“Sports is a metaphor for life. Everything is black and white on the surface. You win, you lose, you laugh, you cry, you cheer, you boo, and most of all, you care. Lurking underneath the surface, that’s where all the good stuff is – the memories, the connections, the love, the fans, the layers that make sports what they are.” – Billiam Simmons
This doesn’t seem so much like an epigraph as it does a kind of perfect encapsulation. But there’s more. In high school, I discovered a quote once delivered by Howard Cosell, a man who devoted his life to the elucidation of all of the idiosyncrasies of the sports world. “Sports is human life in microcosm.” A statement so grandiose it frankly seemed like intellectualized bullshit. Maybe it was because sports and human life seemed so difficult to capture. Or their essence at least. Sure it sounded remarkably profound, but what it did it actually mean? Was there actually any truth to it? Let’s just say, I called game.
Life seems to present itself as a ceaseless progression of events, of hours and days, of experiences. They all undoubtedly march toward something. No, the progression isn’t perfect, and nostalgia becomes so omnipresent that it doesn’t seem like progress at all. Memory colors the portrait in the process of painting itself. And yet it seems partly disingenuous to say that life is too complicated to figure out. Because most of the time, all it is are the banal platitudes of everyday existence. But they are only banal in the sense that they are ordinary. Not that they don’t matter. There’s actually a certain matter of factness to them. The characters largely stay the same; the world continues to reveal itself in largely the same way. But there’s still enlightenment to be found. And sports operate in a very similar fashion. One team wins. One team loses. Games are played. Seasons begin and end. Players and teams write their own mythologies. Figures indelibly etched onto an actualized desire to never forget what to feel. Or how to feel. Sports is human life because it illustrates the narrative. I remember myself not as an eleven year old or as a twenty one year old because honestly the words of the story are just not that interesting. And coming from me, the assertion that the words don’t matter almost seems like some sort of sacrilegious middle finger to the voice that perpetually avows that it is only language that can articulate life. And yet I remember moments not most vividly by people or place, but rather by what game was playing on the television. I’m sitting in a chair in my uncle’s office, while the grown ups did what grown ups do. On a television that seemed anachronistically situated in a suburban living room during the Kennedy administration, Pat Garrity looked at the name on the front of his jersey. It said Magic. Three after three went in but the Buck didn’t stop there. I was seven. I’m sitting at a table with my parents in the musty basement of a restaurant I don’t even remember the name of, staring at a grainy television protruding from the corner of the wall. Swing and a miss after swing and a miss. Ben Sheets struck out eighteen Braves that day. I was ten. Maybe sports is not necessarily a microcosm of life, but instead is an amplification of life. “One shining moment, you knew you were alive.” Sure, this might seem like a Vandrossian ode to the shallow sentimentality of athletics, but in reality this is partly what sports do. They make you are aware that you’re alive. They awaken the inner recesses of marginalized emotion and do all they can to extract them. And I’m not talking about anger or frustration or anxiety or sadness or joy or optimism. Undeniably, these are all already present. No, what I’m talking about is passion, about a genuine investment of the soul in something outside of itself. I’m talking about honest to God caring; about undiluted emotion – as if all of life was hanging in the balance.
“It is foolish and childish on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitive as a professional sports team. What is left out of this calculation is the business of caring – caring deeply and passionately, really caring – which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naïveté – the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball – seems like a small price for such a gift.” – Roger Angell
It’s the naïveté. It’s the dance. My first one scampering through the house after the Josh McCown to Nate Poole miracle that sent that 2003 Packer team to the playoffs. Dancing necessitates nuance though. And you never learn all of its subtleties. But you can learn some. Like that 2003 Packer team. “We want the ball, and we’re gonna score.” Soon gave way to “TOUCHDOWN! DAGGER! AL HARRIS!” Which soon gave way to Freddie Mitchell on 4th and goddamn 26. How do you choreograph that shit? How do you best capture the end of a twenty five year playoff drought with Bernie sliding on his ass, CC pounding the glove with complete game after complete game, and Braunie circling the bases for the fourth time that week? Or three years later when the journey was narrated by Tony Plush. Excuse me, Tony Gumble. We all threw up the T and went Beast Mode and tried to stay real real professional. What a brave heart. Or two years later when they were the best. For so long they were the best. Dream. It was okay. Wake me up when September ends. Really, please. I didn’t want to see what happened in September. So the Pack. Go Pack Go, am I right? Freddie Mitchell said stop dancing once. And Brett, oh Brett. If anyone ever embodied the soul of a team and of a fan base more than you, please let me know. Yet, on the precipice of glory, Corey Webster told us all to stop dancing. Three years later, the joy was incomprehensible. And ephemeral. 15-1, there were the Giants again. Kaep running wild, Wilson with a miracle. Then it was our turn for a miracle. Excuse me, two miracles. The prayer can be recited by any overly eager Catholic schoolboy. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” I mean the phenomenology of watching it happen twice was the kind of full blown religious experience that has you falling to your knees , dipping your whole fucking body in holy water and lifting your arms towards the heavens with nothing other than complete and utter shock. I mean if you had told me that Richard Rodgers and Jeff Janis would be transformed into messianic figures I would have asked you to look out the window and point out the pigs flying across the horizon. Everybody worships something. And in reality there is nothing that is too remarkable for faith to conceptualize. That’s why it’s called faith. It’s unwavering. Believing is not always seeing though. Green and gold every Sunday from September through January. Hell, probably just every Sunday in general. It’s more than an affiliation; it’s a full blown familial bond. There were a few other colors allowed. Red and white of course. On a scale from 38-1, Kentucky we’re sorry. Roses wilted year after year though. The magic could only last for so long. What about purple and green? Light it up, light it up. Big Dog, Ray, and Sam. They just didn’t have an answer. Purple and green. Red and green. Green, cream and blue. A cosmetic image as transitory as the identity of the team it represented. An exercise in speed dating. Porter, Stotts, Krystkowiak, Skiles, Drew. More like a fucking exercise in futility. I mean look at our draft picks for god’s sake. The beacons of light. The saviors. Haislip, Ford, Bogut, Jianlian, Alexander, Jennings, Sanders. But the love is unconditional. The passion never wavers. It’s what makes you stand next to actualized futility for more than a decade and become overwhelmed with an entire emotional spectrum on a Dudley to Bayless buzzer beater. It’s what makes you drop everything and buy tickets to Game 6 of a series that is largely irrelevant and they have no business winning. But they might. You just never know. Until you start feeling like you might know. When a brighter future becomes less of a cliche and more of a wholehearted aphorism. When Giannis does things you have never seen a basketball player, let alone a human being do before. When Khris and Jabari make it seem like as long as you keep believing, the pinnacle can be reached. When they become emblematic of a franchise and a city on the brink of resurrection. When your investment no longer appears irrevocably Sisyphean, but screams instead that fulfillment is possible.
Sports aren’t their most profound when they embody life. No, sports are at their most profound when they transcend life. Transcendence is what keeps me coming back. When it becomes everything that life is not. When it surprises. When it inspires. When it captivates. Why is the triumph of the underdog so revered? Because it is never supposed to happen. In a black and white world, this authentic newness has no place. So every Vinatieri kick, every curse breaking 3-0 ALCS comeback, every “BYE GEORGE”, every Hayward half course off the glass and in…and out, every Tyree on the helmet to Burress in the end zone, every last glimmer that made College Gameday and a Rose Bowl and defied expectations coalesce , everything that makes us reconsider what is actually real. See sports don’t merely illustrate the narrative. Sports oftentimes ARE the narrative. They tell us things that everyday life never could. They show us a place we never thought we could go. A place we never want to leave. It really isn’t so black and white after all.