sports

Exit 144. Why do sports people argue so much about who is the greatest of all time?

This post is about five days late.  I know.  It was a hectic week.  Remind me next time I plan to go to two basketball games on weeknights to make sure that progress reports aren’t due the same week.  And for the non-sports people, keep reading, because I make a non-sports-related point at the end.

The Super Bowl was this last Sunday, with the New England Patriots defeating the Atlanta Falcons in the 51st iteration of the American football championship game.  Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, playing in his record seventh Super Bowl, achieved his fifth Super Bowl win, one of only two players (and the only quarterback) in football history to win five Super Bowls.  I had it on for background noise, but I wasn’t too emotionally attached to the game.  I didn’t particularly want to be for either team.  I’m kind of tired of the Patriots, since they have been so successful in the last couple decades.  (I will admit, though, that five years ago I was rooting for the Patriots in that Super Bowl, because that was the year that Sterling Moore, who I had as a student many years ago, played for the Patriots.  They lost that one.)  And I have a hard time being for any Atlanta team, because I’m still upset at the 1993 Atlanta Braves baseball team because of what happened with the San Francisco Giants that year.  Sports fans have long memories.

As the game started, I found myself mildly pulling for Atlanta, mostly just because they were the underdogs.  And they looked like they were on the way to a huge upset, leading 28-3 shortly after halftime.  But New England pulled off an impressive comeback, tying the score about a minute before time expired, and going on to win in overtime.  Many sports commentators and announcers, including Joe Buck who goes on and on and on and on and on with any talking point he can find to mask the fact that he doesn’t know squat about sports, were gushing over the fact that Tom Brady is now the supposedly undisputed greatest quarterback of all time.

And that is why this game hurt.  As I’ve said before, my understanding and following of football greatly increased after an attempt to try out for football in 1991, but growing up, when football was on TV, we were watching Joe Montana play quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers.  He has also been considered one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, before Tom Brady happened.  Joe Montana never won five Super Bowls like Tom Brady did, but he won four, and he was only in his 11th season when he won his fourth Super Bowl, whereas Tom Brady won his fourth Super Bowl in his 15th season.  Montana never made it to a Super Bowl and then lost, which Brady did twice.  And Montana did everything with fully inflated footballs.  But his reputation as the greatest of all time is in question now.

But then I got to thinking, why do sports people argue so much about who is the greatest of all time?  Part of it is just competition and team loyalty; if one of the greatest players of all time played for your team, you’re going to be biased in favor of them.  But there is more to it.  Being the greatest of all time is not based on one single clear cut statistic.  Different players and teams have different strengths and weaknesses.  A quarterback who is great at leading his team in the regular season might not be good at handling the pressure of a Super Bowl.  A basketball player who is good at slam dunks and playing close to the basket might not be good at making free throws or long three-point shots.  A baseball player with the ability to hit home runs might lose focus in high pressure situations and strike out more often with the game on the line, not to mention the fact that he is probably a slow runner as well, missing a skill needed in other situations.

In the world of sports on in any other part of life, different people have different strengths and weaknesses.  This is what makes it difficult to compare who is the greatest at anything.  Instead, we should all appreciate the fact that everyone is good at something, and that we all need each other in some way.

Exit 123. You’re tough.

Since I teach math, I have had many students over the years tell me that I was one of their favorite teachers, despite the fact that they hate math, or they are bad at math (they think), or both.  I know that feeling well, although as a student, math was never the class I hated.

I recently saw a post, on the Facebook group for alumni of the high school I went to, saying that a former physical education teacher and coach had passed away.  I’ll call him Mr. F.  I saw him much the way that the students in my classes whom I described above see me: I hated PE.  I was never very good at running or lifting or any physical activity.  But I loved Mr. F as a teacher, mostly because he was really funny.  Sometimes he would say things completely unexpected out of nowhere.  One time, I told him, quietly, nervously that my stomach hurt and asked if I could use the bathroom before we started running or doing whatever we were doing that day.  He pointed toward the bathroom and said, loudly enough for everyone to hear, “Yeah!  Go take a big sh**!”  I have not stayed in touch with Mr. F, I haven’t seen him since I finished high school, and I don’t know anything about his passing other than someone on this post mentioned cancer.

But when I saw that he passed away, this was not the story I shared on that post.

In the summer of 1991, right after the year I had Mr. F’s PE class, I worked out in the weight room with the football team.  A lot of my friends told me I should play football, mostly because of how I was built.  But I was not an athlete.  I liked to eat too much, and I did not like to run.  But football players were the cool kids, you know how high school stereotypes are, so I worked out with the football team nevertheless.

There was another problem, though: I didn’t really understand football.  I understood the basics, touchdowns, field goals, first downs, and such.  So in addition to working out all summer, I solved this other problem the only way I knew how: I did my research.  I did a lot of reading that summer about football.  I learned about football rules, the roles of the different positions on the field, different types of plays, strategies, and the history of American football.  And when the first day of double practices came, just after my 15th birthday, I was ready.

No, I wasn’t.  Who am I kidding…

I was in the locker room getting ready that morning, and I saw Mr. F.  I had not seen him all summer, and I wasn’t sure if he knew that I was going to try out for football.  He seemed happy to see me, and he asked how I was doing.  I said that I was nervous, and that it looked like practice today was going to be tough.  “But you know what?” he replied.  “You’re tough.”  It really meant something to me that he believed in me, despite the fact that I could never run very fast or do a pull-up in his class the year before.

My football career lasted one day.  I lasted that morning and that afternoon, and I didn’t come back.  I was in way over my head.  I was badly out of shape.  But something positive did come out of that experience in the end.  It took a few months for me to get over the disappointment of not being good enough to play football, of letting down Mr. F and all my friends who encouraged me to play.  But by the time the following football season started, in the fall of 1992, I enjoyed watching football much more than I ever had in the past.  The time I spent learning more about the game helped me enjoy watching it much more, and this has stayed with me to this day.

It’s okay that I couldn’t handle football, and that I wasn’t very fast or strong in Mr. F’s PE class.  Not everyone is an athlete.  But I still found inspiration from Mr. F.

And it’s okay that some of the students in my class did not understand everything I attempted to teach them.  Not everyone is a mathematician.  But my students can still find inspiration from my class.

Exit 118. Game on.

As I’m sitting here, I’m watching the Olympics on TV.  Right now men’s volleyball is on.

I grew up in a family where sports was a big deal, to the point that I did not realize that there was such a thing as someone who didn’t follow sports until I was around 20.  The TV was pretty much always on in our house growing up, and during the Olympics, we’d usually watch whatever Olympic sport was on.  My earliest memory of the Olympics was the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, shortly before my eighth birthday.  This is the closest that I have ever lived to an Olympic Games at the time that they were happening; my childhood home is 308 miles from Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.  (The distance from my current home to the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, near Lake Tahoe and Reno, is closer than that, but I was not yet born in 1960.)  I remember going to watch the torch relay as it passed through my neighborhood, just a few minutes’ walk from home, and I remember a lot of people going on and on about some gymnast named Mary Lou Retton, but all these years later I don’t have any particularly strong memories of any of her performances.

I remember things here and there about the other Olympics of my lifetime.  Greg Louganis bleeding into the diving pool in Seoul in 1988, and it was only discovered later that he was HIV positive.  MacGyvering an antenna for the TV cart in my math classroom in 1992, with the teacher’s permission, so we could watch the USA ice hockey team lose badly to the Unified Team (i.e, the former Soviet Union nations, since they had just broken up and did not have separate Olympic committees yet) in Albertville.  Watching Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, Larry Bird, and other NBA stars be allowed to compete in the Olympics for the first time in Barcelona in 1992, and rooting for them to lose.  (See Highway Pi #17 from 2014 for more information on why I was hoping they would lose – I’m not hoping the same for this year’s men’s basketball team.)  The Tonya Harding scandal in 1994 in Lillehammer (this was the year that the Olympic cycle changed so that Winter and Summer games would not be held in the same year.)  Kerri Strug doing gymnastics with a sprained ankle in 1996 in Atlanta.  My then-roommate, an avid snowboarder, being excited about snowboarding being in the Olympics for the first time in Nagano in 1998.  Wrestler Rulon Gardner winning a gold medal in Sydney in 2000, then appearing on a special episode of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire featuring all Olympic athletes, and not doing very well.  My memories of Salt Lake, Athens, and Turin are kind of fuzzy, but since 2008 I have a lot of Olympic memories again, most of which involve Michael Phelps in the summer and more heartbreaking losses for the USA men’s ice hockey team in the winter.

I think what I enjoy about the Olympics is a chance to get to watch sports that I don’t normally follow.  There is more out there than baseball, American football, basketball, and hockey, and I don’t have time to follow all the sports out there.  It is interesting to hear the announcers talk about the nations and cultures of the different competing athletes and teams.  And of course, there are so many of the kind of memories I described above, so many great feats of athleticism, so many shocking upsets (for example, as I wrote this, Canada defeated the USA in men’s volleyball, 3 sets to 0), and so many defining moments that millions of people remember.

So I’m looking forward to watching some different sports in the next couple weeks.  Game on.

Exit 98. I have learned that I was wrong.

I am ready to recant a position that I held in my childhood and teen years.  I have learned that I was wrong.  I was misled by a desire for attention and a lack of knowledge of the history involved, and for many years I betrayed my roots.  But I have seen the error of my ways.

I don’t do The Wave anymore at sporting events.

For those of you non-sports people, The Wave is a cheer where people stand up and scream for a few seconds, then sit down.  Fans are supposed to stand up and cheer when the fans next to them start doing it, so the cheer ends up progressing like a wave around the stadium.  When I first saw this on TV at some point as a kid, I thought it was fascinating, and it looked like a lot of fun.  I started trying to get The Wave going at my brother’s Little League games.  It usually didn’t work, and my mother would always tell me to quiet down and stop making a scene.  I’m not sure why she was always so against me being loud and having fun – you’re supposed to be loud at sporting events, after all, right?  Maybe because she grew up in the kind of family where children were seen and not heard when in public, and that was all she knew.  (Mom, I know you read this.  No hard feelings.  I’m not holding a grudge.)

During my senior year of high school, I went to every football game, both home and away.  At away games, I always sat with the group of students from my school who made the trip (much of this group consisted of the girlfriends of football players).  A few times, I got them to help me start The Wave, and it actually succeeded.  It felt good to have people actually pay attention to me being passionate and not discourage me from making a scene.

I never really tried to start The Wave on my own after that, but occasionally I would be at a sporting event where The Wave got started, and I would enthusiastically participate.  About a decade ago or so, though, I started hearing more and more people point out that Giants fans (this is San Francisco Giants baseball) don’t do The Wave.  I never knew why, and I never really gave much thought to it, although since then I had noticed people at Giants games being discouraged from doing The Wave.  But I also had a memory from childhood of a Giants game where The Wave actually happened.

A few years ago, I was at a math teachers’ conference, attending a session about, um, I don’t remember the topic now, but the presenter was modeling how to get students to think in an open-ended way about math problems.  She presented a scenario involving The Wave, and some questions about the speed of The Wave and the number of participants.  She began the presentation asking for volunteers to ask any questions we might be able to think of about The Wave.  Most of the questions were mathematical in nature (“How fast does The Wave travel?”  “How many people are needed to successfully start The Wave?”).  I took a different approach and suggested the question, “Why don’t Giants fans do The Wave?”  Another teacher in the presentation answered my question, saying that Giants fans don’t do The Wave because it started at an Oakland Athletics game.

I did the research when I got home, and although the origin of The Wave is disputed and unclear, one of the earliest documented performances of The Wave was indeed at an Oakland Athletics game, during the 1981 playoffs.  Another early performance of The Wave was in Los Angeles, during soccer at the 1984 Olympics.  An origin in Oakland or Los Angeles would each be unacceptable to Giants fans, with the Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Dodgers being the Giants’ primary rivals.

Last week, I was at a Sacramento Kings (basketball) game, and The Wave got started at one point.  For possibly the first time ever, I didn’t participate.  Now that I know the full history behind why Giants fans don’t do The Wave, I have to stay true to that, even though this was an entirely different sport.  More importantly, though, The Wave is often a distraction for fans who are bored with the game itself.  I was trying to watch the game.  Five minutes were left on the clock, and the Kings were losing, as is usually the case these days.  One of the few positive things I noticed about the game, however, was that the Kings had not missed a single free throw for the entire game.  During the time that The Wave was going, a Kings player (I think it was Rudy Gay) was shooting a free throw.  The Wave passed by behind the basket just as Rudy was shooting the free throw… and it missed.  The Wave ruined our perfect free throw shooting night.

So I’m through with The Wave.

Exit 79. You have to admire that kind of loyalty.

Sometimes, I have to acknowledge that people I don’t like, or people who support a cause I don’t support, have qualities that I admire.

Last night I watched the Sacramento Kings play the Los Angeles Lakers (that’s basketball, for you non-sports people).  The Kings won.  They led by 31 points at one point, and ended up winning by 18.  It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.  Northern California sports fans, like me, do not like Los Angeles teams.  That’s just the way things work.  Also, these two teams in particular have a very tense history beyond the typical North vs. South rivalry.  The Lakers are one of the most successful franchises in the histoy of the NBA, having won 16 league championships in their history.  The Kings have only won one championship in franchise history, in 1951, long before they moved to Sacramento, and when the league only had 11 teams instead of today’s 30.  Los Angeles, of course, gets much more attention from the media than Sacramento.  And the Kings’ best chance to win a championship in Sacramento, in 2002, was cut short in a playoff game against the Lakers that featured so many biased calls from the referees, including no foul on Kobe Bryant after elbowing Mike Bibby in the face and knocking him bleeding to the floor, that it has spawned conspiracy theories about being fixed.

The Lakers have fallen on hard times in recent years, however.  Last year, they had two games left, and they needed one more win to avoid having the worst winning percentage in franchise history.  They finished their season with two games against the Kings, one in Sacramento (which I attended) and one in Los Angeles, and the Kings won both.  Games in Sacramento against the Lakers are always tense, not only because of that history, but because there are a lot of Laker fans up here.  Most fans of visiting teams who show up to watch their team play the Kings are pretty decent.  They’re just there to see their favorite teams and players and see a good game.  Most Laker fans, though, make a point of being the biggest thuggish foul-mouthed jerks possible.  They boo the Kings and their star players.  They act annoyed when Kings fans cheer for the home team, as if we have no right to be there in our own arena.  And they keep rubbing 2002 in our faces.  (Of course, I do know a few decent and well-behaved Laker fans.  The next paragraph does not apply to them.)

As I said, the Lakers looked absolutely pathetic last night through the whole first half, trailing by 24 at halftime.  They started to chip away at the lead later in the game, but the Kings led by at least 15 for the entire second half.  The Lakers have not won yet this season (although they, like the Kings, had only played one game before Friday night’s game).  You can’t spell LAst pLAce without LA.  And yet Laker fans were just as loud and dirty as ever, putting down the Kings and cheering on their team that was getting embarrassed on the court.  There was one two seats over from me, and, had the Lakers actually gone ahead in the fourth quarter, I probably would have had to ask my friend to restrain me physically from punching this guy in the face.

The point I’m trying to make here: You have to admire that kind of loyalty.  Not that kind of behavior or attitude, but loyalty.

I don’t really see that kind of loyalty in a lot of Kings fans, at least not as a group.  The building is rarely packed these days like it was in 2002.  I know a lot of people who gave up on the Kings when the team started to fall apart in 2006, and who refuse to go to any more games because of the way the owners behaved in 2006-13, despite the fact that those owners are gone and have nothing to do with the team anymore.  A few years ago, when it looked like the team was going to be moving, I knew people who called themselves Kings fans who said that they wished the team would hurry up and move just so the drama would be over.  As Inigo Montoya might say, you keep using that word “fan.”  I do not think it means what you think it means.  This all makes me sad.

Real fans don’t give up on their team when the team is doing badly.  And for as much as I don’t like the Lakers, and I don’t like obnoxious trolling fans who show up at the other team’s venue and act like jerks, I can’t deny that I admire them for sticking with their team even when they do badly.

Exit 10. I believe that soccer can coexist with baseball, football, basketball, and hockey.

The FIFA World Cup is going on right now.  For those of you who aren’t sports people (if that’s you, keep reading, because there’s more to this post than sports), FIFA stands for “Fédération Internationale de Football Association.”  For those of you who don’t know French and don’t have a very good grasp on the obvious, that means “International Federation of Association Football.”  Association football is the game that those of us here in the USA usually call soccer.  Every four years, teams representing their countries play each other in a month-long tournament.  Thirty-two national teams qualify for the tournament, organized into eight groups of four.  Each team plays three games, against the other three teams in their group, then the top two teams in each group (that would be 16 total) play each other in a single elimination format (losing team goes home) until there is only one team left (meaning that a team would need to win four consecutive games, after the initial three, to win the World Cup).

The World Cup is huge in much of the rest of the world, even bigger than the Olympics in some countries.  In the USA, not so much.  Soccer is not the dominant sport here.  American sports fans tend to pay a lot more attention to baseball, American football (the kind of football with yard lines and touchdowns), basketball, and in some regions, hockey.  But soccer is definitely becoming more popular in the USA.  The USA did not qualify for the World Cup at all between 1954 and 1986, but since 1990 the USA has qualified for every World Cup, advancing past the group stage four of those seven times.  Major League Soccer, the top level professional soccer league in the USA and Canada, has expanded from 10 teams at its founding in 1996 to 19 today.  Sacramento has a new lower-level professional soccer team which, for some games, has drawn bigger crowds than many MLS games.  If these crowds continue, Sacramento will likely be considered as a possible future MLS expansion site.  And of course, city parks in many places around the USA are full of kids playing soccer on the weekends.

I’ve always had kind of an ambivalent relationship toward soccer.  I’ve never particularly disliked it, but I don’t really follow it or make much of an effort to watch it.  I have no family tradition of watching soccer (compared to, for example, making day trips to San Francisco with my family a few times every year to watch Giants games, or watching Joe Montana win Super Bowls for the 49ers on TV as a kid).   I already have teams to follow in the other four sports I mentioned above.  My watching of soccer has been limited to watching the students at the school I used to work when they have games, and watching the USA national team in the World Cup sometimes.

But while watching this World Cup, I made an interesting discovery, something that I started to notice about myself during the 2010 World Cup and am finally fully ready to admit: I like soccer.  I enjoy watching soccer.  I think soccer games are exciting.  And I really should make an effort to follow soccer more.

Fans of other sports, particularly American football and basketball, always make a joke about how soccer is about as exciting as watching paint dry.  I really don’t know where this comes from.  They must not have been watching the same games I was watching.  Usually such sentiments are borne of the fact that soccer games, at least at the professional and international level, are usually very low scoring.  So many of the games during the World Cup have been decided by one goal, with final scores like 1-0 or 2-1.  But I don’t think that makes the game any less exciting.  There is a lot more to this game than scoring.  The way the teams set up for goals and defend provides excitement in itself.  And, more importantly, a low scoring game is more exciting because it makes everything so tense.  One goal, one mistake, each one can end up being so huge.

There are a lot of important life lessons to learn from soccer.  Soccer teaches patience.  Goals don’t come often, and it takes a lot of work to set up for scoring a goal, just like in real life.  Soccer teaches that your actions have consequences.  As I said above, one little mistake can have huge consequences in the final score of the game.  And at the World Cup level, soccer is a bit of a humbling reminder that the USA isn’t the greatest country in the world at everything, and that we have a lot to learn from other cultures.

Soccer fans have a different culture than fans of the other popular North American sports, it seems.  They cheer for their teams differently.  They have a different vocabulary as well: a jersey is a “kit,” a field is a “pitch,” a tie is a “draw,” and a game-tying goal is an “equalizer,” for example.  Don’t get me wrong; I haven’t turned into One Of Them.  I believe that soccer can coexist with baseball, football, basketball, and hockey.  I’m not going to turn into one of those soccer fans who puts down other sports as inferior and roots for the USA to lose on principle.  And if so-called true soccer fans are unwilling to embrace me as a soccer fan because I’ll be going for the USA in the World Cup and because I’ll continue to watch American football, and call it football, then maybe I don’t want to be one of you (see Exit 1 on geekbullying, for example).  But I don’t care what those people think, nor do I care with soccer haters think.  I like soccer.

Since the USA was eliminated Tuesday on a 2-1 overtime loss (I haven’t figured out yet what soccer fans call overtime) to Belgium, I haven’t really kept up with this.  I didn’t watch any other World Cup games this week; I spent most of my sports time watching baseball, as I am doing right now as I write this.  And I haven’t been to a Sacramento Republic FC game yet.  But I plan on doing so eventually; there are four teams and four games left in the World Cup, and the Republic season lasts a couple more months.  It’ll be fun.  And I have a new culture to learn, and some new life lessons to learn.