The reason I love sports as an adult is totally different from when I was a kid. Back in Southern California in the 90s I loved sports, particularly basketball, because of how big they were. The players, the lights, environment around a big game, the excitement! And the narratives, especially Jordan’s back then, were so much bigger than me. They made the athletes into legends, living legends, and to my little kid brain, that was just fantastic. I would covet my NBA trading cards as my collection grew to include the best players of that era, because my collection was then able to lay some claim to that big legacy. I had a mint ’93 Jordan card. Can you believe it?!
But now as an adult, that isn’t what moves me about sports. Certainly, there is a strong thread in modern fandom that still looks at athletes with doey little kid eyes, but for me, it’s no longer that way. I’m 29– a lot of these guys are much younger than I am. It’s impossible for me to look up to them in any way other than literally. But sports, writ large, still compels me because of the larger way that it is a metaphor for life that sometimes allows rather profound glimpses of wisdom to be gleaned from the sports page. Though Dano HATES hearing about it, this is what I believe was really going on with LeBron James’s “The Decision” fiasco two summers ago. I think Clevelanders were furious with Lebron because that Cavs team (with LeBron making up about 85% of it) had become a part of them, a part of their explanation of why they still loved Cleveland and why they chose to stay there. If you never have, do yourself a favor and put up Scott Raab’s book on the subject, The Whore of Akron. Despite that pugnacious title, the book is actually fairly thoughtful and illuminating about the ways in which sports can be so much bigger and more important than Bill Simmon’s arcane rankings. There is a reason why President Obama, a serious man with a serious job–say what you want about his policies– will say “Go White Sox” at the end of a press conference to wish the team well. As an adult, sports can become entwined in us, in our place, where we are from, and it can help us make sense of and respond to adversity, especially when adversity is really all there is.
And this brings us to the video at the top of this post. Please watch it. Its a funny enough premise: the reporter sets out to golf the longest hole in Detroit– an 18 mile, par 3,000 bear across the open expanse of fallow Detroit. But within that silly conceit is clearly a point about the current, desperate state of the city, one that has famously lost more than half its population since its heyday in the 1950’s. For people from Detroit, and from other fairly or unfairly maligned places, sports can be a sanctuary. If the Tigers can sweep the Yankees over a weekend series or if they Red Wings can put together a killer playoff run, that is important to the city if for no other reason than it keeps hope alive. That may sound cheesy, but hope is the most important commodity for a struggling city–or sports team–to have, because it allows for the idea that things can get better and that work towards making things better will not be in vain. As the end of the video notes, the will to change the fate of the city exists within the Detroiters themselves. And a statement like that is just begging for a sports parallel: down five points late in the game, a Piston throws down a powerful dunk ahead of the defense–then gets back down to the other side of the floor to block a shot. You can choose any sports metaphor that speaks to the willpower it takes to not only say ‘enough is enough’ but to grind down and enforce that determination.
I’ve been to Detroit and it’s unlike any place I’ve ever been in my entire life. Downtown is beautiful, with tall, old, Art Deco buildings overlooking the river. But, as the video shows, the areas outside downtown are struggling mightily–and there is not solution yet on the horizon. Some people may choose to be smug dicks about the situation and say, “Whatever, move everyone out and tear the whole place down.” And what are Detroiters to say in response to this? Detroit is at her weakest right now, a shadow of her former glory. Unless the conversation turns to sports, because, you know, the Lions are looking pretty good this year. And then there’s a reason to keep hope alive for next season.