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What the World Cup taught me about how we watch basketball

Paul Domenick / Flickr

Paul Domenick / Flickr

Though the World Cup is now moving steadily toward a climactic finish and no one wants to miss a single beat of the action, I think we can spare one moment to reflect on Team USA’s run in this year’s tournament and the impression that it left on us, as a sporting culture and as a society.

Well, I can only speak for myself. Like millions of Americans, I spent the first two weeks of the tournament transfixed by the team’s storybook run, despite it playing four games and winning only one of them – and also not unlike many in this country, I was an unabashed bandwagon fan after many years of apathy about the sport. Knowing next to nothing about soccer, I went in cold, and I was sucked in soon enough.

By the start of the knockout rounds, I was completely hooked. After sneaking out of work a few minutes early, I watched the United States’ last stand against Belgium from a bar in downtown Boston, surrounded by a couple of co-workers and hundreds of random strangers. It was an odd scene – the establishment was jam-packed at 4 o’clock on a Tuesday, brimming with people who ranted and raved incessantly about a sport that few of them really understood.

Me personally, I mostly just stood and watched quietly. I watched every minute, and I loved the aesthetic appeal of the sport and marveled at the athletic prowess of the world-class players, but I didn’t really grasp the nuances of the game. In basketball, you learn to appreciate the post-ups and pick-and-rolls; as a soccer newbie, I didn’t really know what I was looking at. For fear of exposing my ignorance, I kept my mouth shut for the most part.

To say the least, the people around me did not share my inhibition.

The pub we had settled on, after first being turned away from a couple that were already packed to levels far exceeding local fire codes, was teeming with people who were eager to display their nationalistic pride through massive overreactions to every single fleeting moment. In their desperation to see the Americans win, the fans around me expressed their emotions in frequent outbursts of “PUSH THE BALL!” and “GO FASTER!” and “SHOOT THE BALL, NO, SHOOT IT, RIGHT NOW, SERIOUSLY, DO IT, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?” while occasionally pausing to adjust their red, white and blue neckties or take a healthy swig from their fine American draft beers (read: Budweisers).

“These people,” I thought to myself in my own private mental state of intellectual elitism, “are kinda dumb.”

I felt pretty smugly satisfied with my Socratic stance that I was smart because I knew how little I really knew. While everyone else around me was screaming at the 70-inch flatscreens that surrounded them, I was just quietly admiring myself.

Eventually I realized that of everyone in the sardine-crammed pub, I was having the least fun.

These people all around me, shouting under-informed and over-intoxicated opinions – they’re what fandom is all about. This is what the game is for. You’re supposed to get swept up in it and scream and yell and eventually, in defeat, cry – without all that emotion, what’s the use?

This epiphanic moment of self-awareness got my mind racing. I started to think about the way we watch basketball. And when I say “we,” I’m referring to two distinct, very different “we”s – there’s the “we” referring to the people like me, who sit in press boxes or at laptops poring over Synergy clips, dissecting plays and stats and big ideas, and there’s the collective “we,” meaning fans at large. Many of whom are unashamed to watch the same way my compatriots at the pub did, yelling and overreacting and maybe occasionally spilling a little Bud Light Lime in a moment of passion.

A lot of people like the overreaction. They find it equally applicable to every situation, good or bad. Truly loving a sport means maximizing the absolute value of your emotional payoff, so they find ways to amplify the joy and the sorrow both. A collective love of the overreact is why we pile into bars to experience these watershed-moment games together. It’s also why Skip Bayless has 1.4 million Twitter followers. Why simply acknowledge the outcome of a Miami Heat Finals game when you can enjoy it to the max, reveling in such hyperbole as “LEBRON IS NOT CLUTCH! HE’LL NEVER BE JORDAN!” Why bother following the Oklahoma City Thunder if you can’t engage in dogmatic wars of words over whether it’s “Russell Westbrook’s team” or Kevin Durant’s?

We can make fun of the hyperbolic fans all we want, but they’re not going anywhere. Not in basketball, and not in soccer either. Those same spectators were watching that U.S./Belgium game on Tuesday and spouting the same type of rhetoric, just directed at a different sport for a change. Instead of criticizing LeBron or KD, they bashed Chris Wondolowski for missing a game-winning shot that was “WIDE OPEN!” They dogged Michael Bradley relentlessly for being a lazy bum.

I think the unreasonable fan deserves a tiny bit more clemency in soccer. After all, we Americans, we’re still getting our feet wet with this new sport, and it’ll take us some time to figure it out. Not that I was around when basketball or any other major sport first rose to prominence in this country, but I can only assume there was a calibration period in there somewhere, a time when we all had to figure out the sport and find our identity as fans. That doesn’t happen overnight. It would be far less gratifying if it did.

As a nation, we’re still trying to figure out if we even like soccer. Despite all the commotion and the ratings, there are still naysayers – including one notable media member who thanks God he’s allowed to ignore soccer again after the U.S. loses, and another who says that hating the game is America’s real national pastime. On the other hand, there are soccer proponents who have observed the evolution of American thinking, including the growth of sabermetrics in baseball, and believe that progress is only a matter of time.

Me? I tend to subscribe to the latter school of thought. Soccer’s acceptance is more or less an inevitability, much like sabermetrics or gay marriage or the understanding that Subway and Burger King are awful. People may not be all that bright, but eventually we figure stuff out.

While I’m not a longtime soccer fanatic and I’d be lying if I claimed otherwise, I am thankful I’ve been able to watch this year’s World Cup. If nothing else, it’s helped me appreciate basketball fandom more. I’ll never look at the idiotic LeBron/Jordan comparisons the same way again – I know now that they come from a place of love. In a weird sort of way, getting yakked about by Skip Bayless means you’ve really, truly made it in this world. I know – it terrifies me too.

Evans Clinchy