THE SPORTS GUY
When your team takes you to the top, is there anywhere to go but down?
Does the Hugh Grant Syndrome begin now?
Remember when Hugh Grant was arrested for soliciting a prostitute while he was dating Elizabeth Hurley? We all asked the same thing: Why? It's one thing to cheat on a supermodel, but to cheat on a supermodel with (grimace) Divine Brown?
At the time, I, like every other red-blooded male, tried to put myself in Hugh's sullied shoes. Maybe he'd already parlayed his fame into so many gorgeous women that dating another überbabe was less of a challenge than buying a bagel. Maybe he missed the rush of courting someone and winning her over. Maybe he needed some danger in his life or to mix things up from a "romantic" standpoint. I concluded that Hugh's celebrity drove him to Ms. Brown. After climbing Mount Everest—"Hey, I have my pick of hotties!"—he simply couldn't figure out what to do next.
YOU HAVE TO KEEP DATING, HOPING YOUR NEXT GIRLFRIEND WILL BE BETTER.
What does any of this have to with anything? In the days following an improbable Celtics title, two questions have gnawed at me:
1. Have I peaked as a sports fan?
2. Am I headed for a Hugh/Divine moment?
Look, I have an astounding amount of empathy for fans from Philly, Cleveland, Buffalo and every other tormented sports city. Remember, I'm a Sawx fan. I know what it's like to be tortured by your team. I know how it feels to spend hours and hours wondering, Why does God hate me so much? and, If I just stop following sports, will I be happier? So as the fates of my beloved Boston teams turned, I never for a second stopped appreciating it. You have to believe me.
But at the same time, my favorite football team won its first Super Bowl as a 14-point underdog on the game's final play. My favorite baseball team rallied from three-zip to topple its lifelong bully before eventually winning its first World Series since 1918. And my favorite basketball team rose from the dead to clinch its first title in 22 years by beating the hated Lakers by 39 in Boston. All three events were like Bob Beamon's famous long jump to me: abnormally incredible experiences that couldn't possibly be topped.
You know who's silently nodding their heads right now? New York Giants fans. They know they'll never beat the experience of rooting for a double-digit underdog that improbably terminated a bid for a perfect season in the Super Bowl. Same goes for Jayhawks fans. They know they can't top Mario Chalmers' shot against Memphis. Not only did their teams finally win a title, they did it in the most exhilarating way possible.
So yeah, there's a ceiling for sports dreams. You can fall in love 20 times, but you'll never care about anyone in quite the same demented way you cared about your first girlfriend or boyfriend—those three-hour phone calls, all the sappy letters and mortifying mix tapes, the nauseating PDAs. For sports fans, winning a title after a prolonged wait is like falling for that first girlfriend. Win it in an especially memorable way, and that girlfriend is also the best girl you're ever going to meet.
Actually, that was the initial idea for this column: my new list of sports dreams now that my three Boston teams have come through. For instance, I still can dream about another heavyweight as unstoppable as Mike Tyson. Or about Holy Cross, my alma mater, pulling a Gonzaga and making it to the Sweet 16. I still want to go undefeated in a fantasy football league, and for our Olympic hockey team to use 22-and-under players to get a little Lake Placid magic going again. I want Tiger to win the U.S. Open with two torn ACLs. I want tennis to stumble into this generation's John McEnroe, a polarizing, bombastic, breathtaking talent (and I want him to have a posse and at least 20 tattoos).
Problem is, these are all minor dreams. None can compete with a favorite team's winning it all. So I'm left wondering how I can avoid turning into the Hugh Grant of sports fans. (Note: We'll define "turning into Hugh Grant" as not caring as much about sports anymore, becoming a sports bigamist or channeling that lost energy into becoming an overbearing sports father. Don't rule out the last scenario for me. My daughter swam for the first time last weekend, and I reacted like Tommy Lasorda after Kirk Gibson's home run. If she makes the Olympics or Wimbledon 12 or 13 years from now, there's a strong chance I'll be banned from the stadium. Just warning you now.)
Then I realized that, like any jilted lover, you have to keep dating, holding out hope that your next girlfriend will be better than that first one. Easier said than done, of course. We see the depressing aftermath all the time with championship teams (Year-After Syndrome), but you never hear about its happening to fans. Well, it does. When the Sox choked away 2003 at Yankee Stadium in the most gut-wrenching way possible, I went into a funk for two solid weeks and lost six pounds. After 2004, I followed the team just as diligently, sulking after tough losses and continuing to wing my remote control around like a boomerang, but it wasn't life-or-death like it had been before. It just wasn't.
There's an old saying that "comedy = tragedy + time." Well, maybe "sports nirvana = tragedy + time + an improbable victory." The best of sports nirvana is also the worst: Realistically, you're getting to the mountaintop only once every 20 years or so, and that means the untoppable isn't likely to be topped during that span without the occurrence of a unique twist. You know, like last season's Patriots morphing into America's No. 1 villain. As the team made a run at immortality and the spotlight brightened, Pats diehards constantly defended our boys, taking every slight personally and fighting abuse from friends and co-workers. In a weird way, we were part of the action.
When the team blew—uh, lost—the Super Bowl, I thought I handled it reasonably well, even writing a coherent column for ESPN.com the following morning. Then I flew back home and immediately came down with a sinus infection and bronchitis. To this day, I'm convinced that "Giants 17, Patriots 14" actually made my body break down. Thing is, I didn't think I'd ever be "there" with the Pats again—at least not for a couple of decades—and by "there" I mean the point where sports means a little too much. But I was, and it was a good thing.
HUGH GRANT SYNDROME CAN NEVER DERAIL A REAL SPORTS FAN
So after analyzing it from every direction, my conclusion is that Hugh Grant Syndrome can never derail a real sports fan. We'll always find ways to care as much as we always did, if only because the day-to-day process of following a team is such an enormous part of our lives. Losing that passion would be like giving up morning coffee or not exercising anymore; a routine is a routine. Maybe the result won't be 100% as satisfying as the Mount Everest victory, but you can still get to 95% and maybe even 98% or 99%. I'm fine with those numbers.
But for everyone reading this in Buffalo and Cleveland and everywhere else, take solace in the following: As crazy as it sounds, you're lucky. Your Mount Everest experience is still ahead of you. It's waiting, and it's glorious.
And when you get it, you don't have to worry about ending up in a car with Divine Brown afterward.
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