(No Bolts today. Have a very happy New Year’s Eve and don’t do anything too stupid.)
UPDATE: Simmons wrote about his experience in OKC in this week’s “Miller Lite Man Up” section of his column.
So Bill Simmons showed up at the Thunder-Nets game Wednesday in Oklahoma City. For those of us, myself included, who enjoy Simmons’ columns and podcasts but also want him to fully embrace the Thunder, a reaction of maybe 10 percent of the intensity of the Double Rainbow Guy swept over us.
Why was Simmons here? What did his presence mean? Why does it matter to me and people like me that he was at the Thunder game, and what he thinks about the team and city?
Simmons is the most popular sports columnist in the U.S., and by extension the world. (I’d be surprised for various reasons if China and India, the only two countries more populous than the U.S., have sports columnists as widely read as Simmons.) I suspect that it’s not even close. That also makes him the most polarizing, thanks to the combined natures of sportswriting and popularity.
Readers who don’t like Simmons probably don’t like him for the same reasons readers don’t like other columnists: They don’t like his style, or his opinions, or perceived biases and so on. But many other sportswriters and columnists seem to have a particularly pointed dislike of ESPN.com’s Sports Guy, and it most certainly is the result, in most cases, of jealousy of one kind or another. Common criticisms include charges that he’s not a “real” journalist, mainly because he doesn’t do locker room interviews or face many of the people at whom he takes shots, that he makes too many jokes and that he’s a homer. In reality, those critics within his profession are mostly jealous that he makes more money than they do, that he has more readers than they do, and that he has all that despite writing only once or twice a week and talking mainly to his professional and real-life friends on his podcasts.
I don’t care whether you like Simmons or not. It doesn’t add to my enjoyment of his work if you do, or take away from it if you don’t. But his influence on sportswriting, specifically on the Internet, is undeniable. He has influenced guys like Royce and myself just because we read him. He’s made it easier to make a living off of writing for the Internet, and for writers to be able to admit, and even revel in, their fandom of a particular team. The reason is simple. The truth is simply that he’s fun to read. And fun is all he strives to be, as far as I can tell.
The truth is also that he’s been less than kind to Oklahoma City since the Thunder came to town from Seattle. To his credit, he hasn’t taken shots at the people of Oklahoma or played to the state’s many negative stereotypes. But he has certainly stoked the flames of discontent in Seattle and elsewhere about the way the team got here, and others, whether they’re published professional writers or Internet trolls, haven’t been as restrained or civil. Simmons for a long time refused even to refer to Oklahoma City when talking about the Thunder, and still won’t say the team’s name. He even had it bleeped out when he let it slip on a couple of podcasts.
Daily Thunder made sort of a peace offering in the form of the Zombie Sonics shirt from Tree and Leaf, referring to Simmons’ invented nickname for the team. (At least until the Thunder, more or less rather nicely as I understand, convinced Royce and the T&L guys to spike it.) I was one of the surely dozens or hundreds or more of Oklahoma City fans who wrote pleasant e-mails to Simmons asking him to at least let our city’s or team’s name pass his lips. I’m sure there were plenty of fans who wrote less kind e-mails. He’s an unabashed fan of Kevin Durant and professes to watch more Thunder basketball than any team other than his beloved Celtics, so it has been hard for many to understand why he can’t separate his distaste for the way the Sonics left Seattle from the Thunder coming to Oklahoma City.
Most of us just want the most popular sports columnist around to like us. It’s not a whole lot different from wanting the prettiest girl in school to like you, in a way. If a person is viewed as popular, it helps your own standing (in a high school politics sense) to be viewed favorably by that person. It’s only natural. So for anyone who has followed Simmons’ opinions about the Oklahoma City Thunder and the way he treats the team in his work, showing up to the still-the-Ford Center marks a major turning point. And the way he showed up — by not announcing it at all or referencing the upcoming trip in a podcast, column or tweet — makes his presence all the more intriguing. There’s no way he just decided to go to a game on a whim. There’s a reason why he came. He surely plans to write something. And I can’t wait to see what it is. I’m confident OKC made a good impression on him. There was a mostly packed house downtown on a Wednesday night against the Nets, and his man-crush KD played well. I’m hoping he writes something positive.
If you think that it doesn’t matter what Simmons thinks about Oklahoma City and/or the Thunder, you’re kidding yourself. The man drives opinion. If he softens his stance on Oklahoma City, it will soften the stance of others. It’s the truth, whether anyone likes it or not.
Some Thunder fans out there, and Oklahoma residents in particular, will profess to not care what others think about their team and their state. But only some of those people are being truthful when they profess that. Probably only a few. Again, it’s only natural to want someone to like you or to like something you care deeply about, like a favorite team or the state you live in. I’m not native to Oklahoma, but I’ve lived here almost as long as I’ve lived anywhere else, which is long enough to be proud of it and to want people on the coasts to think of it as more than a “flyover state.” And because sports teams provide powerful and lasting images of a region, and Simmons is as powerful a sports voice as any, how the Thunder is perceived by the country matters, and how Simmons perceives the Thunder makes a big impact on that.
So count me among those who think that not only was Simmons’ presence at a Thunder game a big deal, but that he came here solely to see Oklahoma City and the Thunder in its home environment for himself, as so many of us wished he would, and that he plans to write something about the experience. I’m hoping he’s ready to make a peace with the situation and accept Oklahoma City as the home of his second-favorite team.
I just hope he likes us. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.