I also root for the women’s basketball team at Bentley University. The players are coached by Barbara Stevens, who has compiled a winning percentage of about .800 during her 26 years at the school. Among the many things her players understand is that selfishness has no part in a team game.
Stevens has done everything a coach can do on the court except win a national championship. At a game this winter, when her team was 15-0, I spoke to her briefly at halftime.
“I’m sorry it’s been such hard times,” I joked.
“Yes,” she said, deadpan, surveying the court. “We’re going to have to crank it up the second half of the season.”
They finished the regular season 25-1 and made it to their division’s Final Four.
The stories I’ve done on the Bentley team always seem to include many very good players characterized by intelligence and perspective as well as a terrific work ethic. Once, I asked a team star whether she considered herself a basketball player who happened to be attending college or a college student who happened to be playing basketball.
She smiled and asked, “Is that a trick question?”
The young women playing for Stevens do not traffic in cliches.
The third team about which I care powerfully is Football Club Barcelona. Years ago I saw them play at home, in the company of about 100,000 people, lots of whom were children. Everybody seemed happy. Nobody shouted whatever the Catalan equivalent of “Yankees suck!” might be.
The team members play with patience and art. They appear to find joy in their work. There is also charity apparent on their jerseys. Other soccer teams make millions of dollars by selling space on their uniforms to corporate giants. Manchester United’s players used to run around in shirts that bore the initials “AIG.” F.C. Barcelona’s shirts said “UNICEF” on the front. The team paid the charity millions of dollars a year for that honor. Yes, as a wealthy and successful club supported by an enormous and loyal group of fans, Barca can afford it. Nevertheless, it’s easy to cheer for a team characterized in part by charity rather than entirely by greed, though I was disappointed when Barca moved UNICEF to the back of their jerseys a couple of years ago.
Then there’s the history. When Francisco Franco ruled Spain, he tried to silence the people of Catalonia. He outlawed their language and prohibited their dances. But when they gathered to cheer for their soccer team, Franco could not shut them up. The soccer team in the capital, Real Madrid, came to be associated with Franco and his fascist repression. Barcelona was a place where those opposed to Franco could express their support for a team that symbolized the liberation they hoped to achieve one day.
It wasn’t that simple then and it’s not that simple now, but it pleases me to think of F.C. Barcelona in political as well as artistic terms, and so I cheer for them. And I make the allowances characteristic of a fan. If Lionel Messi, Barca’s star among stars, did, in fact, initially pay the government less than what it’s entitled to according to the tax laws, I will think of the mishap as the consequence of a clerically challenged bureaucracy or as the oversight of a child concerned with art rather than finance or the consequence of his deference toward a finagling father or an attack orchestrated by his enemies, or I will not think of it at all. I will choose not to hear of it. And I don’t have to hear of it. That’s one of the advantages of rooting for a team that plays an ocean away.
On the other hand, I don’t have to hear about what a jerk Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo is. Hearing about it would be superfluous. His apartment features an enormous depiction of himself with no clothes on. His arrogance is evident in his every gesture. He is the anti-Messi. He is ridiculously easy to cheer against, and I would do that even if I were not a fan of his team’s chief rival.
So I have not abandoned irrational passion entirely.
Still, the point is that age and experience have altered my allegiances and the rationales for them, suspect as some of those rationales might be. On my better days, I like to think that friendship with a coach and admiration for the way that coach handles his or her responsibilities are good reasons to root for that coach. I like to think that a team’s commitment to playing with imagination, flair, discipline, and patience is good reason to support it. It may be silly to suppose that age and experience have encouraged me to value in the teams for which I cheer the same qualities I admire in art, literature, and friends, but I enjoy thinking something like that has happened, which is as good a reason as any for my becoming the fan I have become.
Bill Littlefield is the host of the NPR sports program Only a Game, produced by WBUR. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.