Wednesday, August 31, 2011

On magic numbers and motivation

The Minnesota Lynx can clinch home court advantage throughout the playoffs on Friday night at the Target Center with a victory over the New York Liberty, but the Liberty also have a magic number of one. With a win Friday night, the Liberty guarantee a record of no worse than 18-16. The best the Chicago Sky can do is 18-16, and the Liberty hold a 3-2 head-to-head advantage over the Sky. The Liberty are in the playoffs with a win Friday.

Even looking beyond that game, I am interested to see the motivation level and the substitution patterns of the Lynx in the remaining four games. In particular, the Lynx end the regular season on the road in Phoenix, probably with nothing to play for, other than staying healthy and primed for the playoffs. On the other hand, it is very likely that Phoenix will be playing for home court advantage in their semi-final series against (presumably) the Seattle Storm. That all adds up to a difficult road game scenario.

The Lynx did what they had to do -- and not much more -- to win last night against the Washington Mystics. Plenty of minutes for Wiggins, Wright, Adair, and Harris. Mama Taj dove for a loose ball at mid-court last night, and it pointed out how committed she is to this team's success and at the same time how essential Adair and Harris will be to this team's playoff success. I still worry that they are too tentative on both ends, but they're young and improving right before our eyes. The next four games will be mini-camp for #1 and #6.

After wrapping up home court, what is left to play for? Is a possible record of 28-6 an adequate motivation? That would tie last year's Seattle Storm (and others?) for most ever regular season wins. It calls to mind the decisions facing the 2009 Indianapolis Colts. Do we go for the great record, a completely abstract goal, and risk injury to our key players right before the really important games?

If there must be a Game 5 of the WNBA Finals, I hope it is in Minneapolis, Minnesota! Until then, I hope all 11 Lynx are healthy and highly motivated.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The punch-your-ticket theory of fan allegiance

I am interested in the etiquette of fan allegiance. Humans are social creatures and look for connections that say "we're in this together, and those other people are not". Us versus them.

Why do fan allegiances in sports matter, and why do people wear them on their sleeves, literally and figuratively? Because they are safe. I could tell you my stances on politics and religion, and then we'd really have a connection -- or not -- because that stuff really matters. It affects how we live our lives and love our loved ones.

One's fan allegiances are stand-ins for the important social dividers. So, within that system of made-up battle lines, what is the ultimate transgression? To support one team in a given sport or league and then switch to another team within the same sport or league.

For example, here is a typical bit of trash talk in a forum about Arsenal FC:
Dude, why dont you go support Shitty [a reference to cash-splashing Manchester City FC] or Chelski [a reference to the Russian billionaire who owns Chelsea FC]? They need you there.
Translation: your opinion is so heretical that you might as well switch teams, and at that switch to a team that might give you a quick payoff on your fickle fan capital.

A while back some of my long-time friends playfully ridiculed me, because my political views migrated from one side of the spectrum to the other and then back to the first. I freely admit that in the middle phase, I was under a magic spell (read: girlfriend). I shake my head, because it points out a basic character flaw, that at base level I just want people to like me, and the result is intellectual laziness, hypocrisy, or dishonesty, in increasing severity of the crime.

So, here is the number one rule of fan etiquette: once you punch your ticket -- for example, once you become a fan of the Cincinnati Reds, at age six, at the smoothest hum of the Big Red Machine -- you can never un-punch that ticket. You can never be a fan of another Major League Baseball team. Sorry, Twins.

The Bengals keep me from being a true Vikings fan, ever, although enough current and former Vikings were Buckeyes to afford me associate fan status. Carter, Smith, Stringer, Winfield, etc.

Once you've punched your ticket, the currency in the community is how long you have been a supporter. The format of fan forums displays this for all to see! My BigSoccer profile says "Join Date: Jul 2006".

Here, for your reading pleasure, are tickets punched, and moment of punching.
All college sports: Ohio State, 1970s, blocked punt vs. Michigan, Kelvin Ransey, Clark Kellogg.
MLB: Reds. Damn, I wish I remember more about the 1976 World Series. All I really remember is the next year, Reggie, Reggie, ...
NFL: Bengals. Even before the '82 Super Bowl, before the -59 degree AFC Championship versus Dan Fouts. We're talking Bob Trumpy and Boobie Clark Bengals.
NBA: Never happened. Cavs, are you kidding? Leaves open getting into the Wolves on the ground floor.
Long period of thinking that being a rabid sports fan was somehow unbecoming behavior for a serious, thinking person...
Current period of not caring anymore, riding a wave of first escapism and then shared experience with kids...
Arsenal FC: semi-finals of the Champions League, when Crazy Jens Lehmann stared down Villareal's Riquelme and advised him not to make a penalty shot.
Lynx: Third home game of this season. I instantly knew we would be going back to many games.

So, to the long-sufferers, I honor your commitment and patience through the tough times and acknowledge that your experience of whatever fun things are on the way will be richer than that of a newcomer. But know that my ticket is punched.

And all you people who jumped on board more recently than the third home game of this season? Glory hunters.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Organic fandom: Go Lynx!

"Why are you an Arsenal supporter?"

I got tired of this question. Soccer culture is insular: fans want soccer to get big, but not too big. American soccer fans have it tough, because they want to invest their interest in soccer at the highest level -- Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, etc. -- but find themselves having to justify their support of "their club".

If I call myself an Arsenal fan, but have never been to the north side of London, then in the view of some true fans I may as well be a fan of American Idol, because that is all Arsenal is to me, a television series, with much of the same manufactured drama. Manufactured, inorganic support.

So I'll still tune in Saturday for the Premier League opener, but I give up. My new and true rooting interest is focused closer to home.

I am made to feel sheepish about being an Ohio State Buckeye fan, too, sweater-related disasters notwithstanding. I grew up around Columbus, but I did not go to Ohio State; I went to Ohio University, where the true Bobcats shun glory-hunting associate members of the Buckeye Nation. Still, for me being a Buckeye fan taps into the nostalgia of parties on the day of The Game, dreaming of playing (not quarterback!) but baritone horn for The Best Damn Band in the Land.

My current and former employers are two other Big Ten universities. I don't exactly walk around wearing scarlet and gray.

So what team can I really call my own? Involve my kids? Feel good about socially and politically? Enter the Minnesota Lynx.

My twins love basketball. My son in particular is obsessed with schedules and standings and statistics and seating charts. They love going to Timberwolves games, too, but to tell the truth the vibe at the Target Center for Wolves games is a bit sexed up and not exactly family-friendly. Besides, tickets from a good vantage point are not cost-effective, and more than half of their home games last year were on school nights.

Lynx tickets in great locations, on the other hand, are relatively affordable. The games are during the summer, when I don't mind getting home from a game with the kids at 10 p.m. on a weeknight. The vibe at the games is much more family-friendly, and the crowd is much more engaged than I ever experienced at a Wolves game.

Not to mention, the team is spectacular. Lots of story lines: how quickly and completely will Maya Moore emerge as a star? How will Candice Wiggins and Sharde Houston adapt to new roles? How will Taj McW-F weather the brutal schedule running up to the playoffs? Can they all avoid injury? With four all-stars, who becomes Dwyane Wade when we need a basket at the most important moment?

Of course, this too opens me up to accusations of glory hunting. Where was I between 2007, when we moved to the Twin Cities, and the third home game of this season, when we became (literally) invested in this team?

Too bad. With season tickets, we are casting our votes locally: for basketball to survive in Minnesota, for women's basketball to survive, for the NBA to get its act together and remember where its money is coming from. Several months ago, I never thought I would be tuning into a live web stream of a Tuesday night away game of the local WBNA team, but there it is. There are my credentials.

I let my kids stay up for the first quarter. When my son woke up this morning, he asked if the Lynx had won. No, they didn't. Winning streak over at nine games. "Are they still the best team in the WNBA?" Yes, and they're our best team, too.