Many are shocked that Ray Allen would “betray” his Boston fans. “Judas Shuttlesworth,” they call him. That’s a clever jab, one that’s also funny because it places the stereotypical Massachusetts sports lover at the Last Supper table, serene expression, open palm protruding out of his beer-stained Sawx jersey.
Steve Nash left for the Lakers, the archetypal hated team to those Nash-loving Phoenix fans. Dwight Howard probably uses a metaphorical Magic fan voodoo doll as an insole.
The aftermath of fan slight prompts punditry on how athletes just don’t get how much we love them, or about how they just don’t love us like we love them. I disagree with both notions. My guess is that pro athletes understand the depths to which we love them, but also perceive that the love as false, or worse, unsettling.
Think about it from their perspective. In the absence of knowing someone, how much should your affection matter to that person? And if you don’t know that person, then what is that love? It can be obsession. It can be misplaced narcissism. Fans are body snatchers, living vicariously through these men until the bodies break. At that point, the vessel is discarded, exchanged for a newer, springier avatar by which to romp around your TV screen in.
Ricky Rubio’s draft night was an informative, formative experience for me. The two of us experienced it together, though Ricky probably doesn’t remember my name. I was his draft escort, the PR sherpa who was charged with dragging him through hours of repetitive English interviews. His hatred of that night was palpable. Perhaps he sees my stupid, sweating face in his nightmares. I have an inkling as to what else Ricky might also glimpse in those dark dreams.
It’s a vision that still haunts me. It’s what “love” looks like to the adored. As I shuttled the kid around, crushes of fans would charge towards the elastic barrier, contorted faces shrieking their lips into snarls. They wanted a piece of Ricky, some in the literal sense. Cameras flashed a disorienting strobe effect as the ghouls surged towards us, arms gnashing and clawing in our direction like a gang of rabid eels.
These days, I don’t get that kind of insight into what an athlete experiences. In locker rooms, with my audio recorder, I’m more the ghoul than the haunted. But that night changed me because I saw it all from the visual perspective of the wanted, as though witnessing the Ricky Rubio version of that Prodigy music video.
After seeing how they sometimes see us, I became convinced that athletes must have a unique perspective on life, if only because athletes so often deal with being objectified to such an extreme. They’re characterized as “spoiled” or “coddled” with little thought to their intake of a grasping, gnawing, ugly side of humanity.
It’s not just the Beatles fan screamers. It’s that acquaintance’s friend with the “great” business idea, one the athlete could really put over the top. It’s the women who make an athletic pursuit out of pursuing athletes. It’s the angry, inebriated fan who loudly boos during the slump’s nadir.
“Coddled” is to face the endless wants of strangers. Some religious book out there says, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” But there’s a lot of taking that goes along with the money and attention athletes get. While our adoration buys them houses, the nature of that emotion probably ebbs at their faith in humanity.
Many of these guys have been dealing with the wants since sentience. It doesn’t take a boy genius to figure that your AAU coach might have an angle, especially if he has a gleaming Mercedes.
The college coach comes next. He’s all sweater vests and sanctimony, but perhaps he’ll pay your AAU coach via an NCAA sanctioned “scrimmage.” He’ll do it just for a shot at you, because you’re the goods. It’s a cynicizing life, spent playing a beautiful game.
And on to the fans of pro sports teams, the ones who only care about you insofar as what you can do for them. Quite a few South Florida citizens seamlessly transitioned from celebrating Mike Miller’s incredible Finals three point barrage to openly investigating how he could be replaced going forward. What would an amnesty accomplish? Can Riley convince the broken toy to retire?
The love is so conditional, and conditions can easily cause the affection to ferment into a hatred dark and addled. When Miami’s LeBron first returned to Cleveland, he appeared before a large “Like father, like son” sign, because some idiot wanted to mock and hurt James over growing up without a dad. Such ugly displays are indivisible from the love that precedes them. It’s a lot of misplaced emotion, funneled towards someone the fan recognizes as human in the most shallow of senses.
Sometimes, meaningful connections between team and player form. I’m reminded of Sacramento’s touching retirement of Vlade Divac’s jersey, among a few other notable moments. Heart-warming sequences like this are more the exception. To most players, I’d imagine that our “love” gives them much reason to hate us.