I was raised by two sports agnostics. This fact has always been strange to me, even though my mom is an author who writes fantasy stories and my dad's basketball career ended his freshman year in high school with a collapsed lung. It's not that they had no interest in sports: My mom coached my brother's t-ball team, and I've been to several Spurs games with my dad, who was always a big admirer of David Robinson. But I didn't grow up in a household that lived and died with the Spurs, or with any other team.
Yes, my parents' home was quite unlike the environment in which my daughter and her currently gestating sibling will be spending their childhood in. We're talking about a household in which their father will put on a Spurs shirt and run around the living room alternately screaming threats at the little men on TV, and dancing like revelers on the streets of Manhattan following V-J Day. My love for the Spurs isn't going to change. My kids will grow up immersed in it. Thing is, I'm not sure how to bring them along for the ride, or if I should even try.
You see, in terms of sports, my grandparents were entirely different from my parents. The paternal ones lived in San Antonio and the maternal ones an hour up I-10 in Kerrville (also known as the town that spawned Johnny Football.) Both sets of grandparents were Cowboys fans first and foremost. They wouldn't even talk about the Spurs until February. My paternal grandmother -- despite being raised in the West Midlands of England -- was also a diehard Atlanta Braves fan. She was almost single-handedly responsible for my early infatuation with baseball.
But basketball eventually became my game. After the baseball strike hit in '94 and the Spurs went to the Western Conference Finals the following summer, I became just as invested in Robinson and Company as the rest of my hometown.
But I never became a Cowboys fan, despite both sides of my extended family regaling me with the exploits of Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith and showering me at Christmastime with those horrible Starter hats and jackets everyone was wearing in the 90s, each branded with some sawtooth motif and a big blue star. If anything, my grandparents' efforts had the opposite of their intended effect. I grew to resent their assumption of my loyalty towards a team which played hundreds of miles away in what might as well have been Oklahoma. In time, that resentment evolved into a complete loathing of the Cowboys, Jerry Jones, and even of Dallas itself (which predisposed me nicely toward my future fan-hatred of the Mavericks.) Needless to say, the past 17 years or so have been endlessly amusing for me as a Cowboy-hater. Over that period their persistent mediocrity (except for their single blip of success) is one of the few things that's even close to being as fulfilling as rooting for the Spurs.
As simple as that whole action-reaction sequence appears, however, I know there's got to be more to it than that. I say this because every summer my English grandma would sit me down next to her and we'd watch Atlanta Braves games on TBS. I never grew to resent that, and in fact became a pretty big Braves fan myself. Even now, I'll pull for them against just about any other team outside of Texas or Missouri.
So what's the difference? How did it happen that I can't stand the Cowboys and enjoy the Braves? And what does that tell me about whether I should purposely try to make Spurs fans out of my kids?
First off, I think players have as much to do with it as the team itself. I dislike the Cowboys for lots of reasons: their home white uniforms, their drab toilet bowl of a stadium, and their North Texas address. Because of their owner. I even dislike that blue star. But most of all, it was their players. That puffy-faced, personality-free quarterback. Their preening, mink coat-wearing wide receiver. And their ... well, I won't admit to disliking Emmitt Smith, but I at least thought he was boringly competent, like football's answer to Pete Sampras.
(The irony, right?)
By contrast, the Braves had lots of cool guys on their roster in the 90s. Their pitching staff was unhittable and full of guys who genuinely seemed cool, like Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine. They employed Fred "Crime Dog" McGriff. Their manager was the immortal Bobby Cox. Outside of the Braves, the same held true: I liked Tony Gwynn and George Brett and Wade Boggs, which meant I was a fan of the Padres, Royals, and Red Sox.
If the Braves' lineup had been full of guys like Albert Belle or Barry Bonds (or nine David Justices), I might not have followed them with as much enthusiasm. What does this mean for my kids? I think they'll become fans of players as much as fans of teams. This personal connection is even more emphasized in basketball than it is in football or baseball. All those Facebook Fan Maps showing the recent rise of Heat fans in all corners of the United States are obviously charting a phenomenon which has more to do with LeBron than with the Heat.
What about the Spurs? I became a Spurs fan not just because they were the local team, but because I liked David Robinson. By the time my kids are old enough to begin consciously choosing who they root for, who knows which face will lead the franchise? Since that will be three to five years from now it's easy to speculate that Kawhi will be firmly entrenched in the role. But even if he is, Kawhi speaks through his game instead of his mouth, which might be too subtle for a kid to appreciate.
They need someone to follow on twitter. Joel Embiid won't play a minute of meaningful basketball for over a year, but he's already got 355,000 followers. If there's nobody left on the Spurs for my kids to identify with and retweet, the task of cultivating a fan becomes tougher. It's why so many political and military leaders throughout history have been the most charismatic people in the room. The concept of loyalty to a group or a team is too abstract for many, especially kids; they need to a face to look up to. They need the equivalent of Robinson's massive "Thou Shalt Not Score" Nike billboard which sat in downtown San Antonio 20 years ago.
Geography plays an important role as well. Even though I live in Kansas City now, my loyalty to the Spurs is very portable. My pride in the franchise, however, remains rooted in my connection to the city they play in. My kids have no such connection. Theie birthplace is Missouri, and though there are no competing NBA teams within 350 miles, there also isn't a critical mass of Spurs fans creating a multiplier effect. When they are at home, those toy basketballs and Spurs onesies start to look like desperate bribes rather than a welcome expression of organic fandom. In this part of the country, they're much more likely to encounter - and befriend - somebody in a Thunder hat, an MFFL t-shirt, or a Derrick Rose jersey. (And that's if they even care about the NBA; Big 12 basketball is a far bigger deal in Kansas City, with a de facto pro team in KU playing only forty minutes down the road in Lawrence.) If geography plays a role, the Spurs' mortal enemies of the heartland have more of a claim to my children's affections than some team in muted colors hovering around the distant, dusty bottom of the country.
Yep, kids will break your heart sometimes. But what I fear most is something more pernicious: What if my kids turn out like my parents? My grandparents failed to pass on their love the Cowboys on to me, but they failed first with my parents. What if my kids see my fanaticism for the Spurs, decide this old man's devotion is crazy or embarrassing or irrelevant, and choose no allegiance whatsoever? Then, like an aging robber baron, I'll be an island of fan capital with no way to spend it all, no one to share what I've spent most of my life storing up.
All of a sudden those Spurs onesies look not only tempting, but crucial.
Live and let live is just too risky an approach when it comes to sports. I became a Spurs fan through timing and dumb luck. It's going to take a bit more than that with my kids. For me, the seeds weren't planted until I saw the Spurs in person. Prior to that, I got hooked on baseball when my grandma took me to the old V. J. Keefe stadium to watch Missions games. That in-person connection is a bit more difficult to achieve with my daughter. Sure, we could drive 5 hours to see the Spurs when they visit OKC, but we'd also be in the middle of the bloodthirsty Thunder crowd. It's 6 hours to Minneapolis, where the Target Center is likely to present a more benign influence which will help her concentrate on the visiting team; but then, she might get scared by the giant Timberwolf logo in the middle of the floor and ask to go home. (Worst case scenario: she falls in love with Ricky Rubio.)
The good thing is, for the first five or six years of their lives, I'm my kids' primary sports influence. My daughter, who turns 3 this week, has already ridden on my shoulders as I ran through the house screaming "GO SPURS GO" on Father's Day. I've never loved that chant more: it's simple and proportionate, like the golden mean of sports chants. And it's easy for a toddler to repeat. She's already been exposed to the contagion. In 3 years, she's witnessed as many Spurs championships as I saw in 17.
She's starting to learn letters and numbers, so I think my next step is to teach her to spell the word S-P-U-R-S and recognize who's number 21, 20, 9, 2, and so on. Unfortunately, her favorite player (meaning, her favorite name to repeat) is Patty Mills, who isn't playing until at least February. Her second favorite is Matt "Red Rocket" Bonner, who barely plays at all. In the absence of any geographic ties to the Spurs, finding a player for her to root for is key. There's Manu, whose jersey I own, but I probably have at best a one or two-year window before he retires.
My best bet is to buy my kids Kawhi shirts, hope he signs an extension, and convince them that cornrows are the world's greatest hairstyle. My wife won't like it, but that's a storm I must weather. My kids' sports future is at stake!