In the internet age cultural tastes have become much more segmented and tribalistic. There is a misbegotten notion, for instance, that sports fandom and nerdom do not intersect. (When otherwise intelligent people like Chris Hardwick preach this line I get irritated.) All kinds of snarky folks use the term "sportsball" online as a sign of their contempt. And hey, they're welcome not to like sports.
It's just that according to the false lines we've drawn, I'm not SUPPOSED to like sports. I am on the left politically, literate, love sci-fi and comic books and am intimately acquainted with both the 20-sided die and the Dungeon Master's Guide. But I love sports, and have since I was a child.
And yes, I have soured on college sports, mostly because of the ways they exploit athletes and warp the missions of universities. And I am also the first person to call out pro sports franchises for making cities pay up for unnecessary new stadiums. I also condemn macho culture and rape culture and the ways that male athletes are allowed to get away with sexual violence. I hate how sports is often over-prioritized in many schools and communities.
But I still love sports, and last night illustrated exactly why. Game 7 of the NBA finals was among the best basketball games I have ever seen. The lead changed hands innumerable times and it all came down to the wire with the kind of drama that script writers could never create. (Sports never, ever seem right in the movies. The real-life magic is too spontaneous.) The two best teams with the two best players slugged it out, putting everything down there on the floor. It reminded me of the last rounds of the Thrilla in Manilla, two punch drunk champions giving it their all to the point that they seemed unable to go another minute. Watching that is unlike anything else.
In LeBron James I saw what I love still more about sports: seeing human excellence in action. There is nothing like watching a truly great athlete perform feats that seem impossible for others to do. Yes, it can lead to hero worship, but it can also inspire us to think about our own potential. I look at Lebron and I marvel that he and I are somehow members of the same species, that another fellow human can do what he does.
As last night also showed, sports fulfill an important community function. My advisor, when discussing the history of memory, always liked to say that "nations remember, but cities forget." I told him that he was wrong, because for many cities it is their sports teams that provide the glue of collective memory joining longtime residents with newcomers. Cleveland's identity was partially wrapped up in its identity of futility in sports. Last night's victory may not bring back the steel mills, but it does give people there a memory that they will be celebrating probably for decades.
I remember onetime being in a friend's basement watching a game, and we were in agony over our team blowing their leading. One of my friend's spouses asked why we watched sports if we didn't enjoy it. I kind of saw her point, and wondered if I was the member of some kind of religious cult. Last night, however, reminded me of the joy that sports can bring. Despite all of the things that need fixing in the world of sports, I know I will keep coming back.