Second favorite teams. Oxymoron? Vicarious emotional escape vehicle? Front running? Bandwagon jumping? All of the above? Since I first joined the ranks of those who went away a long distance from home for college, the very concept of how geographic relocation should effect one's identity as a fan became a particularly compelling case study to me. Having now suffered the baptism by fire of being a paid season ticket holder of a 1-12 basketball team I don't deem "my favorite" and trying, desperately begging myself, to not just have something remotely resembling a vested interest in the outcome but even sometimes just get up the motivation to go to the games at this point, the subject is now being broached daily in ways I never before thought possible.
When I first attended Ohio State in the early part of last decade, I wouldn't have considered myself a college football aficionado in the least. Sure, I was born and raised in a sleeping college football hotbed (Austin, Texas), the product of two relative historic college football power house alumni (Texas and LSU), but depending on the year (and company), professional basketball and baseball were always my forte. Funny how three months' indoctrination in a rabid, one-horse town can change a person. While heading into school I wondered how I'd balance my fanhood; whether I'd feel more allegiance towards Texas or Ohio State when the two were to meet in 2005 and how I'd identify when asked by others about who I rooted for. It didn't take long to realize that there would be no conflict of interest whatsoever and that alma mater was a divine relationship that went deeper than intellect or anything I'd perceived on the subject previously. That's not to say others didn't feel differently.
While a junior, there was a particularly obnoxious (even by Ohio State standards) fan who sat diagonally in front of those in my section and I. The guy was especially draped from head to toe in Buckeye paraphernalia game in, game out. Officials were berated constantly; other fans, too, for failing to live up to his standards as a fan. In every sense of the word, this individual lived up to the term fanatic. Then Illinois came to town. Like flipping a lightswitch, the same partisan, rabid spirit was there, but this time for the road team. The individual was now fully clad in orange and blue, living and dying on every play, but with all allegiances pledged instead to the Illini. Some fans around him took exception and gave him flack. Middle fingers (and second tongue, profanity) were exchanged back and forth. But more intellectually curious than anything, I had to stop him in the hallway exiting The Shoe after the game to ask how he could flip back and forth so seemingly effortlessly. "So are you from Champaign? A grad student? What?" "Third generation Illini, bro. Say what you will, but blood goes deeper than degrees."
The year prior I made the executive decision to make my first off-campus college home a house with eight other guys. It was particularly as decrepit and debaucherous as your wildest imagination could imagine it. The house was staunchly Ohio State-til-we-die, sans the two occupiers of the basement bedrooms. The two didn't know each other before college, yet each would gladly get into a fight at any given house party or during any Tuesday night beer pong matches with anyone who dare criticized their beloved ... Notre Dame Fighting Irish? Both were Catholics of varying degrees. Both spoke of their dreams of attending Notre Dame. One had gotten in, one hadn't; both found their way to Ohio State instead. Given that fate (and admission standards) had undone one, wouldn't he instead turn his devotion to the school that had, in fact, given him a chance academically? One afternoon skipping lectures to play NCAA Football '05 I quizzed him on the subject. "Sure, school pride runs deep. But you don't root against God, man."
Entering Martin Luther King Day, I, for the first time, found myself in a genuine conflict of interest as a fan. I'd "rooted" (to the best of my ability) for the downtrodden Wizards the entirety of this young season. I had a financial (and otherwise) stake in their success, or after it became pretty clear pretty quickly winning might not be on the table, at least my own being entertained. The visiting Rockets were, however, my first real love as a sports fan. My mania was born in the blood of the New York Knicks and Orlando Magic when as an elementary schooler, my allegiance to Hakeem Olajuwon, Otis Thorpe and ultimately Clyde Drexler and Sam Cassell was rewarded over the many a Spurs fan who'd tried to start something on the playground. Heck, I'd even convinced my parents to make the family vacation to Disney during the '95 Finals. When Texas came to the Horseshoe, the previous two seasons of willing Stockholm Syndrome had left virtually no conflict of interests. So too should the Rockets' arrival at the Verizon Center, but how to go about it tactfully? I'm by no means cut from the same cloth as that Illinois fan anyway, but to be *that* guy who goes through the motions rooting for the Wizards the remaining 20 some-odd games after rooting for their demise earlier?
Sitting on my hands early was what I deemed the strategic, tactful approach. It wasn't so much a cheering for both sides (which would've felt even more hollow) but rather a lukewarm acceptance of whatever happened. As has become the norm in Wizards games this season, the road team got out to an early lead. And then, this happened:
Chandler Parsons prompted my first standing applause and suddenly I wanted the Rockets to win, nay destroy, Washington. While the Wizards would occasionally make the game feel within reach, the Rockets did what so many others not Canadian in origin have done in 2011-12: beat the Washington Wizards. I managed to keep my emotions in check for the majority of the rest of the game. Not so much as a single other season ticket holder or holiday/hookie-playing Washingtonians around me said so much as anything. When Kyle Lowry hit a three to break things back to double digits, I clapped, resolvedly but restrainedly. Say what you will about the balance of vested interests, but at least for an afternoon, my money's worth was had.
Luke Zimmermann, an SB Nation community manager, writes occasionally on being a Washington Wizards season ticket holder.