Twenty years ago, in February 2002, Bill Simmons — the esteemed, ever-opinionated sports aficionado, the grandaddy of sports podcasting, the breaker-of-his-own-rules — published his now-famous 20 rules for being a sports fan.
The rules — born from a discussion with his editor, Kevin Jackson, who apparently committed the mortal sports sin of allegiance to two NFL teams at once — cover everything from what kind of jerseys you should buy to when it's okay to abandon your team (AKA never).
Simmons' list, however, in 2022... feels clumsy. It's out of place. Out of date.
I mean, a lot has changed in the last 20 years. Social media had yet to sink its ugly, venomous claws into the fabric of society in 2002. There were no Ubers. No Alexas. People still expected you to pick up the phone when you called. Men were bleaching their hair and doing something called "frosted tips."
It was a wild, tacky-ass time.
In terms of sports: in the last 20 years, the games themselves may not have changed a whole lot, but the stars playing them have become even more like Hollywood celebrities (Pat Mahomes’ abysmal acting notwithstanding) than they ever were.
This fact might be no more true across all of sportsdom than it is in the NBA.
Yes, the NBA.
I'm singling them out in my intro on the anniversary of Bill's Bible of Fandom. Because fittingly, now, I've got to pick a basketball team.
First: Job security.
It just so happens that football's over, and my job is in sports. Generally. I've gotten a lot of mileage out of just nodding vacantly when my boss talks to me about pro b-ball, but I'm beginning to think he's suspecting something.
Take our recent chat from just last week:
Him: Washington plays tonight!
Me: Oh, how are the Bullets this year?
Everybody else at RYP has a team and I'm feeling pretty left out.
Now, short of the stars I remember from my diehard love of NCAA basketball (Jordan Poole, Buddy Hield, Zion Williamson, etc.) and the obvious public-facing NBA mega-stars (Harden, James, Curry) I am hard-pressed to name a full lineup for any team in the NBA. (Even though, I swear I read our social media expert, Matt K.'s really great piece here... all those names felt like a really complicated Spelling Bee I was destined to lose in the first round).
Judge: Sir, your word is Antetokounmpo.
Me: I surrender.
It feels like time, now in my 36th year, to choose an NBA pony to ride for as Bill Simmons would have it, the rest of my adult life.
I lead with Simmons because I needed a framework to start this whole ugly process.
While the dude famously didn't abide by his own rules (particularly Rules 12 and 18) (he frequently criticized the Pats even after their multiple championships, and even though his son grew up in L.A. there's no way Papa Simmons allowed Junior any sort of non-Boston fandom), what I'm particularly interested in is how Bill used the spirit of his own Fan Code of Conduct later to help him pick a Premier League Team a few years later.
Now, my goals are similar to his, but aren't quite as many.
They can be boiled down to four major bullet points:
1) I don't want to be seen as a bandwagon jumper
2) I can't take much more sports heartache
3) I'd like to pick a team that I can reasonably see in-person; and
4) I would prefer a team that has a blue collar vibe to it, because that's how I grew up and how I still see myself today.
So for Part 1: let's start with my background and why I can't stand the notion of being seen as somebody who only likes a team if they win.
Who I Am: Not a Freakin' Bandwagon Jumper!
"There's nothing worse than a Bandwagon Jumper." — Bill Simmons
The trickiest part of choosing a fandom that aligns with Bill's rules in any sport is where I grew up: West Virginia.
The Mountain State sits at a weird culture crossroads. The North finds us too Southern, what with our charming accents. The South finds us too Northern, what with the whole reason we became a state was to leave the Confederacy. We're by no stretch Midwestern; we're not nice enough. And the West Coast? I'm no geography expert but I think that's way too far away.
It's a veritable No-Man's-Land of Identity.
Short of following the West Virginia University in college sports (a team I adore dearly, despite their love for absolutely pulverizing my heart into a billion pieces every year) there's no clear-cut team to choose at the pro level, no quarter in any sport from baseball to soccer. And unless you're a fan of Olympic-level rifle-based sports, you're pretty used to losing, so there's not a lot of worry about people thinking you're a bandwagon jumper as a Mountaineer fan.
(One more word on the Mountaineers while I have you here: Did you know we're the winningest football team to have never taken home a National Championship? Not winning percentage, but just straight-up all-time wins? Yep. Pain! Misery!)
Let's take the NFL.
A few years, ago, The Atlantic made this map of fandoms by county, and at first, it would seem like it makes the choice seem fairly obvious:
Lots of yellow. Very clear-cut Steelers Country, right?
Sure, until you realize I'm actually from the very small sliver of West Virginia in the Eastern Panhandle, where there's an intersection of Baltimore, Washington, and Pittsburgh fandoms. You can barely see it, but trust me... it's there.
On one country road in autumn, you could reasonably see flags of purple, of burgundy, or of black-and-gold — like some weird sort of passive aggressive football United Nations.
It's a very interesting part of the county for more reasons than sports, too — Maryland was recently named the most Democrat-friendly state and West Virginia the most Republican-friendly — so it was sort of like growing up on the Maginot Line.
But I digress.
Instead of picking a side of the family/political/culture war, I went another route entirely. Instead, I chose the New England Patriots.
Now just wait one dab-gum minute.
Your first thought was "Bandwagon Jumper!" And then you probably hissed and booed into your computer screen.
Get it out of your system.
By now, I realize I have to show the picture I offer every time as proof of the legitimacy of my fandom.
This is a picture of me, at age 10, in 1995, decked out in Pats' gear.
It is an offering of vulnerability.
Yes, I was chonky.
Yes, my mom did cut my hair. Thanks.
But the important thing to note is that in 1995, the Pats went 6-10.
They just weren't very good. I lost many a-video game that year trying to throw Hail Marys on 4th down to Vincent Brisby.
Still, I picked New England because my dad was a Pittsburgh fan, my mom was a Washington fan, and the rest of my family liked a smattering of the Eagles, the Browns, and the Bengals (the Ravens had yet to be reborn). I felt like a black sheep in my family and I wanted my football team to reflect that.
Plus, I liked Drew Bledsoe. And I liked the Pats logo and jerseys. And Foxborough sounded like a cool place-name. Kinda war-like. Kinda animalistic. Like a fox was crawling around in military fatigues while bombs exploded over his head.
You can see why a kid could like that.
Anyway, the next year, the Pats went to Super Bowl XXXI and my fat little heart sang.
I remember putting up red, white, and blue streamers outside and even getting into a lunchroom fist-fight with some jerk kid name Chris who told me the Packers were going to win.
Sure enough, the jerk was right.
When Desmond Howard ran that kickoff back for a TD? Oof. Still hurts more than Chris' weak-ass left jab.
And now? I suffer.
Because — by Bill's rules — I can't give up on my team, even though my wife's family (ironically enough, all from Boston, Mass.) still calls me a traitor to my people.
Even when I show them a ball I got signed by Ben Coates.
Even when I have a solid, defensible opinion on why Lawyer Milloy was the real anchor of that lockdown secondary and not Ty Law.
It all boils down to the fact that the Patriots became so good there is only one explanation for why a West Virginian kid could like them. I will forever have to show that picture of tubby little, flat-banged me.
A curse upon your house!
So simply put: this is a vibe I'm doing my best to avoid when choosing my NBA team.
To start our opening salvo of nixing teams... This automatically discounts, in my mind, any team who has won a championship in the last five years.
So to end part 1, we can say goodbye to The Bucks, The Lakers, The Raptors, The Warriors. You're all out.
Nobody is going to put baby in a corner, at least for this sport.
Alright. That's enough for now.
Stay tuned Part 2. Next up: Avoiding Pain.
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