The Nation's Pulse

Homers

Go west, young fan.

By 1.25.07

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In the spring of 1977, I took a week-long trip to New York City to visit old friends. As a basketball fan, I had chosen the week unfortunately. That week, the Portland Trailblazers, led by Bill Walton, met the Philadelphia 76ers, with Julius Erving, in the NBA playoff finals.

To my dismay, television reception in Manhattan, especially lower Manhattan, where lived the friend I was staying with, had been spoiled by the building of the World Trade Center. Really spoiled. In Greenwich Village, you could get one channel, and that only passably. The rest were a ghost-ridden ruin. Cable TV was unknown.

I found myself haunting mid-town bars that weekend at game time, trying to see as much of the games as I could. (There was no such thing as a multi-screen "sports bar" back then, either.) In every bar I frequented, I found the Yankees on TV. Never mind that the NBA was playing one of its most storied finals. The Knicks had been eliminated from the playoffs long before, and, as far as New Yorkers and pro basketball were concerned, fuhgeddaboudit.

I could prevail on a bartender or two to switch to basketball after baseball was over. But that's all.

THE EAST IS LIKE THAT ABOUT SPORTS. People here are homers. Certainly, most New Englanders will watch the Super Bowl, even though the Patriots lost the divisional playoff game to the Colts. The Super Bowl transcends most team loyalties, and football remains the most popular national spectator sport. But New England Super Bowl watchers won't really be much engaged.

Westerners root in an entirely different way. When the PGA Championship was played at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades in 1995, tickets were sold out for all four days. But the first three days, only sparse crowds came. Your laid-back Angelenos were waiting for the big day, the final round.

In 1980, the championship of the National League West in baseball came down to a single game playoff between the Dodgers and the Houston Astros, played at Dodger Stadium. The year before, after a season-ending game, the fans at New York's Shea Stadium had stormed onto the Mets' playing field and torn it to pieces. That must have been on the minds of the teams in Los Angeles, because, when Houston took a substantial lead late in the game, the Astros called in their bullpen crew. The idea was to protect them from being isolated in a fan demonstration.

The L.A. fans politely applauded the Astros' bullpen pitchers and catchers as they ran in. And, as I recall, after the game, the crowd gave both teams a standing O.

THE TWO ATTITUDES WERE SUMMED UP by post-game quotes in the 1990s from Celtic forward Kevin McHale and Bulls coach Phil Jackson. Both teams had lost -- the Celtics had actually lost a series, the Bulls a game in a series they would eventually win. Jackson, intercepted by a reporter with a microphone, preempted the first question by saying, "Wasn't that a great game?"

McHale's interlocutor attempted to press the same notion, that the series between the Celtics and (as I remember) the Pistons had been terrific basketball. "If you don't win, what's the point?" McHale responded bitterly.

What happens as sports teams and their fans migrate west? Some breaking of old bonds, some loosening of old ties. But also some sense of relief, of taking things easier, of not being bound up by old tribal allegiances. Chicago, to be fair, is more like the east than the west, because it's a city. Phil Jackson is an unusual guy. But further west, the old railroad-and-harbor-style city doesn't exist any more. Phoenix and L.A. sprawl out in desert plains. The parish, the precinct, the sports team, pull with a gentler gravity -- and sometimes don't pull at all anymore.

You can illustrate the converse. The ultimate expression of homer-dom flourishes very much farther east, in the soccer stadiums of Europe. There, the term "football riot" may as well be a standing head on the sports pages. Perhaps the further people move into new country, the more civilized they become. Or perhaps, the further west, the more the legendary American melting pot melts -- with sports allegiances melting along with all the rest of the old ties.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.