Full disclosure: I might be considered a “New England sports fan.” You know, one of those East Coasters who expects the sports world to revolve around her teams. Someone who is actually happy that it’s Yankees-Red Sox for the game of the week. Someone who is spoiled by Sports Success! But, actually I grew up in northern Connecticut during the 1970s, and was only really interested in the Sawx (Dewey Evans was my fave!) and the UConn Huskies (from the pre-Calhoun/pre-Auriemma years! Hey! I remember when Dom Perno was the coach of the men’s team). Oh, the Celtics were there. But, I only really tuned into the Celtics during the years of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, and by then, I was a teenager who rooted against the Celtics just to annoy my Dad.
I moved to Oklahoma about 14 years ago, when I got a job at OU. Since then, I’ve been busy teaching and raising three children. One of the joys of parenthood is passing on your fandom to your kids. By age seven, my daughter was a sports junkie who watched Sports Center, first thing in the morning.
We go to Fenway every year and have visited the Basketball Hall of Fame so often that I think I’ve memorized several of its exhibits. (The new Michael Jordan movie is silly. “Love is….playing each game like it’s your last…. Love is….following the air not taken….” I can’t believe he read that script with a straight face, never mind with pseudo-profundity. (Academy Award = Michael Jordan? Well, that’s one award he hasn’t won already.)
I first became a Thunder fan during the 2008-2009 season. I was suffering from “baseball withdrawal,” and looking for something to “watch” while I graded student papers. What I first noticed about the Thunder is that they were an exciting team, sloppy but energetic. In several games, they seemed to be hanging in with the other team, but just couldn’t pull off the win. I started paying more attention. Even when losing, there was SOMETHING about that team.
This year, I watch the Thunder regularly. It’s fun walking around OU, Wal-Mart, the public library, the zoo, the Medieval Fair, OU baseball games or whatever, and seeing more people wear Thunder gear. As someone who peers into the basketball world through the eyes of a baseball fan, though, the NBA is still a mystery to me. But, through my Sawx-addled eyes, it is clear to me that:
- The Lakers are the Yankees of the NBA. Blessed with a big market, tons of media exposure, celebrity fans, and talented, cocky players like Kobe, only the LA faithful can really love that team.
- For its baseball analogy, OKC is closer to the Tampa Bay Rays and/or the Colorado Rockies. Like these two teams, the Thunder management team has succeeded to the extent it has by drafting and developing a core of young, talented players rather than paying for pricey free agents. The Thunder differ from the Rays in that the Rays have no fans. (Even after Rays made it to the World Series, the Tropicana Dome has been embarrassingly empty.) That’s why maybe the Thunder have more in common with the Rockies, whose fans actually go to the games.
- The Eastern Division is the National League; the Western Division is the American League. For whatever reason, the West/American just have stronger teams. (For baseball, see interleague competition.) Some snarky baseball fans refer to the National League as AAAA baseball, but I think it’s more like the Eastern Division. The best teams in the East (e.g., the Cavaliers) can beat strong teams in the West, but there just aren’t as many such teams in the East. Likewise, the very best National League teams (e.g., the Phillies) would be competitive in the American, but there aren’t very many of them.
- “Cap space” is an issue in the NBA that matters far more than the luxury tax and revenue sharing in the MLB. Generally speaking, only the Yankees and Red Sox worry about the luxury tax. As far as revenue sharing goes, it hasn’t done much to improve the product of the small market teams, who may not actually spend their revenue sharing $$$ on improving their teams. The MLBPA has noticed; the stingy Florida Marlins were forced to pony up some real money to pay for one of their pitchers’ extensions.
- The NBA draft is way more exciting than the MLB draft, and its impact is felt much quicker. That is clearly the case with the Thunder. In contrast, only the most major-league ready talent (e.g., Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals’ first draft pick) might actually have any impact anytime soon.
- The play-offs in the NBA allow more “Up-And-Coming” teams to gain play-off experience, whatever that’s worth. The Thunder will gain play-off experience this year. The Giants? The Rays? The Rangers? Maybe not.
My hopes for the 2010 play-offs: I hope that the Thunder “show up” and maybe win a series or two. I am prepared for failure but also unexpected triumph (see: Red Sox 2004). As Curt Schilling put it, “Why not us?”