The joy of sports


This is the season when I feel the need to return to a subject I’ve addressed before — my life as a sports fan. The confluence of March Madness and the opening of baseball season means that I spent an inordinate amount of time in recent weeks in front of the TV, time which, arguably, could have been better spent cleaning out our overstuffed closets or reading Proust. How did this come to pass and what is the justification/explanation for it?

Let me offer some background. In the beginning there was only baseball. It’s difficult for contemporary sports fans to grasp that in my childhood years basketball and football, both at the college and professional levels, produced only dim signals, as if from another galaxy, compared to baseball which had the stage all to itself for a long time. That sport was an important instrument in my immigrant father’s Americanization in the first quarter of the 20th century and it became a central part of our relationship, despite rooting for different teams – the Dodgers for me, the Giants for him. 

For kids of my generation, growing up in Brooklyn required that you be a Dodger fan, versed in the team’s batting averages and the virtues and weaknesses of each member of the pitching staff. That information provided a lingua franca for conversations with friends and strangers alike.

Beginning in the 50s, NBA and NFL games began to be televised, though not as regularly as they are today. With their availability, I began expanding my sports loyalties to include the New York Knicks and the football New York Giants, buoyed by the extensive coverage they received in all the local newspapers, which still numbered 8 or 9 in New York in that period. When my beloved Dodgers decamped for LA, they left a huge void which I began to fill with these other sports. Today, I have at least moderate interest in a ridiculously long list of sports – baseball, college and professional basketball, college and professional football, tennis, winter and summer Olympics. What doesn’t make the cut for reasons too convoluted to explain are hockey and golf, although even those sports can catch my attention during special periods like the Stanley Cup playoffs.

That’s a lot of brain space and time off the clock, which, as I said earlier, could be devoted to other material the world deems more useful. But there’s something about watching these games that I find irresistible. I am not alone in these near obsessions. So many people who qualify as serious intellectuals begin the day by scouring the sports page of their newspaper or firing up their computers to check last night’s scores.

I’ve sometimes thought of my serious fandom as a compensation for my own athletic inadequacies. Although I played baseball and basketball, I was never more than a bench warmer, sometimes voted team captain, but for talents other than physical. But other fans I know were successful performers on the field or the court and continue to follow the sports they engaged in long after their bodies have gone in a different direction.

I realize that I started this piece as an apology for my involvement with something so frivolous as being an ardent sports fan while Rome is burning but, encouraged by friends with whom I discussed my plans for this piece, I’m about to make a sharp left turn. Watching athletes at the peak of their abilities after thousands of hours of training is a thing of beauty, no less than listening to a pianist who has built muscle memory for an equally noble purpose. Ditto the artist, actor or writer. Why should I feel ashamed of taking pleasure in bearing witness to those accomplishments? In the midst of the bleak and disheartening events in the public arena, it’s no shame to seek some respite from that darkness.

Then there’s the drama of the competition, athletes trying to best each other in their quest for the gold ring. Face it, much of our daily lives are bland and uninflected. Following sports adds an element of spice that keeps the blood circulating. Millions of us were rapt following the arc of Caitlin Clark’s impossible 30+ feet three- point shots, hoping that enough of them succeeded to enable her team to vanquish whoever the opponent was that day. We’ll be talking about it for years when all those shopping trips to Trader Joe’s have congealed into a single blur. I cried inconsolably watching a film of the game in which the Dodgers finally clinched their first World Series victory in 1955. It was more memorable and consequential than anything else that happened in my sixteenth year of life.

Enough. I’ve been battling a straw man here in an effort to justify passions that no one but me is challenging. In the end, all I’ve succeeded in doing is helping me feel good about what I am going to continue to do regardless. The NBA playoffs are about to begin, ratcheting up my viewing time again. I’ve been working on my ability to read while watching. It’s amazing how much you can accomplish during all those timeouts, half time breaks and undramatic moments at the free throw line. I’m almost finished with The Covenant of Water, all 700+ pages of it. I’ll confess that it wasn’t all accomplished during those viewing breaks.

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Marv Hoffman

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