Monday night marked the beginning of the 2016 NBA Conference Finals. When the playoffs started back in April, sixteen teams would go to war, but regardless of where your allegiance lies or which city you call home, if you follow the NBA, there’s one team you couldn’t help paying attention to. Whether you admit it or not is a separate issue.
In a lucky last minute turn of events I found myself at the Staples Center for Kobe’s final game. My seats were in the first row of section 306 – the upper level – but considering how the internet was rife with reports of tickets going for more than I’d spend on a car, I was perfectly thrilled to have even gotten into the building. The energy in the Staples Center that evening was unparalleled, growing more and more as the game progressed until it was almost tangible enough to pull from the air and mold into the form of a basketball or a championship ring or a rape charge. Tears streamed down the faces of grown men, some of whom looked like they’d killed before and would again. The cheers were deafening. All in attendance were at their feet witnessing NBA history being made. Still, amidst all the cheering and the crying, whenever the screen began flashing the scores of concurrent games, it was made clear that all attention on the Black Mamba wasn’t exactly undivided. 368 miles north of Los Angeles, more history was being made.
It comes with every era of greatness. It surfs in on every unexpected wave of legend that sweeps through the league and reminds us all that following sports isn’t always a complete waste of time. Bold lettered writing on the wall be damned, there will always be that hand full of people who try to convince you that what you’re seeing – what we’re all seeing – is inauthentic. They hear the cheers, they see the highlights and the headlines. They reject it all. They sneer at your excitement. Deep inside, a part of them really wants to join in on the fun, to be part of the crowd and share in the elation, but alas, they’ve come too far. No pride will be swallowed today. We all know one of these people. If you don’t, you might be one of these people. He’s the guy in your family all hell bent on convincing you that John Stockton was actually better than Michael Jordan. He’s the Celtics fan at the bar who says Kobe Bryant sucks. He’s the Kobe fan who says LeBron sucks. It’s Oscar Robertson’s ass truly believing that, back in his day, he and his booty-shorts wearing squad of ditch diggers would have any clue as to what the fuck to do about Steph Curry’s uncanny ability to drain threes from his living room. History has known many names for this brand of person. Philosophy gave us “skeptic” while the church gave us “blasphemer,” and years later hip hop gave us “hater.” Granted, these terms aren’t exactly interchangeable, but anyone they apply to has probably stopped reading already, so let’s proceed.
The Bandwagon Effect
There’s a term that gets thrown around a lot within sports fandom. It’s a name no sports fan ever wants to be called but one that most sports fans keep at the ready for when referring to other sports fans, particularly, other sports fans they see having noticeably more fun than they are. Officially, the bandwagon effect is a psychological phenomenon whereby people will adopt certain beliefs and inclinations based solely on the fact that other people have also adopted them. People with this condition – commonly referred to as “bandwagoners” – are impervious to facts and conflicting evidence. Thus, already we see that, given the existence of clear supporting evidence, anyone who considers the current Golden State Warriors one of the greatest basketball teams in NBA history is, by definition, not a bandwagoner. However, critical thinking is something else a lot of sports fans tend to avoid, making “bandwagoner” the perfect name to call someone you otherwise have no argument against.
The bandwagon effect is the bread and butter of marketing strategists the world over. They appeal to our interests – mostly to our insecurities – via celebrity endorsements and stealthy product placement tactics. And it’s effective. For example, all you wanted to do was watch the game, and now you drive a fucking Kia because you let LeBron James and his underbite tug at your consumerist puppet strings and convince you it’s the new “cool” car. It isn’t (trust me, I bought one). Politicians are equally famous for this, and we’re all aware of it. But where the bandwagon effect would cause people to act in certain ways unknowingly or without good reason, there are many things a lot of people do while knowing precisely why they’re doing them.
If you have operative taste buds, you probably enjoy ice cream, and not because a lot of other people also enjoy ice cream, but simply because ice cream is goddamned delicious. Nothing persuaded you to like it, it just naturally happened. How about sex? If fucking is considered bandwagoning, then just about everything capable of fucking can be called a bandwagoner. Lions, seahorses, ants, NBA players, etc. Where pleasure received naturally via stimulation of the taste buds and/or genitals differs from that which occurs following an ass-clenching buzzer beater to win game seven of the finals is: at one point in your life, where the latter is concerned, you wouldn’t have given a shit. A certain amount of influence was required before you started to be impressed by slam dunks or home runs or touchdowns. Someone – probably a lot of people – had to convince you that those things were worthy of your amazement. The same thing happened to your influencers, and to their influencers before them. You all learned to love sports. To put it simply: if you’re a sports fan at all, you’re essentially already on a bandwagon, and you don’t even realize it.
The Die-hard Fan
To be a die-hard sports fan, at least in the traditional sense, the requirements are simple. Step 1: Find the team closest to your house. Step 2: Root for that team and only that team, even if they lose all the time. Your viewing pleasure falls second to the fact that you bleed [insert colors of preferred team], and you’d sooner go to your grave than jump ship. To live by the sacred code of the die-hard fan is to never let the “meh, we’ll get ’em next time” flame in your heart be extinguished, not even by statistics or probability. There’s nothing wrong with this, and surely there’s a certain beauty found in being a die-hard fan. Loyalty. Tradition. Camaraderie. Faith. These aren’t just the main ingredients of every terrorist organization that has ever existed – not to mention the Illuminati – they’re also what makes it possible to spend your whole life shamelessly cheering for the same shitty team as they swallow L after L, game after game, season after season, and still have the competitive fortitude to slander someone who would dare call themselves a Golden State Warriors fan now that they’re one of the only teams worth paying attention to.
We here in Southern California have been spoiled. In the strange realm of pro sports, where devotion is often determined by little more than geographic location, Laker fans have repeatedly found themselves sitting at the head of the table, second only to Boston, which I’m sure plays no part in the hatred all of my purple and gold wearing friends have for the Celtics and their fans. We don’t have much experience being labeled bandwagoners, and that’s simply because, as things go, many of the brightest stars in the NBA sky have been right here in our backyard. We’ve never had to look elsewhere for excitement, much less for entertainment. But things have changed and the sun of a new day has risen. Kobe is gone, Shaq is fat, and the coaching staff is in utter disarray. For the first time in many moons, self-proclaimed die-hards will be faced with the decision to either mourn the defeat of their heroes night after night or dare to frolic in the success of another team. This is the moment in Hook when Peter Pan uses his sword to draw a line in the dirt. I’m not entirely sure that reference works, but I can tell you that I’ll be on whichever side is doing the frolicing. Paint me a full time frolicer. Furthermore, just as my dad never gave me shit for worshiping Michael Jordan even though we lived nowhere remotely near Chicago, I cannot in good conscience tell my son not to cheer for Steph Curry (or for LeBron) because our address deems us Laker fans. When you strip away the million dollar contracts and the commercials and the complete corporate takeover, all you’re left with is a game. And as it is with most games, it’s a lot more fun when you let go of your shitty adult resistance and pride and orthodoxy and attempt to observe it through the eyes of a child.
It seems we’ve had it all wrong. While we’ve come to define bandwagoning as the act of cheering for a newly crowned champion, a quick glance at our dictionaries shows us that, in fact, forcibly celebrating mediocrity for the sake of doing so – because you always have, because your parents did, because all of your friends and neighbors do, because of where you live – is the very definition of bandwagoning, and professional sports survive only because of it.
But it’s okay. You don’t have to change. You can call me a bandwagoner and I’ll continue to revel in it. If I’m to be found guilty of enjoying enjoyable things, things you also find enjoyable but won’t let yourself enjoy for trivial reasons, I’ll gladly wear the title. I like exciting basketball. I like my three’s from deep and my dunks hard, and if that sounds sexual, it’s because it is. I’m too old to sit through bad movies, power through boring books, listen to terrible music (that one’s a lie), or cheer for substandard teams. Most of all, I’m too old to be guilt tripped out of praising the obviously praiseworthy. I don’t write about sports. I’m not a sports analyst – I’m barely a sports fan. I’m an artfuck. I write about art, about music, about writing. Art is subjective, relative to the eye of the beholder and all of that. But sports are not art, and that’s why I’ve come to appreciate them more. There’s not much gray area in sports. They’re quantifiable, measurable. Sure, it can be argued that they’re ultimately meaningless even when measured, but if we’re being honest, so is art. Therefore, in closing, I leave you with the illustrious words of one of the NBA’s all time leading haters and a world class philosopher in his own right, Sir Charles Barkley: “Somebody hits me, I’m gonna hit him back. Even if it does look like he hasn’t eaten in a while.”
Now that I think about it, that quote is completely irrelevant to this article. I told you I don’t write about sports.
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