The Circle of a Fan’s Life
By Doreen Munsie
This is not a sports story though admittedly it largely centers on the New York Knicks. My introduction to this basketball team took place when I was in high school. None of my few girlfriends or anyone in my household, my brother included, watched sports so how it started bears some explaining.
This was during the team’s heyday, which avid fans might refer to as its “glory days.” On the roster were some of the biggest names in sports history — Phil Jackson, Bill Bradley, and Walt Frazier, to name a few. These men have since risen to become, respectively, president of the Knicks organization, United States senator, and broadcast commentator for his former team.
Living at home, I was expected to help out cashiering every weekend in our family’s Chinese restaurant in the Bronx. A student unchallenged by school, with a limited social life, I was looking for diversion and found televised games. (Probably channel surfed to a group of physically fit men in what by today’s standards would be eyebrow-raising gym shorts.) I began watching my home team.
What was really appealing was rooting for a team. There is actual science that says the positive feelings derived from viewing a game can be traced to brain chemistry. Clinical psychologist Scott Bea wrote for the Cleveland Clinic, “much of the enjoyment we get from watching our team can be traced to the feel-good chemical, dopamine… and following a sports team can give us a tremendous sense of belonging.” Winning feels good even if you’re not the one sweating. And, according to Dr. Bea, being a fan of a winning team gives you a collective sense of victory. So, cheering (in my head) connected me to something bigger that was outside the four walls of the compact Queens bedroom I shared with my two sisters.
Anxious to get out of high school, I skipped senior year and attended college on an early admissions program. For this teenager, shaving a year off meant a quicker escape to the “real world.” After graduating, with a job in Manhattan experiencing over-stimulated city living, exposed to a new people and places, I got on with life without the Knicks.
A few years later at the infamous nightclub Studio 54, I had a fan moment. As a graduate business-school student a few classmates and I decided to go out to take a breather from case assignments. Famous for its celebrity guest list, I scanned the room and spotted the just-retired Knick Walt Frazier standing at the edge of the dance floor. To my friends’, his, and my surprise, I waved and said, “Hi Clyde,” (his nickname). We partnered for a dance (frankly his best moves were on the court), I thanked him and walked away. It marked the end of an era.
My rush to adulthood ultimately resulted in a husband, kids, and a move to the suburbs. In 2012, my younger daughter, then in high school, started dating her now longtime boyfriend named Willis. He, I was told, was named (by his mom, yes, his mom!) after famed Knick basketball Hall-of-Famer, Willis Reed. Perhaps it was a cosmic fan coincidence? Also that year, after more than three decades, the Knicks recaptured my attention. All because of the Cinderella story of Jeremy Lin, the first American of Chinese descent to play in the NBA. This may not have been momentous in other households, but to me, also an American of Chinese descent, this was literally a game-changer. Regardless of being one of the best high school players in the state of California, Lin did not receive a single Division I scholarship offer. He went on to play and excel at Harvard but still went undrafted. He somehow ended up on the Knicks and unexpectedly led a winning turnaround, became a superstar, and inspired the country with “Linsanity”. Despite being overlooked, passed over, rejected by scouts, this brainy Asian kid was breaking the mold and becoming a sports hero. I was rooting again for this team.
It was short-lived. Some say the star player, Carmelo Anthony, didn’t like the attention Lin was getting and had a strong hand in having him traded. Miffed by the decision my viewership waned. After that former Knick player Phil Jackson came in as president and during his ruinous tenure (2014 – 2017) there was more stumbling. The team slumped, changed coaches, traded players, and made controversial moves. I tuned out.
But this season in contrast to watching the winning Knicks as a teenager, I came back to watch “the losing-est team” in the league. There is irony that I am enthusiastic about one of the NBA’s worst teams. I printed out their game schedule and watched the franchise’s single-season record-breaking 18-game losing streak. What I see are not veteran players, but literally boys younger than my own kids. As one of the youngest teams in history with 19- and 20-year-old players, what I see is youth, grit, and the struggle to be better. They may not be great, but they are fun to watch. Moments of marked talent are immediately followed by embarrassing high-school level blunders. What will happen next? Will they become champions again in my lifetime? Seeds of hope are sown in the heart of this fan.
My younger daughter now goes to Knick games at Madison Square Garden. Something I never did. And believe it or not, one night this winter, she and her boyfriend met the Knicks’ hot rookie center, Mitchell Robinson, at a local McDonalds (no dancing was involved). He was genuinely taken aback by being recognized and humbly accepted a fan’s well wishes. We have come full fan circle.
A team can help you belong, escape, find inspiration, or just give you something to cheer for. So, whether you root for your kid’s soccer club, your hometown football team, or Tom Brady’s blue eyes, being a fan has benefits that go beyond winning.
This month, as March Madness launches, I will cheat and copy college basketball brackets from ESPN.com to satisfy my older daughter’s request for a family challenge. Frankly, I don’t follow college basketball. For me it’s not about the sport, it’s all about the team.