I’ve been a basketball fan of fluctuating devotedness all my life, and every year, I have managed to despise at least one of the two teams in the NBA Finals—until this year. In the 2015 NBA Finals, I actually wanted both teams to win.
The Golden State Warriors are impossible to dislike. They’re young, fast, and exciting. They’re selfless; they play gorgeous offense and unforgiving defense. Steph Curry makes shots that most players wouldn’t even dream of attempting. Moreover, for all their popularity, they are underappreciated: as they entered the playoffs after a historically dominant season, pundits ignored the numbers and picked the Spurs to come out of the West. We owe the Warriors a debt of gratitude for contradicting the traditional (dumb) narrative that “experience” wins championships.
Yet, following the injuries of Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, how could one cheer against the underdogs from Cleveland? With their decimated roster, the Cavaliers had no business outplaying the Warriors for a single quarter, yet they managed to take two games. LeBron’s solo effort was heroic—and if only he’d managed to carry his team to two more victories, the general public probably would have finally granted him his rightful title as the Greatest of All Time.
Watching the Warriors and the Cavs face off this June, my support initially vacillated between the two teams, but eventually I gave up on partisanship and cheered both teams equally. If LeBron made a clutch three-pointer, I clapped; if Curry matched it, I clapped just the same.
It felt pretty confusing at times.
Here is my question: if you like both teams in a sporting event, is the game more or less enjoyable than it would be if you liked only one of the teams?
Seemingly, it ought to be more enjoyable: triumphant feats on both end of the court become causes for celebration, not stabs in the heart—and no matter which team wins, you feel OK at the end. You can regard the athletic brilliance in a state of pure awe, without resentment ever clouding your appreciation.
But I’m not sure this really works. My impression is that it’s actually quite difficult to become deeply engaged in a sporting event without a rooting interest.
For spectators, professional sports function in a multitude of ways: as inspiring aesthetic displays of human grace; as a community-building tool; and as the somewhat arbitrary “raw material” for gambling addicts, compulsively competitive fantasy football owners, and statistics geeks. Most importantly, perhaps, they function as metaphor: when we cheer for one team and against another, the action becomes, on some large or small scale, a drama of good vs. evil—whatever “good” or “evil” may mean to you.
Depending on your own preoccupations, the basketball court or soccer pitch may represent a nationalistic or (alas) racial battlefield—or one team may embody some positive human characteristic (courage, humility) while the other team may embody a negative one (arrogance, dishonesty).
Since pro basketball teams are basically just random assemblages of tall, coordinated guys who’ve all pursued similar life-paths, it seems unlikely that one roster of players would actually be significantly more virtuous than another, and even if that were the case, we’d never know.
Yet every team is a little different from the next, and our brains seemed to be wired to regard these incidental differences symbolically. For example, in the Cavs-Warriors matchup, Golden State had a multitude of scorers and employed a cutting-edge system of quick ball movement to find the open man; meanwhile, Cleveland had to rely primarily on a single scorer, running a simple isolation-based offense that depended on LeBron’s brawny one-on-one dominance. Neither approach was wrong, let alone “evil”—yet your own feelings about the importance of collaboration or the sovereignty of individual genius may have decided your allegiance. You may have extrapolated a battle of strength vs. smarts, or conservatism vs. liberalism.
As readers, theatergoers, and viewers of daytime soap operas, we all use stories to resolve the political, cultural, and personal dramas of our lives. In this way, sports—the story-world of the game—may work best of all because it’s purely abstract. Unlike a realistic novel, a basketball game makes no attempt to mirror the day-to-day world and thus contains no distracting or alienating particularities. It takes place within a wholly fabricated universe where putting a leather ball through a metal circle is the end-all and be-all of human existence—a drama so far removed in the literal sense from anybody’s life on Earth that it enters the realm of pure metaphor, where it can mean whatever you want it to mean.
This is the reason most of us care about sports: our ability to allegorize the game is what engages us—it does so intensely, effortlessly, and almost instantaneously. It’s like magic, it works so well.
Ironically, this basic impetus of fandom impedes us from actually seeing what we so eagerly watch: the more we inject symbolic narrative into the physical contest, the less accurately perceive the details of that contest, whose nuts and bolts are always incredibly complicated and hardly ever match up with the broader imaginative drama that takes place in the mind of the spectator.
For this reason, some of the more modern, analytical sports fans frown upon the partisanship that is the inevitable consequence of metaphorical viewing. Basketball itself is so much more complex and interesting than the racist, sentimental, mathematically inept, hometown-oriented sportswriters of days past ever let us see. If we remove the distorting lens of narrative and replace it with the clarifying lens of statistics and impartial observation, we can understand why teams really win (it isn’t personal virtue) and why they lose.
Yet, without the imaginative disfigurement of partisanship, we have no reason to care about this: basketball itself has literally no importance or meaning whatsoever. The stuff we project onto it is the only real stuff of significance.