Yes -- it's long. If you hate long, please refrain from being an utter jackass and commenting "pfft, it's long." (And I realize I just invited three sarcastic people to make that exact comment, so allow me to pre-empt your ironic cleverness.) If you don't mind long, feel free to make any criticism you wish.
As a kid, I loved sports -- most children do -- even though I wasn't hugely good at most of them. Kids do, or did, enjoy running around and exhibiting the enthusiasm of bodies practically impervious to injury. You fall off the jungle gym and break an arm, your parents freak out and pay the huge hospital bill, you're back on the jungle gym the next day with your cast. I loved playing football on asphalt during recess, diving for passes, and bleeding all over my homework in class afterwards.
Since I was no good at sports, I learned to hate them in junior high, where kids become teens and begin the process of imitating how abysmally adults treat each other. I was an asthmatic geek, and most geeks are aware of what adolescence means. It's bad, and I understand that it hasn't gotten much better in 20 years (although today's geeks are fighting back with social media videos and such.) It ain't just name-calling, and it's often worse than beatings; I'll leave it at that.
Every geek knows who the enemy is -- jocks and wannabes. Not just the team captain or the cheerleader, but the kids who suck up to them and bully geeks in order to hopefully win favor. This is where nerd culture comes from; it's circling the wagons. The "Napoleon Dynamite" aggressive jerk-nerd stereotype does reflect certain real people, but most nerds aren't egotists. They're defensive, not offensive. They unite behind chess, or D&D, or sci-fi or (insert geek cliche here) because in those worlds geeks can laugh and argue with each other and the values of jock culture simply do not apply. The person who can quote Monty Python or Rocky Horror lines more accurately than someone else earns respect for their devotion. This can get a little inbred at times, but it always rewards the effort you put into learning something, not your Allah-given physical gifts. (Jocks put effort into their passions, too, and as an adult I empathize with the jocks not quite gifted enough to realize their dreams, but as a kid terrorized by jocks I couldn't have imagined their pressures nor cared less.)
So most social rejects start hating sports, and I was no exception. For reasons not worth elaborating, I didn't go to college at a nerd school; I ended up at USC, in LA. (Basically, I'd internalized the ridiculous notion that Portland wasn't a real city, and I wanted to live in one; the two biggest cities were New York and LA, and my meagre financial aid package couldn't hope to cover living expenses in New York. It did in LA; and I just paid off the loans last year.)
USC was jock culture incarnate. Football (the doomed quarterback Todd Marinovich) was king, basketball ("Baby Jordan" Harold Miner) the prince, and fraternities the epitome of social achievement. The top fraternity had an alumni named Daryl Gates, then the police chief of LA, and accordingly that top fraternity could behave as it wished when it wished with no consequences. I could tell stories that are wholly inappropriate for young people to read; I'll tell the PG-13 versions instead, like when I was introduced to the exotic world of dental surgery. A French exchange-student friend insisted I join him, at a party, singing the French national anthem. This was during the first Gulf War, and, sure enough, several young patriots from that aforementioned fraternity took offense and beat the holy living hell out of us. Since Daryl Gates was an alum, the ensuing school investigation promised restitution of our medical bills, and it never came. My teeth still hurt from that. And trust me, there are stories rated far worse than PG-13.
Here's the Blazer tie-in. The dorm had one big, communal TV (probably big for the era, like 32 inches or so) and that's where everyone would gather to watch, I dunno, "Beverly Hills 90210" or whatever was a hit teen show at the time. And Laker games. Laker games, particularly, incurred rabid screaming; even trying to do homework in your room you were curious what the fuss was about.
One time I scuttled into the back of the TV room and caught a Laker game against Portland. It was 1990-91, and the Laker-Blazer rivalry was serious business. The frat boys, as the game turned sour for them, were aggressively reciting the standard "BS call!" and "no way!" mantras. While, huddled in the back, virtually unseen, I was becoming a Blazermaniac. Clyde/Terry/Duck/Kers/Buck, etc., were causing the jerkhole jocks intense pain. I knew nothing about basketball and I did not care; but watching the rest of the Blazer/Laker games, I learned enough to know that when that freakishly gifted half-bald guy put his head down on a fast break, the room of frat jocks would collectively moan "oh, (expletive.)"
Add to that any rational person's hatred of LA. Kevin Murphy, of MST3K, put it best: "Los Angeles had drained us all, as it always does, like some kind of huge, hairless ape you pay twenty bucks to wrestle and it simply sits on your head until you submit." I'd quickly learned that LA was a repugnant dump, kept functional by low-wage labor from immigrants the locals treated as carrion, and I romanticized Portland, in absentia, as paradise by comparison. Those red/black/white jerseys weren't just what a friend of mine today calls sports unis, "colorful superhero outfits for adults who grew up on comic books," they were a flag of civic pride. I worshipped Portland for not being LA, and I worshipped the Blazers for not being the Lakers. (Later, I'd realize that this worship is not entirely deserved, but some part of my brain is still susceptible to it; I'll worship new places until I realize there's no such thing as Nirvana, and then dumbly imagine Nivana in the next place I visit. It's a flaw, but what else can I be? All apologies.)
I don't have to tell you how that '90-'91 season ended, against the Lakers; fortunately the term was over and I was temporarily back in Portland by then. (Through odd chance I ended up back in California for 2000-2001, and watched the WCF collapse there in agony.) That's not the point; everyone has their "I saw the Blazers lose in this excruciating moment" story, and they're all equally valid.
No, the point is how a geek came to enjoy, of all things, watching jocks. I'm completely aware that jocks in Portland today probably bully geeks who aren't Blazer fans. And this is wrong. Yet the customized jersey in my closet isn't going anywhere. Those black/red/white colors still trigger something in me. I can walk into a pub, catch a second of NBA on the HD screen, and if the Blazers are playing LA, or Minnesota (where I live now), or Gandhi's All-Star Team featuring Nelson Mandela at PG and Florence Nightingale at PF -- doesn't matter. I'll still root for the Blazers.
Mad? Pretty much; probably; almost certainly, when you think about it. Jocks were my first, most hated enemy. But they're also human beings, and the best reporters/broadcasters/bloggers make us aware of that. Books by players who are gifted writers, like Paul Shirley's "Can I Keep My Jersey" or Dick Hayhurst's "The Bullpen Gospels," show how the jock-culture facade covers up the insecurity underneath, the fear of failure. For every jock like Minnesota Vikings hall-of-famer and state Supreme Court justice Alan Page (he also plays the sax: don't you just hate insanely gifted people?), there are countless thousands of others who never made it, who never had another plan to fall back upon. I suspect that many of the jocks who tormented my kind as teenagers were already aware of this, and resented us for what they perceived as better options. (They needn't have worried, in my case.)
Attending live contests with friends (all of whom are geeks), inevitably someone will mention how odd it is to see these players in real life, not as TV images, but individuals doing a day-in-day-out job that pays more in one year than we will make in our entire careers. True enough; it is odd. For the most part, though, I don't imagine those players ever really wanted anything more than a decent chance to make a living doing something they enjoyed; few maliciously love lording it over the rest of us plebes. My friends tend to get hung up on the financial aspects of sport, and grouse that physical skill should not be so richly rewarded; they see those athletes as the same jocks who always bullied them in school. I understand the frustration, and I agree that our society's priorities are seriously out of whack -- I won't get political here, but who isn't glad Bernie Madoff went to jail?
I imagine (and I may be wrong) that if you polled the majority of successful players in any major sport, they would love to see a world where athletes could have decent lives, where geeks could have decent lives, where everyone could. Certainly we will all disagree on how such a world could be created. But I think that even the biggest bullying jocks, once they grow up, acknowledge that they behaved as they did out of fear, not innate cruelty. They're not Madoffs -- they aren't out to ruin anyone's lives. (Think of how most players feel terrible when they inadvertently injure a competitor; they want to win, they want to do well, but they don't want to destroy another player's career.)
So, even as a geek, I can watch sports today -- I can follow the ups and downs of a team like the Blazers -- seeing what happens as it is, a glorious soap opera that mimics and intensifies the joys and disappointments we all experience. (Is caring about the future of struggling players you enjoy rooting for any shallower than loving a pet? At least these are actual people.) Their experiences and incomes are not like those of myself or my friends, but their emotions are. And, yes, it's completely vicarious, but then so is drama, music, literature. We are social beings, but we can only personally connect to so many others (beyond a handful, it becomes hard to keep all the details straight.) In art, in sport, we can feel connected to anyone who shares our enthusiasm without the impossible complication of trying to add thousands of friends -- or "friend"ing them. When you attend a wedding in Denmark and someone sings a pop song you love, or sit stuck in an airport bar in who-knows-where and observe someone silently make a tiny fist punch as a Blazer sinks a crucial late-game basket, you've got an opening. Not to make a companion for life, but to temporarily break through that shell of isolation such settings create and remind yourself, yes, they're not so different from me, at least we all go through this odd world simultaneously.
To end this, here's a tidbit for the romantics out there. When I first started seeing my partner (a fellow geek), I rather hid my Blazer obsession. If I'd taped a game on national TV to watch later (subsequently avoiding all sports media that could tell me the outcome, which is not easy these days) and was asked, "so what are you doing tomorrow?", I'd lie. I couldn't say "I taped a game that happened 18 hours ago and avoided all sports media so that I can watch it and get all excited." It sounded too jock-y. Eventually (as always happens), I was found out. Instead of condemnation, however, I was told we should watch the next game together. This was quite intimidating, but I went along. As it turned out, my partner (who digs math) enjoyed basketball -- "I like the shot clock and game clock on the screen at the same time." As it happened, this was during one of unfortunate Mr. Oden's repeated attempts at a comeback, and I explained how difficult his career had been up until then. "I see what you mean," my partner said. "Look at his face! He seems so sad and old."
I never had to apologize for being a Blazer fanatic again, and during our next visit to Portland I got a terrific T-shirt/long-sleeve combo as a surprise gift. So -- happy ending to the rant, y'all!