What Drives Sports Fans?

January 13, 2024
6 mins read

By David J. Leonard | With thanks to NewBlackMan
Monday, July 04, 2011.
In the legendary Thanksgiving scene from Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have it, Jamie (Tommy Hicks), Greer (John Canada Terrell), and Mars (Spike Lee) take time away from talking trash, flirting with Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), and eating their thanksgiving dinner to discuss basketball. Debating who is the best player in the NBA, Mars questions the celebration of Larry Bird by NBA commentators alike. Jamie responds, “Say what you want, the white boy is the best player in the NBA,” to which Mars retorts, “The best? The best? He’s the ugliest m’f’er in the NBA!”
Five years later, Spike Lee once again took up the issue of race, basketball and fandom with Do the Right Thing. In this instance, Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) confronts Clinton (John Savage), a white male wearing a Larry Bird shirt, who accidentally scuffs his brand new air-Jordans, leading to the following exchange:
Not only did you knock me down, you
stepped on my new white Air Jordans
that I just bought and that’s all
you can say, “Excuse me?”
I’ll fuck you up quick two times.
Who told you to step on my sneakers?
Who told you to walk on my side of
the block? Who told you to be in
my neighborhood?
I own a brownstone on this block.
Who told you to buy a brownstone on
my block, in my neighborhood on my
side of the street?
While exploring racial identity, race relations, and the issue of gentrification, Lee uses each characters’ relationship to Larry Bird (and the racial signifiers attached to him as player and narrative script) to explore these issues. In each instance it is Lee at his best, pushing viewers to think about the meaning of/behind our choices as fans.
At an intellectual level I find both these fascinating because of the ways in which Lee connects race, sports fandom, and identity. Yet, my affection for both scenes isn’t simply about Lee’s artistry here or the ways in which he thinks about sports as a racial project/teller of identity, but his visible contempt for Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics. You see, I am Lakers’ fan. I don’t even think fan captures my relationship with the Lakers. I am miserable during the playoffs (especially this year), mentally exhausted before each game in anticipation of my misery during the game. Victories only provide a temporary respite, at least until the next game. In spite of the lack of enjoyment, I still watch each and every game. I am a fan – an irrational person who watches sports.
My love for the Lakers is simple at a certain level. Born and raised in Los Angeles, the Lakers represent my city. In the years since leaving Los Angeles, my relationship to the Lakers has grown as this relationship provides one of the most salient connections to home. First as a graduate student living in the Bay Area (especially during a year living in Davis, CA surrounding by Sacramento Kings fans) and now as a professor in Eastern Washington, my repping the Lakers reflects my desire to establish my geographic identity, to tell others where I am from and who I am.
Yet, at another level, my passion for the Lakers is about my childhood, nostalgia, my relationship to my father, and even my identity. Irrespective of the year or the players on that particular team, the Lakers elicit happiness because of the childhood memories that I associate with them: going to the Great Western Form with my father, the time I met Pat Riley at a wedding, that day I waited for almost an hour at the Apple Pan just so I could get James Worthy’s autograph. At an emotional levels, the Lakers embody the purity and innocence of childhood; the joy that came about with every spectacular play and monumental victory.
Yet, the nature of my relationship to the Lakers and the fandom in general illustrate the daily reconciliation and compromises endured because of sporting cultures. Some weeks back, after my Lakers lost to Dallas in four games (I have finally recovered), I had a brief exchange with Jeff Chang where he explained the basis of his disdain for the Lakers: “I want to qualify that I have loved the Lakers–esp. the glory days of Abdul-Jabbar. (Tho I did root for the Celts during that era, I watched the Lakers with the awe of an admirer,” he wrote. “But my hate for *these* Lakers is deep—more for who Jackson, Bryant, and Gasol have been off the court than for anything else. I’ve just been aghast at Jackson’s vocal support of 1070, Gasol’s anti-Asian racism, and Kobe’s man issues and that’s I guess how I express myself. It’s no judgment on any Lakers fan at all . . . because again I definitely know how fandom.”
His comments really struck a chord with me: how could I support a team or players who had done things that in other circumstances I would condemn. His thoughts challenged me not only because it demonstrates the complexity that surrounds why people love and hate teams, how politics, ideology, narrative, and broader issues impact how we approach the game, but how as fans we negotiate these inconsistencies. I continually find myself defending the Lakers (and its players) even when the behavior is indefensible. Whether Phil Jackson’s often troubling comments, Kobe Brant’s past, Pau Gasol or Shaquille O’Neal connection to anti-Asian prejudice, I often find myself reconciling my heart – driven by sense of self, identity, nostalgia – with my critical understanding, politics, worldview, and moral values.
In recent weeks, I have written on the power of sporting narratives as they relate to both Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James (with Bruce Lee Hazelwood). In both cases, I sought to emphasize the media representations of both players and how the media discourse, alongside of nostalgia, race, and larger social forces impacts the consumption of/reaction to these players (and others).
That is, we as fans don’t simply love or hate players, root for or against teams, in a vacuum. Yet, there is an emotionality in sports, not only for what happens on-the-field but the narratives that transcend the sporting arena. It has personal meaning and it has a connection to something bigger. While difficult at times, we, as sports fans, must continually negotiate the emotional appeals of sports even while we seek to critically understand its broader meaning. Despite the appeals to do so, to be a fan should not mean to turn away from critical thinking, self-reflection, and a moral compass.
Evident in these two articles, it is easy for me to think critically about sports away from the Lakers; reflecting on the demonization directed at LeBron James, Barry Bonds, Tiger Woods or Ricky Williams or the narratives associated with Dirk Nowitzki, Lance Armstrong, Michael Jordan, Marion Jones, Tiger Woods, and Michael Vick is easier to achieve because I don’t necessarily have to navigate the complex and competing relationship between commentator and fan. That doesn’t mean that I don’t navigate this complexity with these athletes (and others) I don’t root (in many instances I root for players who unfairly becomes villains in the national imagination), but my relationship is different. With the Lakers, whether talking about politics, ideology or even their on-the-court performance, I still am burdened by the emotionality, the connection, and the fan in me. I am still able to think critically, but often find myself compromised, forced to think about how I approach the subject, how I don’t want to be critical of their on-the-court or off the court performances because their failure hurts. Isn’t that what being a fan is about?
Being a fan is never just about the heart or even the mind but the ways in which sporting emotions intersect with the more cerebral beauties and ugliness of sports. While writing about food Brillat-Savarin once noted: “tell me what you think you eat, and I will tell you who you think you are.” Taking this a step further, Belasco argues: “If we are what we eat, we are also what we don’t eat…Food choices establish boundaries and borders.” The same is true in the world of sports: tell me who you root for, and I will tell you who you think you are. Or better said, if we are who we root for, then we are all what teams and players root against. Sports fandom establishes boundaries and borders for who we are and what we want to be yet in many instances we are forced to cross and navigate those boundaries and borders on a daily instance. Some days, this is easier than others. As I watched the finals, my lack of emotional connection to each team (and its players) – the disconnect between them and me as fan – allows for a critical gaze that would be otherwise difficult to secure if the Lakers weren’t on vacation.
I want to give a Shout Out to Oliver Wang, Jeff Chang, Mark Naison, Wayne Moreland, and the many others whose responses to my past pieces both challenge me and led to this new piece. Thanks as always to Mark Anthony Neal for this amazing platform and space.
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor of Comparative Ethnic Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums. His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysis. He is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema and the forthcoming After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press).

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