents gave us that we have amended over time, for exceptions like “I would hate Samuel Dalembert even if he were on my ancestral team,” or “I wish that Kelenna Azubuike were healthy.” I am not going to pretend to understand football fans but the same thing that has happened with the Steelers over the decades also happened with the Red Sox during the past decade, after new ownership arrived and gave them the resources to compete with New York. The rivalry with the Yankees became centuries old. As success has followed all of these teams around, maybe this obtuse disenfranchised fan would just rather root for the team they’d feel will win because all humans have the intrinsic desire to identify with the victors of war. Unlike most people in their mid-twenties who grew up in New England, I always paid attention to only one local sport. My dad was raised close to Boston, and made us watch Celtics games when we were very young out of a long-term attachment to the team from when he was a kid. Even if they played for different teams in their early careers, D.J. and Chief were “our guys,” just like Hondo and Sam were always “our guys” too, but from a different era that my father remembered. When we moved farther out of the Boston suburbs into the woods of southern Maine, my attachment to the sport continued and expanded beyond the Celtics. As the 1990s wore on and there was little to root for in Boston (thanks, M.L. and Rick!), it was easy to support the Bulls, Magic or the Hornets. As this was thrust upon me, half my friends in this suburban elementary school were wearing Starter jackets adorned with the teal-and-purple, something I didn’t have. It was confusing and in reflection, I think that reflected my family’s working class background more than anything. I believe certain people might innately prefer different styles of play over others and that leads them to prefer certain players and teams. A lot of people don’t know this about me as some “basketball guy,” but my renewed interest in the sport pretty much came from watching the run of the Warriors and Suns through the end of the 2006-07 season and into the playoffs. I thought D’Antoni was a superhuman figure destined to save the sport from mediocrity. And by that, I meant the spectacular Ron Mercer style players I had endured as a child. But it turned out there were spectacular feats afoot during my basketball sabbatical.   C.G.: You touch on something I know we agree on: an aesthetic preference for a certain style or styles of play. I don’t think this should be overstated since there are plenty of people who may not consciously care about that at all and others who may thereby appreciate only certain players without rooting for their teams.   But personally, I’ve always been a sucker for fast break and run and gun teams ever since I first saw Loyola Marymount as a kid. When the Sacramento Kings brought in Pete Carrill and a modified version of his Princeton offense to an uptempo Kings team that could pass (and combined that with the accessible street game of Jason Williams), I was in heaven. I gave up on the NBA for several years after the… oh, let’s call it “quirky” refereeing of the 2002 Western Conference Finals. But waiting for the next Nellyball team, or the next D’Antoni team helped bring me back to the fold. However, since the Pistons’ Bad Boys teams “changed everything,” that’s been basically spending most of my life rooting for a style of play that hasn’t been winning championships. Still, I believe.   C.S.: I think that aesthetic preference is why people find LeBron’s ability to create magnificent transition dunks so appealing, even though – unlike Wade – it seems much rarer to see him rise into the land of the uncanny in a non-transition offensive set. It’s cool when it happens, but I guess it’s just not for me? The Heat play at a fairly plodding pace compared to the rest of the league. It’s not for everybody and probably makes them even more divisive for people who are into Western Conference style scrambles (like me). Is it just the dunks? Has it ALWAYS been about the dunks? There is also a preference to certain aesthetics behind a particular brand (and these are all very clearly brands, obviously just as much as they are basketball teams) ties a lot of us to a team or a player almost as much as any sort of geographical or stylistic connection. I hate to bring the example up again, but think of it as how the Starter Jacket look affected how people saw those teams as much as the colors, far more than what the most popular teams were like on the court. Whereas the Magic at least had Shaq, the Hornets of the same period were above-average offensive teams and their defense wavered from year to year. I don’t know if I saw them beyond their two stars and the novelty of Muggsy Bogues. I don’t know if a real fast break team will contend for the title anytime soon. But even the hope that one might was why I had so much hope for the Nuggets in the first round this season, and why it was disappointing when the team got taken out in round one by the Thunder, and will probably be taken apart in the off-season.   K.I.: I wonder whether it’s necessary for a fast break team to win the championship? Obviously a D’Antoni-Suns title would have ratified that style in the eyes of other coaches and GMs and probably influenced how they assembled teams, but isn’t there some legitimacy in how we all find it so compelling that we’ll watch some random Kings or Warriors game on a Tuesday night in December? Then again, maybe what we’re doing when we root for the Kings is to root for a style we find compelling to be successful enough that it propagates more and different compelling styles throughout the league? It’d be a nice counter to the other trend of assembling ad hoc super teams like Boston, Miami, New York, even the Lakers. At first glance in all those instances it seems like the style element’s absolutely secondary to just compounding star players and hoping something catalyzes. The Heat, of course, have only started to work as a great team once Spoelstra found a style that optimized all the talent advantages they’ve got over other teams. The same was probably true of Boston in 2008, although it happened a little more quickly and in a slightly less strong year for the Eastern Conference. The same is definitely true of the Phil Jackson coached Lakers, who we’re repeatedly told in Jackson’s book about the 2004 season would only ever be successful if Kobe, Shaq, Malone, and Payton bought into the triangle offense completely, trusted each other enough to move the ball around for good shots, and paradoxically somehow subordinated their immense individual talents to the team without (and this is the dicey part) losing the benefit of those unique talents. One story we might tell about the Lakers getting bounced so rapidly this year is that whatever equilibrium they’d worked out for last year’s title team had been disrupted just enough by Kobe Bryant’s decline and Andrew Bynum’s continued emergence as a star. It’s a compelling story. Like them or not, the Heat are also a compelling story. They’re also stories with much larger arcs than we got from the Kings or Warriors this season. On the other hand, I think what I like best about watching a random mid-season Kings or Warriors late game is that I know it will be a really well formed three hour long story. Because so many games get decided within the last minute, chances are good it’ll be a story with a surprise ending: a peripety in the guise of a buzzer beater or two, as happened at the end of the amazing Grizzlies/Kings game back in December. I won’t lie: I may have thrown my arms up excitedly when I watched that ending in real time, just like I did with Amare’s waved-off buzzer-beater against Boston, and just like I did when LeBron closed out game five the other day. There’s something exciting about being so captivated and wound up by a three hour long story that you tremble a little at the end: a catharsis or something like it. And maybe what’s at stake for me in rooting for the Heat right now is that I’m somehow so emotionally invested that I want their larger narrative arc to close in the most cathartic way. C.G.: It seems like in the “era of the point guard”, and the coaching incest, and lack of quality centers in the league, that the NBA has become a pick and roll game – especially a high pick and roll + 3 point option game. There is going to be a gravity towards that style even if there will be coaches who are outliers a few different reasons. I imagine the game will continue to evolve and we may see other styles come and go with rule changes and salary cap changes that we can’t even predict. So I won’t try to predict them. Hell, at some point I wonder if they’ll look at changing the dimensions of the court itself. My thoughts on the Heat have evolved over the season, but still center on this: I like the idea that the NBA has a villain. The worst most people could ever say about the Spurs was “they’re boring” or that they were too good. But the truth is, they had their own style that was interesting to watch, especially if you had any interest in their players or their opponents. I thought the Heat could immediately become the most hated team in the NBA, leapfrogging traditional powers like L.A. and Boston. And most of the reasons they would be hated would really be subjective, having to do with LeBron’s Decision and how the team was assembled. I also thought Spolestra might be a good fit for them. He would emphasize defense and the offense could create itself when it needed to. Pat Riley would push him to be detail oriented and they’d look at the proprietary advanced stats and adjust how to use their stars and role players as the year went on. I knew they would improve. Apparently, much of what they use the stats for is to ensure that they defend the pick and roll correctly on each possession. It’s one tactic that makes up the Heat’s overall strategy. I didn’t realize how much they would improve. I thought the Celtics had a good chance of taking them to six or seven tight games, but the Heat have played as well as anyone in the playoffs and may have the best two players in the NBA playing near full tilt at just the right time. Those of us who follow less-advanced stats might find it interesting that Bosh’s +/- is frequently the best on the team. We’re a little off the topic of fandom, but one thing that might tie it back for me, is I am glad to be able to quickly join the Grizzlies as they try to defeat teams I enjoy rooting against. I don’t like the Heat because I don’t want to see another dynasty and they have the talent to do it. But I do like the Heat because it’s good to have an antagonist in the league’s overall narrative arc. C.S.: Because of the players and aesthetics involved (as we’ve already talked about), I had a hard time figuring out who to root for in the Thunder/Grizzlies series. In the end, I feel like I ended up rooting for everybody to succeed. In the case of that one series (and I definitely think the Thunder/Nuggets series before it), it felt natural to openly advocate for the greatness of all of the participants? I know I’m not alone here – I was openly chanting the #THUNDERNUGGETS hashtag before the self-destruction of the Nuggets brought upon a sad recognition that the best opening round series of all time wouldn’t live up to our exceptionally ridiculous expectations. Only a devoted fan of one of those teams could do anything but salivate at the concept of such a “gentlemanly sweep.” It’s funny, but both teams in the most recently deceased semifinal series fit as an inverse to the Heat, almost in a very knowingly conservative model of general management, in that they – unlike the villainous Heat, of course – built their teams over time through modes that might be outdated. The Heat have relied on individual agency to attract players. It seems strange to say that Riley is “progressive” here, but at times, contemporary life feels like a parody of what it was meant to be. It makes sense that basketball could work in the same way.

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