RSS Feed

Tag Archives: New York Knicks

Proper NBA Loyalties for Fans in Buffalo

Proper NBA Loyalties for Fans in Buffalo

 

Okay Buffalo, it’s time we had that famous chat. You know the one: The talk about the Hawks and the Hornets. I know many of you follow the NBA, and an uncharacteristically good piece by Bucky Gleason in The Buffalo News recently might be causing new feelings to well up in a few of those who don’t. You’re going to begin noticing new teams, and it’s important that if you start to follow basketball, the team or teams you choose to support are the right ones, not simply the most convenient ones. And sadly, Buffalo, I see a lot of you shacking up with the convenient team – the Celtics. Sure, they look good and have a come-hither history and appeal. But you already KNOW they’re not the right team. I know they’re sexy: The spectacular fundamentals of Larry Bird; Bill Russell leading his team to 11 titles, including eight straight; 17 titles; the arguable greatest basketball coach ever, Red Auerbach. We need to get one thing straight, though: They’re from Boston, and you’re Buffalo. You’re the one city on Earth that, instead of trying to attract new residents by trying to convince them you’re as good as New York City, tries to attract new residents by presenting yourself as the polar opposite of New York City. And yet, you don’t have enough sports pride to stay away from those sports whores in Boston? The home of the team that you hate more than any other, the New England Patriots? And the Boston Bruins, who you also hate? And the Boston Red Sox, hated by Buffalonians with Yankees allegiances, which is probably around 65 percent of you?

Buffalo, you have a deeper and more complex history with hoops than most people realize. Two different NBA teams – the Atlanta Hawks and Los Angeles Clippers – kicked off their lives right in your backyard. And when you pick teams, your go-to-the-best approach makes every victory hollow and meaningless. You need to pick a team that exemplifies your ethos, or that you have a real connection to. I cheer for a grab bag of different teams, all for different reasons: The Philadelphia 76ers drafted a player, Damone Brown, who went to my high school; I lived in Chicago and have a remaining loyalty to the Chicago Bulls; New York Knicks games were an escape for me when I moved back to Buffalo, so I’m connected to them too; I admire the ethos and adaptability the San Antonio Spurs have constantly shown in becoming maybe the best team in the NBA; I started watching the Golden State Warriors after their upset of the Dallas Mavericks in 2007; and I just have a soft spot for the Portland Trail Blazers. None of those teams are the Boston Celtics, and do you know why? It’s because I have a respectful loyalty to my sports heritage. So without further ado, here are some alternative teams that people from Buffalo should consider adopting:

Brooklyn Nets
Let’s be honest: The Nets were a much more appealing choice back in 2012, in the buildup hype to the grand switch the New Jersey Nets made to the Brooklyn Nets. The Brooklyn name was seen as trade leverage and a strong free agent lure, the Nets had just made big trades for Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, and Carmelo Anthony was firing up the rumor mill. That doesn’t change a few things, though: One is that my Damone Brown ended up playing for the Nets at one point, so there’s a connection with a Buffalo native. More importantly, though, is the fact that the Nets can easily be imagined playing and representing anywhere in New York. Their look and style could play as well in Rochester or Binghamton as it does in Brooklyn, and their arena has that same kind of look: You could see it slapped in the middle of downtown Buffalo if the Sabres didn’t exist for them to share an arena with. As Buffalo tries to make itself stand out from the shadow of New York City, so do the Nets still fight with chips on their shoulders for attention from the older, more established, and more regal New York Knickerbockers. Buffalo, you ARE the Brooklyn Nets.

Cleveland Cavaliers
Okay, maybe the idea of adopting a team from New York City is a little off-putting. I don’t blame you. So if it’s a Buffalo-like place you’re looking for, I don’t think any two cities in this country hold a closer resemblance to each other than Buffalo and Cleveland. Hell, the two of you share a lot of the same vein of sports pain. Plus Cleveland is just a three-hour drive down the road, so who not do the sensible thing and call the Cavaliers your team? They have LeBron James, who is currently the best player in the NBA, so there’s that. After years of hard luck, they also appeared in the Finals twice in the last ten years, both times losing series which were effectively unwinnable. And their hard luck is another part of who they are – since bad luck affects Buffalo’s sports teams to the extent that Buffalo and Cleveland compete with each other over which one has worse sports luck, you can’t sit in Buffalo and pretend you’re going to just adopt a team because it’s the best if the teams you have skip town. No, if the Bills pick up and go, I know a great many of you will find solace in the Cleveland Browns, just because to god there is no zero. Also, the Cavaliers were created in 1970, the same year as both the Sabres and the old Braves.

Portland Trail Blazers
Not looking for a place with such strong Rust Belt connections? Well, the NBA has another good team for you! The Portland Trail Blazers entered the NBA in 1970, the same year as the Cavaliers and Braves – and, as mentioned, the same year the Sabres came into the NHL. If you want underdogs, the Blazers are a great team to support, with Portland sitting in the shadows of Seattle and Vancouver and people frequently forgetting the Trail Blazers exist. However, that doesn’t stop the locals from vociferously supporting the team and following the NBA in the hope of a second title. Okay, there are better sales pitches, but if a Buffalo connection would be one of them, there’s always Dr. Jack. Jack Ramsay coached the Braves through their best years before taking the reins of the Blazers and leading them to their first – and to date, still their only – title, a massive upset over the Philadelphia 76ers in 1977.

Philadelphia 76ers
In relative terms, the last three teams are a little on the young side, and maybe you’re interested in a team with a bit more of a pedigree. Pedigrees don’t come much stronger than with the Sixers. This is the team that invented modern basketball by thinking up the shot clock. It’s the team of Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Charles Barkley, and Allen Iverson. Aside from being the team that drafted Brown, the Sixers have another serious upstate New York connection: When they entered the world, they did so as the Syracuse Nationals, and were moved to Philadelphia after it became clear that Syracuse wouldn’t be able to sustain a professional major league franchise.

Detroit Pistons
Here’s your Buffalo connection: Bob Lanier. He’s a local legend with Bennett High School. Afterward, he became a legend at St. Bonaventure, where he led the Bonnies to the Final Four. While the Pistons have had an up-and-down life in the NBA, their up years tend to resemble the best years of the Bills – people stand up, look, and listen to the noise because they’re crazy good. When they’re not winning, they only get backhanded mentions on ESPN, are lucky to be featured in a national broadcast every three years, and are generally only spotted after a galactic screwup. If there’s another Bills allusion you want, the Pistons wear the same colors as the Bills – red and blue. But perhaps their biggest selling point is that they represent another downtrodden Rust Belt city; Detroit holds many of the same values as Buffalo and has the same sense of civic pride, both in what it once was and what it’s rebuilding itself to be again. The Pistons also have a history – they began in Fort Wayne, Indiana as the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons and predate the NBA. Their first two titles were won in 1944 and 1945 in the NBL, before the creation of the NBA; or the creation of the BAA, the league the NBL eventually merged with to create the NBA. There are also three NBA titles, all won with the same ethos of good fundamentals, smothering defense, and placing the good of the team ahead of the individual. On the downside, you may have reservations about cheering for the team of the infamous Bad Boys…

San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs are the odd man out on this list; hell, I spent years hating (but admiring) them before being forced into an about-face during their duels against the Wade/James/Bosh Miami Heat. Their appeal to Buffalo is that they have long exemplified the teamwork ethos of the Pistons to much greater effect (they beat the Pistons for the 2005 NBA Championship) and, since Buffalo is not a place where people enjoy showboating braggadicio, their quiet, respectful, and professional manner is something to be emulated. Think of them as the Bad Boy Pistons with more stars and less bullying. When was the last time you saw a Spurs player make the news for blowing his top or committing a crime? That’s right. So good, and still low-key enough to be one of the most likable teams in the NBA. Even their fans don’t run around flinging shit. The downside is that that’s a pretty weak connection. The Spurs have no Buffalo connections. None. San Antonio is nothing close to Buffalo, and it shares its state with Dallas. Furthermore, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is the NBA’s equivalent to Bill Belichick – he’s a tactical mad genius who adjusts, adapts, and uncovers strengths and weaknesses with almost supernatural savvy. (Albeit, he’s Bill Belichick without the arrogance, or the drive against the league which frequently causes him to run up scores, or the cheating, or the lack of sportsmanship, but still.) The have one of the greatest players as their lynchpin with Tim Duncan. They routinely destroy every other team in the NBA, and are forever the league’s preeminent threat because all the guys who are supposed to get old just won’t fucking get old! Could they be… The New England Patriots? (A much nicer version of them, at any rate?)

Golden State Warriors
Cliff Robinson, who played in the NBA for 18 years, played for the Golden State Warriors from 2003 to 2005. He was born and raised in Buffalo and played his high school hoops at Riverside. Also, just before Steve Kerr started coaching the team, the Warriors were known as a lightning-fast, run-and-gun offensive team, much like the old Braves. It’s a pretty common thing nowadays to see sportswriters who saw both to compare the two of them. If you want a shout-out to a hockey team, the Warriors wear blue and gold as their colors and are the only team in the NBA to wear their jerseys like hockey jerseys, with the team logo prominently featured on the front.

New York Knickerbockers
Proximity is the name of the game here. Media proximity, at the very least; the Pistons, Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors, and maybe the Sixers are all closer by distance than the Knicks. But it’s the Knicks that get their games aired on MSG, the same network that shows Sabres games, and that makes them the easiest team to follow in Buffalo. In fairness, YES broadcasts Nets games, but that’s primarily a Yankees network, so you can figure out which team is getting the emphasis should there be a scheduling conflict. And MSG wants watchers to be familiar with the history of the Knicks – they always show old tapes of the classic dynasty of the 70’s (you DO old, Buffalo, your commitment to old keeps setting you back 20 years) as well as the best highlights of the Ewing era. And the way the team is being run these days will remind you of the way the Bills were run in the Tom Donahoe years and their aftermath.

Los Angeles Lakers
Are all those titles really THAT important to you? Fine. Here’s the Los fucking Angeles goddamned Lakers. Now go take a front-run on the Skyway.

 

The Ultimate Ranking of Sports Team Names, Part Seven: The Masterpieces

The Ultimate Ranking of Sports Team Names, Part Seven: The Masterpieces

Here we are! The final section. Not much for me to explain in this one; these are, quite simply, the very best of naming American major professional sports have to offer. Each one carries a certain amount of regionalism, decent imagery, strong branding, originality, memorability, strength, and balance.

20: New York Metropolitans, MLB
The major qualm I have with this name is the way it fuels into New York City’s egotism and raging sense of self-congratulatory intellectual supremacy. Come on, New York City, we know two of your so-called boroughs – Brooklyn and Queens – operate their infrastructures on a more independent basis than the others. After that, though, there’s really nothing to complain about when it comes to the official name of the New York Mets. Even feeding into the city’s blustering, New York City is still the largest city in the country, and it’s not even close. New York City has an almost unmatched array of people and activities to keep everyone interested. It represents the modern and open-minded, making it a true 21st Century metropolis, and whenever something new and world-changing comes along, you can bet New York City is always one of the first places it will hit, which means the city is constantly evolving. The Metropolitans are mainly known by their field name, the Mets, which not only makes them the cool rebel alternative to the Yankees, but gives them a cool parallel to the Jets and Nets – the rebel alternatives to the Giants and Knicks, respectively. The name Mets also honors two of New York City’s other great institutions – the Metropolitan Opera and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which are both also nicknamed the Met. Unknown to many, it’s also the name of an early baseball team from New York City which only lasted a few years in the 1800’s, which gives Mets a sense of preserved history as well.

19: Ottawa Senators, NHL
Hey everybody, in Canada, they actually got the name of their national capitol’s team right. It doesn’t use a slur (Washington’s football team), it doesn’t use a generic cover-all term for Canadian (like Nationals), it doesn’t simply spotlight the city’s status for attention (Capitals), and it makes sense (unlike Wizards). I don’t know exactly what kind of approval ratings Canada’s Parliament pulls in, but at least the hockey team in Canada’s national capitol succeeds in honoring its outpost. Senators carries weight and balance – two triple-syllable words with a short A in the middle surrounded by harder sounds – while the branding and regionalism go with the territory.

18: New Orleans Saints, NFL
It’s funny to me that a laid-back city known mainly for its vices like New Orleans would be nicknamed the Saints, but then again, New Orleans is a Catholic outpost in an area of the country which is known for being Baptist. Saints holds a double meaning for the popular song “When the Saints Go Marching In,” an old gospel song which is now best known for the many jazz covers it inspired, very fitting in the birthplace of jazz. By combining the city of New Orleans with the idea of being a saint, the New Orleans Saints have taken a very unique road to being a standout: There’s no appeal to anger, intensity, ferocity, or savagery anywhere in this name. Instead, the name Saints holds a virtuous light up to the imagery, giving the team a positive symbol of human goodness, while the city’s name has become synonymous with creativity, uniqueness, and open-mindedness. Recently, New Orleans has become known as a city of resilience, full of people who continued to believe in it even after an enormous hurricane swept in and washed out many of its residents. It’s no wonder the New Orleans Saints have become the favorite football team of everyone in the country to some extent.

17: Texas Rangers, MLB
A few points are deducted because these guys are, sadly, forced to share their nickname with a certain NHL team which really doesn’t have any business using it. There’s no forgetting the branding, though, because the most famous statewide law enforcement agency in the country uses it. I’m not talking about just the nickname, either, but the entire thing: The Texas Rangers, who are actually more famous than the baseball team named after them, thanks in large part to a weekly action TV show starring Chuck Norris. (Although, since winning the Pennant in 2010 and 2011, the baseball Rangers have started making up a little ground, particularly after that vicious 2011 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.) Even if that weren’t the case, Texas Rangers is a great name standing alone, since Texas is synonymous with vast skies and wide open land ranges. Rangers also works as a colloquial to the nickname of Texas – The Lone Star State – because we tend to think of rangers as rugged individualists in the same vein as we do cowboys. Yeah, the Texas Rangers have every right to take themselves after their state rather than their metropolitan area (Dallas, if you don’t know).

16: Denver Nuggets, NBA
Let’s be frank: A small lump of rock isn’t the most inspiring thing to name a sports team after, even if it is supposed to represent a nugget of gold. The importance of the name Nuggets, though, comes from the fact that an entire state was built around the power of small shiny nuggets – Colorado was populated by the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush. That means there’s significant history and regionalism surrounding the name, not to mention a hefty dose of originality from a team that decided it wanted to take a chance with a name. Gold nuggets are a huge deal, in any case; they have the potential to put lots of money into the economy, and who doesn’t love money? So there are some good colloquialisms to be drawn from a nugget of gold: Gold means power, gold means wealth, gold means Murphy’s Golden Rule: Whoever has the gold makes the rules. So let’s stop knocking this team name as useless lumps when they can do all that.

15: Philadelphia Phillies, MLB
This name wins the regionalization contest hand down. If you ever forget where this team plays, just think of the nickname, and it will tell you everything you need to know about who you are and where you’re from. It one incredible swoop, Phillies nails everything right about team names: It’s regional, unique, memorable, original, and brands the team with a hot iron without even trying. Like the Los Angeles Angels, it makes the city nickname into the team nickname. Granted this name came from a time when every baseball team was named after its city, but that Phillies is the lone survivor speaks legions about its staying power and its resonance, especially if you’re also aware of the fact that it survived an incredible THREE efforts to change it.

14: Baltimore Ravens, NFL
I put Baltimore’s divisional rivals, the Cleveland Browns, way down at number 106, where I asked why Browns fans keep giving the Baltimore Ravens shit about their name. Here we are, in the top 20, and I’m still confused. Baltimore Ravens brings us the coolest literary allusion on this list. Baltimore was the original home of all-time American literary giant Edgar Allen Poe. Poe wrote an iconic poem called The Raven during a career which, while tragically understated during his own time, was blessed in historical hindsight when it inspired countless mystery and horror authors. That’s an awesome element in regionalizing and branding the team while also trying to get it to transcend football and appeal to literature geeks. The raven is also a great bird to use in an image, because instead of making an appeal to kitsch freaks or going with ferocity, ravens make an appeal to the terrifying and mysterious. They’re large and black, and can spook people in dark places. And so, be that as it may, ravens are frequently used in superstitions to mark omens, set moods, or act as psychological conductors. It’s pretty incredible to think that with all the birds flying around out there, more teams didn’t try to go with an image which holds that kind of power.

13: New York Knickerbockers, NBA
This one is based on a term popularized from another literary allusion, this time from Washington Irving. Irving’s first major book was called A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty by Diedrich Knickerbocker. Diedrich Knickerbocker was a fictional name Irving used in what was really an early version of a marketing campaign, but it was a nickname given as far back as the early Dutch settlers in New York state which eventually worked its way into regional lexicon first as a term for Manhattan’s aristocracy, then as a general term for New Yorker. As with the Ravens, that makes it both historical and regional, but it works better in this case because Knickerbocker was a term created strictly for the people living in the region. This team is like the Metropolitans in that it uses a stage name – the New York Knicks, and not only is Knick an effective nickname for Knickerbocker, it rolls just as nicely as a name for the team because it sort of combines the city’s name into one term: New York, combining the first sound in New and last in York, makes something very close to Knick when combined.

12: Boston Celtics, NBA
This would be a very good name no matter what, but this is one of those extremely rare cases where the mispronunciation makes it better. Celtics is usually pronounced with a K sound, but in this context, is pronounced with an S sound, which makes it roll nicely with Boston. The Celts were an ancient people with roots in Irish culture, who eventually diversified into a few different cultures, including the cultures of today’s British, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh people. The modern Celtic identity is mostly associated with the Irish, and Boston has a population of over 50 percent with Irish roots. It’s also a heavy stronghold of Irish Catholicism. That brings context to the team name. You have to give Celtics credit for not being degrading, too – unlike a certain sports program at the University of Notre Dame.

11: Houston Astros, MLB
It’s a little surprising to me that more teams don’t try to use space imagery. After all, powerful objects exist there, where they fly at incredible speeds. Yet, here’s a team name that can’t decide on just one of those objects…. So it takes a name that encompasses all of them! Astro is of course synonymous with space, which is fantastic for one of only a handful of cities on the planet that has a right to make an association with space. Houston is known as Space City, after all, and it beats a lot of the other associations you could make with Houston.

10: Seattle Mariners, MLB
This team replaced another baseball team called the Seattle Pilots, and I have trouble deciding which name is better. There’s certainly not much to complain about with this one. Seattle has an aviation history – Boeing is located there – but it also has a history as a major shipbuilding home and a reputation as a transportation center which was solidified during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897. So a name honoring sailors makes perfect sense, and it’s unique enough to be something not every city in the country can name a team. You think Dallas or Kansas City residents would ever buy into a team called the Mariners? The name also gives them the right to use the Mariner’s Star to brand themselves, another thing no other team can claim. Mariners also holds significant weight as a name – evenly balanced with its city name with three syllables – but what I really like about it is that, like the Seattle Seahawks, it holds another cloaked allusion to the city name. A mariner is a sailor. Seattle is a port city and a transportation hub whose first three letters are “sea.” That’s something even the Pilots didn’t have. You know what? I think I prefer the name Seattle Mariners to Seattle Pilots after all.

9: Philadelphia 76ers, NBA
Yes, this sucker is a monster of jumpy, soundalike consonants. But it somehow still manages to have an even balance, only this one is two five syllable words which both sound like a wrecking ball smashed its way the vowels which would have otherwise smoothed it out. I don’t think the people of Philadelphia, though, would have it any other way. 76ers is a reference to the year of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which took place in Philadelphia in 1776, bringing those regionalization and branding points, and that’s only helped by the fact that 76 is, according to reputation, a number which dominates modern Philadelphia. It’s another instance where the city gets exclusive awesome branding rights based on its history. Also, despite being such a mouthful, you have to admit the name does hold a certain charm: Philadelphia is dominated by PH and L sounds while 76ers makes you fly around those S sounds.

8: Pittsburgh Steelers, NFL
A name and city perfectly matched. Steelers is an honorific for steelworkers, and while steelworkers aren’t especially unique, no city had more of them than Pittsburgh. Steeler isn’t a particularly rugged-sounding name, but it does invoke images of molten metal being poured from giant buckets in huge factories, so there’s imagery that goes with Steelers. Pittsburgh has lately been the great success story of the Rust Belt, turning itself around after decades of depression through an infusion of modern industries, small projects, and utilization of its universities. Still, a lot of people there probably remember the bad old days, and as long as the Steelers exist, it will always be a reminder of both Pittsburgh’s past and the way people were able to keep their heads up, never believing their city was truly defeated when the bad times hit.

7: Baltimore Orioles, MLB
Yes folks, there is a real bird whose official name is the Baltimore oriole. It lives in the eastern and midwestern United States and received its name from having a physical resemblance to the Old World Oriolidae family, which is otherwise unrelated. Mostly, the oriole is a common perching bird, and can usually be found foraging in your backyard trees, shrubs, and backyard hummingbird feeders while chasing down the occasional insect. Not much different from an average blue jay or cardinal, both of which I slammed, but the Baltimore Orioles are rescued by their branding: It was given the name Baltimore oriole because its colors resembled those on Lord Baltimore’s Coat of Arms. I don’t know how a bird can be more regionalized than that, but the state of Maryland sure tried: The Baltimore oriole is Maryland’s official state bird! The name has a very nice roll to go with it, featuring Baltimore’s final syllable having the same sound as Orioles’ first syllable.

6: St. Louis Blues, NHL
Here’s another name taken from a classic song which also serves as the title of a music genre, not to mention what Blues fans find themselves singing during the postseason more often than not these days. “St. Louis Blues” is the title of a very real jazz song, and St. Louis became a highly regarded blues outpost when the musical genre slowly made its way north from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago. The title means the song is instantly regional, and it’s unique because music isn’t something that gets mentioned a lot in sports team names. Only the New Orleans Saints and Utah Jazz have that distinction, and the Saints got their name from a single word in a song while the Jazz name is grossly out of place. The St. Louis Blues have no such problems with their name.

5: Houston Rockets, NBA
Originally called the San Diego Rockets after a very silly title San Diego once bestowed onto itself, this team kept their name when they were forced to move to Houston. And in a startling contrast to the Utah Jazz or Los Angeles Lakers names, this is a name that might have been barely average during its time in its old home, but became an incredible fit in its new one. You know why Houston is nicknamed Space City? Because that’s where they launch rockets! Real rockets, the ones that carry people into space! NASA’s main control center is located in Houston, which means that every space mission ever launched in the United States – and some in foreign countries – kept in touch with the ground via the control station in Houston. Also, a rocket is a great colloquial for modernity, and despite the reputation of Texas, that’s one thing Houston is getting in spades – Houston is the fourth-largest city in the United States at the moment, has over two million people, is growing, and considered a solid place to live. Cities don’t get to that position by trying to become blasts from the past. The name isn’t exactly original, but actual rockets are such a huge deal in Houston’s importance to the country and the world that the otherwise so-so branding gets elevated much like a real rocket.

4: Milwaukee Brewers, MLB
Whether or not Milwaukee has a right to be proud of its beer isn’t up for debate – that’s where they make Miller, so anyone heard defending that shit needs to be immediately forced to live in Greenland and forced to subside on Schlitz and Pabst Blue Ribbon. Milwaukee is a famous brewing hotbed, though, so it has every right to name a team the Brewers. The term isn’t exclusive to Milwaukee – St. Louis and Denver have giant stakes in brewing too – but it’s the city where the brewing industry has the most visible presence. Milwaukee and beer go together like peanut butter and jelly, so much so that even the ballpark is plastered with the name of the brewing corporation. And, of course, the brewer is the guy who makes the beer, so like the Steelers, this team is honoring the silent workers of a very old profession which is still very important in this country. This might be a good time to thank your deity of choice that most American sports leagues don’t do European soccer-style names; we might otherwise have ended up with something corporatized and wretched, like the Milwaukee Millers.

3: San Francisco 49ers, NFL
As we all know, the NFL is in love with images that it sucks at living up to. It infects the naming system as well as anything else. The league has a love affair with ferocity and, while there are probably no more bad names in the NFL than in any other league, it makes the NFL’s missteps particularly glaring. Washington’s football team, having a whopping four teams – including two 90’s expansions – named after big cats, two names for giants, two for birds of prey, one of those ridiculous teams named after a region instead of a place, plus the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills, and I didn’t even include everything. When the NFL does a name the right way, though, it turns out excellent, and there’s no better example of that than the San Francisco 49ers. Number names might come off as silly, but numbers have a way of regionalizing the team through huge aspects of their cities like little else. In this case, it sheds history’s light on the 1849 Gold Rush which brought swaths of people to California, resulting in California’s statehood two years later. 49ers were the nicknames given to the gold rushers, and in that single marvelous placement, the name becomes exclusive to San Francisco, historical, original, and memorable all at the same time, and the connection is so well-known that it doesn’t require tons of time to explain. The name is a little on the hard side to say, with eight total syllables which mostly sound completely different, but they all feature hard sounds for a very nice weight distribution.

2: Detroit Pistons, NBA
Here’s what we think of when we think of pistons: Parts of a constantly-moving machine, working together all at once in order to generate power. Anyone can appreciate that aspect of a name like the Pistons, all the more so if they know the Detroit Pistons won each of their three NBA Championships working in a very similar fashion – eschewing individual statistics in favor of a hard-fighting machine that works evenly (none of Detroit’s title teams featured any scorers who averaged 20 points per game). It’s a beautiful image anyone would want to associate with their favorite team, and the idea of pistons working to power something bigger denotes a scrappiness that matches its downtrodden city perfectly. The piston is a fitting image for Detroit, not only for the city’s history as America’s premier automaker, but for something that refuses to quit or give up. America might be giving up on Detroit, but Detroit isn’t giving up on itself. Pittsburgh was in the same position not too long ago, and look what’s happening there; in the meantime, Buffalo seems poised to make its move as well. We’re all cheering for Detroit here.

1: Portland Trail Blazers, NBA
So you have a sport like basketball, which is played at high speeds – blazing speeds, one might say! You decide to stick a team in a snug little outpost in the pacific northwest which most people don’t even realize exists. (The Blazers were created in 1970, long before Portland was the cool alternative to Seattle…. Hell, long before Seattle was ever even cool.) So you’re basically blazing the professional sports trail to Portland, and hell, even with Portland growing and becoming more important now, the other leagues have yet to follow you there. Portland still has a kind of outpost reputation, with an abundance of outdoorsy things to do, and back when most of the pacific northwest was unknown to Europeans and virtually impossible to get to, the people who made the trip were master outdoorsmen who were true pioneers in exploring and recording the territory – trail blazers in a handful of ways. Trail Blazers is a name which acknowledges the speed of its sport and the historical and regional aspects of its metropolitan area. There’s no doubt that it sticks out; it’s simple but highly original because no other team has any right to it, and trying to call a team from anywhere else just the Blazers would be generic 90’s residue. That means Trail Blazers is a fantastic way of branding a team which no one is likely to ever forget, even less so when you realize how cool it sounds and how easily it rolls off your tongue. The Portland Trail Blazers have been noted for being an underrated team with some significant on-court successes, but there’s no question about their name. It’s the best name in the major North American professional sports pantheon.

The Levels of Losing: New York/Illinois Edition

The Levels of Losing: New York/Illinois Edition

Several years ago, a sports columnist named Bill Simmons decided to take a stab at the rather difficult science at quantifying sports pain. Simmons isn’t the strongest sports columnist out there – he has his flaws, but I generally enjoy his work, and his column about the Levels of Losing strikes a nerve with everyone who’s ever been a fan of any team. In it, he takes losing big games and turns 16 easily identifiable levels out of it. He’s also from Boston, which means the majority of his example were also from Boston. So I’m going to take a mighty stab at the Levels of Losing myself today, with New York and Illinois serving as my examples. Sit back, relax, read, and, depending on your loyalties and feelings toward professional sports, either enjoy or cry.

Level 16: The Princeton Principle
Definition: When a Cinderella team hangs tough against a heavy favorite, but the favorite somehow prevails in the end (like Princeton almost toppling Georgetown in the ’89 NCAAs). … This one stings because you had low expectations, but those gritty underdogs raised your hopes. … Also works for boxing, especially in situations like Balboa-Creed I (“He doesn’t know it’s a damn show! He thinks it’s a damn fight!”). … The moment that always sucks you in: in college hoops, when they show shots of the bench scrubs leaping up and down and hugging each other during the “These guys won’t go away!” portion of the game, before the collapse at the end.
2007 NBA Playoffs, Second Round: Chicago Bulls vs. Detroit Pistons
Yes, this was a disappointment, but at least it was a good one. The Bulls, you see, had no business even getting this far. A 3-9 start to a season is usually a written-off ticket to the lottery. Teams that start 3-9 don’t usually go 49-33 on the season and make the playoffs as the third seed. And even if they do, they don’t sweep out the defending Champions in the first round. In the second round, the Bulls reverted to their season-starter form when they let their archrivals, the Detroit Pistons, run them into a 3-0 hole. No basketball team ever came back from that, but that didn’t stop Ben Wallace, Luol Deng, and crew from throwing their best at the Pistons and forcing a sixth game, putting the pressure on the Pistons before finally bowing out. Those were the pre-Rose/Noah Bulls, and despite being in the insurmountable hole, they held on and, for a hot second, looked as though they might succeed in doing the impossible.

Level 15: The Achilles Heel
Definition: This defeat transcends the actual game, because it revealed something larger about your team, a fatal flaw exposed for everyone to see. … Flare guns are fired, red flags are raised, doubt seeps into your team. … Usually the beginning of the end. (You don’t fully comprehend this until you’re reflecting back on it.)
2011 NFC Championship
I was probably the only person in Chicago who wasn’t brazenly confident about the Bears’ chances in the 2011 NFC Championship. Sure they walked in with an 11-5 regular season record, and having plastered the Seattle Seahawks in the playoffs. But they had also been wearing charm bracelets all year, and their record could have easily been almost reversed had it not been for a bunch of breaks hinged on luck – not luck like defensive backs being out of position, but LUCK. Luck like the Green Bay Packers setting a record number of penalties, Calvin Johnson being robbed of an ironclad touchdown because of a little-known rule, and a number of good teams on their schedule falling to pieces. I caught the NFC Championship against the Packers from my laudromat at Chicago Avenue and Western Avenue. While I could barely hear anything, I could see the screen well enough, and the first thing I saw in the game was Green Bay’s opening drive. Aaron Rodgers took The Pack four plays for a touchdown. The Bears responded by taking four plays for a punt. Those two drives set the tempo for the game; the Bears were in for a long afternoon. The game revealed a number of things that I had been screaming all year, but other Bears fans ignored: The Packers were a better team. Aaron Rodgers was light years ahead of Jay Cutler. Lovie Smith wouldn’t be able to get away with putting his offense on the back of his return man, even if that return man WAS Devin Hester. Worst of all, Bears fans had found a backup quarterback who they hated more than the starter when a nasty injury to Cutler forced Caleb Hanie to finish the game. The 21-14 score was worse than it looked; that second touchdown was The Pack throwing the Bears a bone. While Lovie stuck around for a couple more years, this game pretty much signaled the end for him.

Level 14: The Alpha Dog
Definition: It might have been a devastating loss, but at least you could take solace that a superior player made the difference in the end. … Unfortunately, he wasn’t playing for your team. … You feel more helpless here than anything. … For further reference, see any of MJ’s games in the NBA Finals against Utah (’97 and ’98).
Reggie Miller
The name Reggie Miller still causes longtime New York Knicks fans to fall into epileptic seizures. While my being a basketball fan didn’t happen until just after this era, it’s easy to understand the lingering frustration my chosen fanbase still has over the 90’s. The Knickerbockers drafted Patrick Ewing in the 80’s, easily their best big man since Willis Reed, surrounded him with a supporting cast that could smother any team in the league, and brought in Showtime Lakers coach Pat Riley. Fans from then will forgive the Knicks for forever getting pounded by the Jordan Bulls – who was expected to beat those guys? When it wasn’t the Bulls, though, it was the Indiana Pacers and Miller, who I swear spent his time before games sharpening a stake. Then he would take the hardwood and bomb the Knicks with about 765 points per game. From 1993 to 2000, the Pacers and Knicks met six times in the playoffs, and although they have an even record against each other, the repercussions are more severe than that implies because a team from midwest cowville had figured out how to skin the Big Apple and cut it into bite-size pieces. Three of their matches were conference finals; the Knicks won two of them, but were pushed so hard that one could argue it cost them the Finals. In any case, it was Reggie Miller who was the face of New York’s troubles. He was specifically the one nicknamed the Knick-Killer, the one who got into the fight with Knicks fan Spike Lee, and the one who, given any opening, could heave the necessary clutch shot from all the way across the court and have it go in. In 2010, a documentary was made about the rivalry called Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks. Got that? Not the Indiana Pacers, but Reggie Miller. MSG still likes to air these old playoff games sometimes.
Tom Brady
The Buffalo Bills’ rivalry with the New England Patriots has always been pretty wild, but it was rarely ever one-sided until Tom Brady was installed as New England’s starting quarterback in 2001. Since then, the Bills, still having never found their heir to Jim Kelly, have beaten the Patriots all of two times. The Patriots have beaten the Bills around 500 times by my count. Brady always finds the most humiliating ways to beat them, too: Games between Buffalo and New England always seem to polarize themselves at either massive blowouts or close nail-biters, and they’ll always end in favor of the Patriots. Even when the Bills are able to put up a significant lead on New England and trick the city into thinking they might have a chance, they always show they just don’t DO 60-minute football, especially not against New England. Tom Brady will inevitably lead the Patriots on a series of improbable drives with about three seconds left in the game, connecting on every improbable throw, leading the Pats to four late touchdowns and a victory. And sometimes, he doesn’t stop when the Patriots are squeaking by – he’ll launch a comeback from a 21-point hole to put 35 on the board, as if he was just fucking around with the Bills for most of the game. Watching him in those clutch moments, one gets the feeling he would connect even if he threw the ball backwards. What to do when one man – and particularly an All-American pretty boy like Tom Brady – keeps destroying your team? Well, obviously you can’t try feeding him to your team, because he’s been playing the part of the lion tamer. So when Tom Brady made an offhand comment about the quality of Buffalo’s hotels last year, Buffalo jumped down his throat like petulant children, burning his jersey and actively encouraging the city’s hotels to refuse to let him stay. This from The City of Good Neighbors.

Level 13: The Rabbit’s Foot
Definition: Now we’re starting to get into “Outright Painful” territory. … This applies to those frustrating games and/or series in which every single break seemingly goes against your team. … Unbelievably frustrating. … You know that sinking, “Oh, God, I’ve been here before” feeling when something unfortunate happens, when your guard immediately goes shooting up? … Yeah, I’m wincing just writing about it.
The Comeback
Let’s reverse things for a moment and recall a time where one of my teams actually CAUSED an excrutiating loss. More specifically, an NFL playoff game from 1993 between the Houston Oilers and Buffalo Bills. The Oilers had managed to run up a 28-3 lead by halftime, which they pulled out to a 35-3 lead early in the third. On the ensuing kickoff after that touchdown, the wind caused the kick to squib, the first in a series of bad breaks which would destroy Houston. Buffalo took advantage of every Houston error, missed whistle, and weather gust to go on a splurge and score four touchdowns in about six minutes. In the fourth quarter they took the lead while the demoralized Houston offense couldn’t manage anything more than a field goal to tie the game by the end of regulation. In overtime, the Bills took advantage of an interception and Steve Christie booted the Oilers from the Playoffs. The 32-point comeback is still the largest in the history of the NFL. This game, the finest hour in Buffalo football history, was blacked out. I spent the day at McKinley Mall with my father and sister while the mall PA gave us periodic updates. Upon learning the score was 35-3, my immediate reaction was “good,” because I couldn’t take the Bills going to the Super Bowl (again) and losing it (again). Nor could I believe the increasingly narrow score as the PA kept giving it to us. There was absolute shellshock over this game, and everyone once again went right back to believing the Bills had a chance. The Bills made the Super Bowl that year, their third in a row. They also lost for the third year in a row. And they got their asses kicked for the second year in a row.

Level 12: The Sudden Death
Definition: Is there another fan experience quite like overtime hockey, when every slap shot, breakaway and centering pass might spell doom, and losing feels 10 times worse than winning feels good (if that makes sense)? … There’s only one mitigating factor: When OT periods start piling up and you lose the capacity to care anymore, invariably you start rooting for the game to just end, just so you don’t suffer a heart attack.
No Goal
Through most of their existence, the Buffalo Sabres have actually been very good… Just rarely when it counted. 1999 was the one year in my lifetime the Sabres didn’t perform a choke job at some point, but reaching the Stanley Cup Finals didn’t change the fact that they were outcasts and journeymen fighting the Dallas Stars, one of the most powerful and star-laden teams in the NHL. The Sabres did us proud by dragging the series out to six games. Game six went into a sudden death overtime, where Dallas’s league-leading defense kept canceling out Buffalo’s best goalie in the world. Every Dallas shot, breakaway, and visit to the attack zone felt like a heart attack. If I had a choice between a torture session at Guantanamo Bay and this, well, at least the Guantanamo session would end if I gave them information. This dragged on through what was basically a double-header of hockey before Dallas’s Brett Hull brought the axe down in the third overtime. It was both painful and frustrating because my team had just lost the Stanley Cup on a goal which was so badly disputed. The most important hockey game of the year was decided by an individual interpretation of the Crease Rule, which not only lent plenty of clout for missteps but made no fucking sense. Brett Hull defends the goal, and has very solid ground on which to do it, but even he admits it was grossly unfair to the Sabres. The NHL was finally embarrassed into repealing the Crease Rule the next year, and the vast majority of hockey fans reject the legitimacy of the goal. The hindsight, though, does very little to console the city of Buffalo, which to this day believes the Sabres were robbed of a chance to win – or lose – the Stanley Cup fairly. I learned that year that sudden death playoff hockey is only fun and exciting if you’re not emotionally attached to any of the teams playing the game. If you are, god help you.
2010 Stanley Cup Finals, Game Six
As it happened, I was thrust into this situation again eleven years later when my team – the Blackhawks this time – made the Finals. Unlike the Sabres, who were a group of nobodies that prolonged a series they were supposed to lose, the Hawks of 2010 were a machine who stood a great chance of winning the Cup. Their offense was a galaxy of stars and their defense were hard fighters, but I had my suspicions about their goalie. While the Chicago media had been playing up substitute goaltender Antti Niemi as a great hero, I had seen more than enough hockey to see Niemi as what he was: A rickety man behind a well-oiled machine who was winning because he happened to be just a hair better than the other goalies when he needed to be. In game six, the Hawks carried a 3-2 lead into the third period which they surrendered with 3:59 left when Philadelphia’s Scott Hartnell shoveled the puck behind Niemi. Being a Buffalo sports doomsayer and wanting to save myself the heart failure, I KNEW the Flyers would take the game into overtime, win it, and then win game seven, so I flipped the TV to that night’s rerun of The Office. I was still steaming when, about four minutes into the episode, the TV blacked out. Now I was REALLY pissed. I swore to myself for the next minute, wondering why both my hockey team and TV hated me when a giant Blackhawks crest suddenly flew across the dead air to the tune of “Chelsea Dagger,” an annoying song which, right then, was the most welcome song I had ever heard. The game HAD gone to overtime, but the Hawks emerged victorious. After watching the presentation of the Stanley Cup, I threw my street clothes back on – jeans and my Blackhawks sweater, I didn’t care that it was 80 degrees and humid – and rushed outside to find my fellow fans and celebrate.

Level 11: Dead Man Walking
Definition: Applies to any playoff series in which your team remains “alive,” but they just suffered a loss so catastrophic and so harrowing that there’s no possible way they can bounce back. … Especially disheartening because you wave the white flag mentally, but there’s a tiny part of you still holding out hope for a miraculous momentum change. … So you’ve given up, but you’re still getting hurt, if that makes sense. … Just for the record, the 2002 Nets and 2005 Astros proved that you can fight off The Dead Man Walking Game, but it doesn’t happen often.
2004 ALCS
The whole reason they play the games in the first place is because the anonymous paper standings the “experts” roll out at the beginning of every season can be so misleading. In 2004, the Boston Red Sox were looking like the superior team to the New York Yankees, only to blow their division and get into the playoffs on the wild card. In the ALCS, the Yankees ran up the big 3-0 hole, winning that third game in dominant fashion. Then the Red Sox decided to catch fire. After Curt Schilling’s heroic outing in game six, the Yankees’ talk about winning game seven was clearly feeding George Steinbrenner what he wanted to hear. When even Saint Jeter couldn’t hide the shock and uncertainty in his face, everyone across the Evil Empire got the message: Our Pinstriped Stormtroopers were now the dead man walking. The seventh game was just a formality, the ALCS was over, and Boston had won the American League Pennant. The only thing left to do was watch game seven, hoping the Yankees could shake their dead man stigma and put the Red Sox away. I wasn’t surprised when they didn’t.

Level 10: The Monkey Wrench
Definition: Any situation in which either (A) the manager/coach of your team made an idiotic game decision or (B) a referee/umpire robbed your team of impending victory. … The Monkey Wrench Game gains steam as the days and months roll along. … The Patriots and Raiders deserve special mention here because they played two Monkey Wrench games 26 years apart — the ’76 playoff game (when Ben Dreith’s dubious “roughing the passer” call on “Sugar Bear” Hamilton gave the Raiders second life), and the infamous Snow Game (the Brady fumble/nonfumble). … Funny how life works out.
The Bartman Game
I’ve never liked the Cubs, but I never specified these had to revolve around teams I like. And this sucker was so nasty that leaving it off a list like this would have been as big a crime as Dusty Baker’s management during the game. Mainly I remember being impressed by onetime future legend Mark Prior as he efficiently mowed down the Florida Marlins for eight dazzling innings. Of course, Baker was never a manager known for paying mind to pitch counts, and with eight magnificent shutout innings and a 3-0 lead, it was a BAD time to be pitching for Dusty Baker. He was about to make history and apparently removing Prior before his arm fell off would jinx it. Prior was never baseball’s most durable pitcher, but after unleashing hell for the Marlins, he had that “stick a fork in him, he’s done” look all over his body. With exhaust fumes engulfing Prior, Baker left him in anyway, the Marlins started getting on base, and Alex Gonzalez bumbled a ground ball that would have ended the inning. The Cubs basically spent the inning playing Monty Python Does Baseball, and Baker didn’t take the hint and remove Prior until the Marlins had the lead. The Marlins scored all eight of their runs in the game during this fiasco. Again, I’m no fan of the Cubs, but holy shit. This game occurred before I had ever been to Chicago, and even I was completely shellshocked and screaming at my TV at the top of my lungs.

Level 9: The Full-Fledged Butt-Kicking
Definition: Sometimes you can tell right away when it isn’t your team’s day. … And that’s the worst part, not just the epiphany but everything that follows — every botched play; every turnover; every instance where someone on your team quits; every “deer in the headlights” look; every time an announcer says, “They can’t get anything going”; every shot of the opponents celebrating; every time you look at the score and think to yourself, “Well, if we score here and force a turnover, maybe we’ll get some momentum,” but you know it’s not going to happen, because you’re already 30 points down. … You just want it to end, and it won’t end. … But you can’t look away. … It’s the sports fan’s equivalent to a three-hour torture session.
1991 AFC Championship
I had trouble thinking this one up, just because there are so many I can think of off the top of my head. So I decided to go positive again! The Bills had spent 1990 playing the Team of Destiny. They had just beaten the archrival Miami Dolphins and their star quarterback, Dan Marino, in the playoffs. Going into the 1991 AFC Championship against the Los Angeles Raiders, the team was favored by seven. Well, they had that covered by the second drive. This game gave Bills fans absolute, complete belief in the whole Team of Destiny thing. Maybe it was the fact that Buffalo’s backup running back scored three touchdowns. Maybe it was the six total interceptions they pulled down from the hapless Raiders’ quarterbacks. Maybe it was the fact that the Raiders threw every defensive formation in their playbook at the Bills. Maybe it was the fact the Bills held Marcus Allen to all of 26 yards, or the fact that the Bills were up 41-3 at halftime. The stats are only part of the bottom line: By the end of the game, the Bills had destroyed the Raiders by a score of 51-3. It’s still the worst loss the Raiders ever suffered in their long history. I’m halfway convinced that Al Davis died because someone brought it up while he was in the room. It was also the first time I started to realize the kind of connection between the city and the team. I didn’t know anything about football except that my hometown had a team called the Bills, and they were now going to a game called the Super Bowl to crush the New York Giants! Victory was inevitable!

Level 8: The This Can’t be Happening
Definition: The sibling of the Full-Fledged Butt-Kicking. … You’re supposed to win, you expect to win, the game is a mere formality. … Suddenly your team falls behind, your opponents are fired up, the clock is ticking and it dawns on you for the first time, “Oh, my God, this can’t be happening.”
2007 Eastern Conference Finals, Buffalo Sabres vs. Ottawa Senators
Yes, the Ottawa Senators had just about had their way with the Buffalo Sabres over the course of the season. But it was Buffalo that brought home the Presidents’ Trophy, which is given to the regular season champions. More importantly, the Senators had a terrible history against Buffalo in the playoffs – 0-3 against the Sabres for a lifetime record, with the last loss coming the previous year, when the two teams also had similar records. Buffalo had won that series 4-1. But that was last year, and this was this year, and hell, the Sabres were known for being the team no one wanted to meet in the playoffs. That Prince of Wales Trophy was looking like a given, and while the potential Finals against the Anaheim Ducks gave Sabre Nation jitters, we still walked with swagger over Buffalo’s chances of finally winning the Stanley Cup. When the Sabres lost the first game, it was a setback. After the second, I got concerned. After the third, I was, just like a fan, still holding out for that miraculous comeback, because that’s what fans do. Even so, I knew that in this, the Sabres’ now-or-never year, the Sabres had stood up and, in a powerful collective voice, screamed “IT’S NEVER!” The Sabres did manage a save-face in game four, but I remember watching game five and feeling the doom harbinger hanging in my apartment. Even after NBC Chicago rudely cut off the overtime period to show a fucking horse race, I had Rob text me the gameplay over my cell phone. If NBC thought it was a mercy cutoff, it didn’t work. That overtime goal was less a stake to the heart than a bullet to the head – sudden, then… Just nothing, except the feeling the world had shut itself off.

Level 7: The Drive-By Shooting
Definition: A first cousin of The “This Can’t Be Happening” Game, we created this one four weeks ago to describe any college football upset in which a 30-point underdog shocks a top-5 team in front of 108,000 of its fans and kills its title hopes before Labor Day.
No Example
Simmons can stick this one where the sun don’t shine. He thinks up a very particular rule for a very particular situation and says it only applies to a specific sport at a specific level. While it wouldn’t bother me to apply it to anything else, I can’t think of anything it could be properly attached to!

Level 6: The Broken Axel
Definition: When the wheels come flying off in a big game, leading to a complete collapse down the stretch. … This one works best for basketball, like Game 3 of the Celtics-Nets series in 2002, or Game 7 of the Blazers-Lakers series in 2000. … You know when it’s happening because (A) the home crowd pushes their team to another level, and (B) the team that’s collapsing becomes afflicted with Deer-In-The-Headlitis. … It’s always fascinating to see how teams bounce back from The Broken Axle Game. … By the way, nobody has been involved in more Broken Axle Games than Rick Adelman.
2009 Winter Classic
The Chicago Blackhawks had languished in the NHL basement for years, but in the 2008 season, they suddenly came out screaming they weren’t the league doormat anymore. In the 2009 season, they had the chance to announce their grand return to the rest of the hockey world, and what better way to do that than playing in the 2009 Winter Classic? At storied Wrigley Field, no less? There was one thing that stood in their way: The Detroit Red Wings, the Hawks’ longtime tormentors and this year’s defending Stanley Cup Champions. The first period went swimmingly for the Hawks, as they rushed out to a 3-1 lead by the end. Then for whatever reason, they seemed to be the stationary cow on the train tracks. And when the Red Wings are equipped with power that approximates that of a train, that’s not going to end well for ANY team. The Red Wings scored the next five goals and dominated the Blackhawks for the rest of the game. A soft third period goal cut the score to 6-4 and allowed Chicago SOME dignity, but between Detroit’s dominance and the rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, and Denis Savard had sang in a hockey context, dignity became a concept as foreign as Norway. Fortunately, the Hawks recovered and had a spectacular season anyway, making a run to the Western Conference Finals. Detroit stood in their way there again, though, and left no doubt as to who was better. It was great that the Hawks were good again, but they clearly weren’t ready for the Detroit Red Wings just yet.

Level 5: The Role Reversal
Definition: Any rivalry in which one team dominated another team for an extended period of time, then the perennial loser improbably turned the tables. … Like when Beecher fought back against Schillinger in “Oz,” knocked him out and even pulled a Najeh Davenport on his face. For the fans of the vanquished team, the most crushing part of the “Role Reversal” isn’t the actual defeat as much as the loss of an ongoing edge over the fans from the other team. You lose the jokes, the arrogance and the unwavering confidence that the other team can’t beat you. There’s almost a karmic shift. You can feel it.
Chicago Bulls/Detroit Pistons
For most of their existences, the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls were a pair of middling-to-bad teams whose rivalry meant exactly nothing to anyone outside those cities. By the late 80’s, things had changed: The Pistons were arguably the best team in the NBA. The Bulls had Michael Jordan, arguably the league’s best player. Unfortunately for the Bulls – and as Isiah Thomas of the Pistons gleefully loved pointing out – one man does not a team make. So it was easy for the talented, dirty Pistons to create a series of simple defenses and turn them into psychological warfare just by giving them the name “The Jordan Rules,” which tricked everyone – including the Bulls – into thinking they were the vault combination at Fort Knox. From 1989 to 1991, the Bulls and Pistons played in the Eastern Conference Finals every year. The first two, the Pistons won, and went on to take the Championship. By 1991, Jordan finally had a good supporting cast and after years of being called a selfish player, was playing more like a team guy. Sweeping the Pistons this time, the Bulls won their first title and transformed the rivalry on the way to five more titles and dominance in the 90’s. Detroit slipped, bottomed out, and didn’t return to prominence until they won an unexpected third title in 2004.

Level 4: The Guillotine
Definition: This one combines the devastation of The Broken Axle Game with sweeping bitterness and hostility. … Your team’s hanging tough (hell, they might even be winning), but you can feel the inevitable breakdown coming, and you keep waiting for the guillotine to drop, and you just know it’s coming — you know it — and when it finally comes, you’re angry that it happened and you’re angry at yourself for contributing to the debilitating karma. … These are the games when people end up whipping their remote controls against a wall or breaking their hands while pounding a coffee table. … Too many of these and you’ll end up in prison.
The 2011 Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills can sell hope, if anything, and there are times they trick the city into thinking they’ll be good. 2011 was the most severe case: Halfway through the season, the Bills were cruising through the AFC East with a 5-2 record and a tie for the division lead. En route, they had clobbered the Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins and come back from a 21-point hole to beat the hated New England Patriots for the first time since 2003. Their two losses had come by three points each. Although Buffalo was wildly suspicious throughout the good half, even the biggest doubters had let their guard down by now. Then Ryan Fitzpatrick, Buffalo’s new magic man, signed what was apparently a magic contract, and not good magic. Suddenly he started making all those traditional Bills starting quarterback mistakes. We wrote it off after the Bills lost their next game to the New York Jets, but it began a seven-game losing streak which didn’t end until a face-save victory against the Tim Tebow-led Denver Broncos in the next-to-last game. To close the season, they received their customary beating against the Patriots again, who had written off their loss to Buffalo on the way to a 13-win year and an AFC Championship. Meanwhile, the city collectively groaned yet again for letting itself get caught up and invested in another terrible football team. The team was from Buffalo. The team was the Bills. It never could have ended any other way, and yet, we dropped our guard and were shocked when it happened.

Level 3: The Stomach Punch
Definition: Now we’ve moved into rarefied territory, any roller-coaster game that ends with (A) an opponent making a pivotal (sometimes improbable) play or (B) one of your guys failing in the clutch. … Usually ends with fans filing out after the game in stunned disbelief, if they can even move at all. … Always haunting, sometimes scarring. … There are degrees to The Stomach Punch Game, depending on the situation. … For instance, it’s hard to top Cleveland’s Earnest Byner fumbling against Denver when he was about two yards and 0.2 seconds away from sending the Browns to the Super Bowl.
2007 NHL Playoffs, Buffalo Sabres vs. New York Rangers, Game Five
My mother summed up this insane 2007 playoff victory in two words: Heart failure. With the series tied at two, the Sabres’ Ryan Miller and New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist went toe to toe, matching each other all the way in a goaltenders’ duel for the ages. When New York’s Martin Straka fired a rather innocent-looking shot which found its way over Miller’s shoulder and into the net with a little over three minutes left in regulation, it looked like the Rangers had Buffalo on the ropes. Figuring there was nothing left to lose, Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff yanked Miller for the single-man advantage on offense. On a faceoff in the Rangers’ end with 15 seconds to go in the game, Chris Drury caught a rebound from Tim Connolly, and with Thomas Vanek creating a screen, Drury fired a shot past Lundqvist with eight seconds left in regulation. My big knock on Drury during his tenure in Buffalo was that he could never seem to close, but after this night, I had no complaints. The game went to sudden death overtime, where Buffalo’s Maxim Afinogenov, of all people, scored the game-winner just under five minutes in. Yes, the same Maxim Afinogenov who spent his Buffalo career failing to live up to his potential, and the very same Maxim Afinogenov who was scratched for the previous game due to his underwhelming playoff showing.

Level 2: The Goose/Maverick Tailspin
Definition: Cruising happily through the baseball regular season, a potential playoff team suddenly and inexplicably goes into a tailspin, can’t bounce out of it and ends up crashing for the season. In “Top Gun,” the entire scene lasted for 30 seconds and we immediately moved to a couple of scenes in which Tom Cruise tried to make himself cry on camera but couldn’t quite pull it off. In sports, the Goose/Maverick Tailspin could last for two weeks, four weeks, maybe even two months, but as long as it’s happening, you feel like your entire world is collapsing. It’s like an ongoing Stomach Punch Game. And when it finally ends, you spend the rest of your life reliving it every time a TV network shows a montage of the worst collapses in sports history. Other than that, it’s no big deal.
2006 Chicago White Sox
So the Chicago White Sox had fielded an awesome baseball team in 2005. That’s awesome as in “World Series Championship” awesome. And in 2006, they were bringing back most of the keystone guys from their first champion team since 1917. You would think these guys would be threats to repeat, and the White Sox were looking deadly through the All-Star break. Before the break, the White Sox were safely in front of everyone and soaring along with a record of 57-31. They needed an extra bus to fit in all their players who received invitations to play in the All-Star game. And immediately after the break, the White Sox inexplicably collapsed. They went 2-10 in their next four series, losing them all, and in fact even getting swept by the Yankees and, even worse, the Minnesota Twins. They posted a losing record for the month. While they did recover in August, their recovery wasn’t enough to make up the space they had lost to the Twins and Detroit Tigers, so another losing record in September just sealed it. The White Sox had a pretty good year, winning 90 games, but they had no excuse for blowing it the way they did. Instead, they were leapfrogged by both the Twins and Tigers, both of whom made the playoffs. Just to rub it in, the Tigers won the Pennant.
2007 New York Mets
I’m quite squarely a Yankees fan, but the New York Mets’ unbelievable collapse in 2007 was just too awful to not mention. After coming within a whiff of the Pennant in 2006 before Yadier Molina did them in, the Mets were an easy favorite, and they had their division well in hand going into August. Then in the last five weeks, they were swept twice by the Philadelphia Phillies, the team gaining on them from directly behind. During a stand at Shea, the Mets started losing to bad teams. They went 5-12 in the final couple of weeks in the season, and the Phillies caught fire in the meantime to jump them on the last day. If they had beaten the Phillies just once or twice in those series sweeps, it wouldn’t have mattered. I kept up with the baseball news in New York, but living in Chicago, where the city has a firm dividing line between White Sox and Cubs territory, made me a little oblivious. Of course, I made sure to watch the Yankees whenever they dropped by, but they were on the wane and it was tough to not see the Mets grabbing the headlines that year. By the time of the collapse, the Mets had turned from a sideshow into the most morbidly interesting team in baseball. The local station even cut away from the end of a Cubs game to give us the news about the Phillies and Mets.

Level 1: That Game
Definition: The only game that actually combined The Guillotine and The Stomach Punch. No small feat. Let’s just hope we never travel down that road again.
Wide Right
The setup was almost too perfect. After over 30 years of life among the NFL’s dregs, the Buffalo Bills had finally reached the Super Bowl. They had the best offense in the league, a revolutionary version of the no-huddle called the K-Gun which ran roughshod over every other team. Their defense had a cast of All-Stars which had elevated their unit into the top ten. They had blown out the Los Angeles Raiders 51-3 in the AFC Championship, and now they stood face-to-face with the New York Giants, who represented the arrogant bullies from downstate. They were favored by a significant line. Now, finally, was a chance for little Buffalo to finally rise up and sock New York City in the mouth! This was a full-on failure on the part of the Buffalo Bills, who planned and played as if the Super Bowl was a formality. By all accounts, the Bills should have dropped at least 17 points on the Giants in the first quarter alone, forced them into passing on every down, and hit cruise control. Instead, they got caught up in a big game of tag in which they were always it. That they got trapped in a situation in which their victory relied on a last-second field goal was inexcusable. “Wide right.” No matter how often Bills fans replay it, this game always ends the same way: With Scott Norwood’s kick sailing just right of the post, and the fans being brought back to the harsh reality that their team is from Buffalo. As if to rub it in, then-Giants defensive coordinator Bill Belichick admitted years later that the Bills’ passing attack terrified him, so he designed a game plan in which his top-ranked defense would loosen up and let the Bills think they had a chance with the run. The plans he drew were so brilliant that the NFL placed them into the Hall of Fame. Bills fans, by the way, have no hate for the New York Giants; they’re accepted as a fact of NFL life and even cheered for at times. Wide Right, though, is still a raw nerve in the collective psyche of longtime fans. Visitors to Buffalo would be wise to never, ever bring it up.

The Yankee Automatons are Boring and Unwatchable

“I laugh out loud when (my agent) relays the news, loving the Yankees’ interest and shaking my head in disbelief that George Steinbrenner, billionaire owner of the New York Yankees, has taken it upon himself to endure lunch at a burger joint and check me out in person. THIS is an owner who gives a shit. THIS is why the Yankees are THE YANKEES. Granted, a hundred-million-dollar payroll can make a contender out of any team, but there’s more going on here. For all his faults, you can’t deny that George Steinbrenner, the man, not just the wallet, is a tangible, positive factor in the Yankees domination of baseball.”
-David Wells, Perfect I’m Not

Most of my friends met me during my years in Chicago, and to a person, many of them swear they can’t see me being the angry, distrustful, depressed, guarded, sour kid who once chased off potential friendships out of fear. Others might today say they see the occasional trace of that old person but can’t imagine me being the full-blown critter in his reverse glory. Most of them also know that I credit my interest in baseball as part of how I was able to change my character. It created a focal point in my baseball-crazed junior college, so when stuck in conversation, it became one of our go-to topics. I got into baseball during the 2000 season, during the tail end of the Yankee dynasty of the 90’s, and in a year which concluded in a subway World Series between the Mets and Yankees.

By all means, I’m a Mets fan who happens to not cheer for the Mets. All the circumstances I was born into should have tattooed “Mets” onto every available space of my body when I was launched into this world. I’m an underdog as a person, originally born into the working class in one of the poorest cities in the United States. My parents proudly proclaim the Mets as their own team, and it was the Mets who dominated the New York baseball scene in the 80’s. As a baseball fan, I prefer the National League’s style of play. As a team, the Mets are more privy to rolling out the red carpet to the common man than the stoic, corporate, stuck-in-their-ways Yankees. So it comes across as very unusual to any sports-minded friends that I chose the Yankees over the Mets when I began watching baseball. (I rectified this mistake upon my move to Chicago when I chose to support the White Sox over the Cubs, who are basically the Yankees without the titles.) But understand that when I began watching baseball during that 2000 season, the robot drone version of the Yankees wasn’t the team I was seeing, at all.

Often forgotten about those dynastic Yankee teams was that their core was a cohesive, tough, punchy unit which the team had raised and promoted through their farm system. They were a team of underdogs themselves, either raised on the Yankee farm or cast off from other teams for bad play or behavioral problems, and led by a manager who was doubted from the start and expected to become George Steinbrenner’s latest casualty. No one, least of all Yankee fans, expected them to win, and if anything they were expected to go into a severe regression after all the progress they had made in the previous couple of years through Don Mattingly and Buck Showalter. When I began tuning into ballgames regularly, the Yankees weren’t winning because of George’s payroll; they had the best, most cohesive, and most exciting team in the league. Their talent was merely the help and not the entire lineup, and their lineup didn’t believe in no-win situations. The Yankees weren’t always the best team in the league, but they were an emotional squad that left everything they had out on the field. Those Yankees were Andy Pettitte calmly confusing opposing batters and David Wells attacking with the ferocity of an angry grizzly bear. They were Jason Giambi punishing pitchers who dared throw inside while Derek Jeter made every big play that needed making; Jorge Posada calling the best-pitched games in the league and Alfonso Soriano morphing into a human light whip and Bernie Williams patrolling the outfield like a rottweiler. Mariano Rivera slamming the door against star batters who only went to the box out of obligation: Just go up and strike out so they can get drunk before the bars close, it’s not like Mo is going to give them a chance.

I loved watching the team from the 2000 title to the first few years afterward, and I suffered through the disappointments: The weird bloop against the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001, the implosion against the Los Angeles Angels in 2002, the axel wear-out against the Florida Marlins in 2003, and (god, this is so painful that my fingers hurt typing it out) that dumbfounding, godawful, embarrassing, nightmarish meltdown against the Boston Red Sox in 2004. But still, I loved those Yankee teams – the 2003 Yankees in particular have a special piece of my heart, and I’ll always look at them as the grand finale of the dynasty. The team won plenty afterward, and I always cheered them on, through their beating at Detroit in 2006 to screaming at my screen during the 2009 title whenever Girardi played Phil Coke. Still, it’s that 2003 Pennant which stands as the last testament to true Yankee greatness. That team could have beat the hell out of the decade’s later Yankee teams, including the 2009 team. They would barely have broken a sweat doing it, too.

I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for the Bronx Bombers, but the teams they’re fielding now are difficult to take. New York’s current ace, CC Sabathia, is one of the most boring players in the league. I could conclusively disprove Saint Augustine’s proofs of God in three languages between each and every one of his pitches. I was embarrassed by the Red Sox meltdown in 2004, but the Yankees managed to top that a couple of years later when they yanked Roger Clemens out of his 783rd retirement. That they were so desperate for pitching help said everything. Their games are now crawling by at the pace of a snail swimming through a tar lake. I’m an adult. I have things I would prefer to be doing rather than watch the Yankees play a three-and-a-half hour marathon that doesn’t even go into extra innings. That seems to be the length of a normal, everyday game these days when I happen to watch, and it’s inexcusable. It’s also not likely to be fixed anytime soon, not with a commissioner who apparently believes his league’s biggest problem is that the playoffs don’t run long enough. I’m flipping on Mets games more often now whenever I need a baseball fix. While the Mets aren’t threatening to replace the Yankees, they play baseball in lieu of standing there scratching their asses, even though Carlos Delgado and Jose Reyes both walked out the team’s front door.

The most interesting aspect of the Yankees’ morph into robot automatons in my sports viewing has been the way its affected my view of the NBA. The NBA is a league I only began paying attention to because I wanted to support Damone Brown, the bigshot jock from my high school who led the Seneca VHS basketball team to an undefeated 1997 championship season. After a spectacular career at Syracuse, Damone was drafted in the second round of the NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76ers, one of the league’s most storied teams. In 2003, I watched the entirety of the NBA Finals and decided there was no way I was ever going to fully understand basketball. That was a slow, dreadful series between the New Jersey Nets and San Antonio Spurs, who won it in six games. That fifth game stands among my all-time nadirs of sports-watching, and the only reason I kept tuning into the league after seeing it was to try to get any word on Damone’s career.

Since Damone was an inconspicuous player who put up career grand totals of 108 points in the only 39 games he played in, I had no idea he was out of the league by 2005, so I continued to watch. Fortunately, the 2003 Finals turned out to be a fluke perpetrated by the NBA version of hockey’s New Jersey Devils (the boring, BORING Spurs, who have since topped my list of basketball teams I hate). I became more of a casual watcher, but as the Yankees got more boring, I started watching more basketball. Soon I found myself becoming more invested in the outcomes of certain games, from supporting the Boston Celtics in their last couple of title runs to hating LeBron James after The Decision. Finally, just a couple of years ago, I got interested enough to end my casual team drifting and adopt the teams of my two life localities for better or worse. I started to care about the Chicago Bulls just in time to see Derrick Rose lead them in one of NBA history’s legendary postseason series against the Celtics in 2009. And, going against the grain for NBA fans in Buffalo, I also adopted the New York Knicks over Buffalo’s most common municipal basketball loyalty, the Celtics. The Knicks and Bulls are now my teams, for better or worse.

The robo-Yankees have pushed me into watching the basketball season more closely than I ever have in my life, and I’m watching the NBA playoffs with greater interest than ever. When I watched my first basketball Finals in 2003, I assumed that the NBA had been playing out in the same way as the NHL. When the New Jersey Devils began employing the Trap, other NHL teams followed because of the great success the Devils had employing it. (They won the Stanley Cup three times.) It ruined hockey until the NHL finally rid itself of the two-line pass rule in 2005. In the NBA, that wasn’t the case. The slow pace of the San Antonio Spurs was something radical, but teams weren’t following them, so it happened to merely be the style that worked for a very deep and talented Spurs team. The Spurs these days aren’t quite so boring either, now that Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have reached their full potential. This is the first year that I’m actually looking forward to the NBA Finals and watching the preceding rounds. Just in the past couple of days, I watched two epic comebacks, one by the Oklahoma City Thunder against the Los Angeles Lakers, the other by the Sixers over the Celtics. I’m caught up, and past the event horizon. There’s no going back from here.

As for the Yankees, they’ll have to get used to the backburner for now. I’m waiting for them to play the White Sox, a team that still plays exciting baseball. Otherwise, go Knicks, go Bulls.

Damone Brown, by the way, was quickly put into Philadelphia’s d-league system. When the Sixers decided they couldn’t get anything else out of him, he also played briefly for the Toronto Raptors (where he once put up 13 against Michael Jordan), New Jersey Nets, and Washington Wizards before the NBA let him go. His life since must have taken a couple of wrong turns, because the last I heard of him was on a local news broadcast earlier this year, when he was going to jail for a year due to involvement in a drug ring. I sincerely hope he gets his life rebuilt afterward, because while his career never reached the great heights of Bob Lanier or Clifford Robinson – two Buffalo natives who went on to long, immensely productive careers in the NBA – Seneca alumni will always regard him as our school’s conquering hero.

King James is a Royal Ass

Buffalo isn’t really much of a basketball city. I follow the sport and know what’s going on in the NBA, and I love the Knicks and Bulls and want them to do well every season. But I’m not enough of a diehard to put everything on hold to watch them – I might catch one of the really important games if I’m fascinated enough with the opponent. And while I would definitely put in an appearance at a title victory parade for either of them, I won’t consider my life unlived if I die having never seen the Knicks or Bulls hoist new banners in their arenas.

Be this as it may, I usually don’t get emotionally involved in the Finals if one of my teams isn’t involved. I made sure to catch the Celtics/Lakers matchups because hey, they’re the Celtics and Lakers, two storied and talented teams, rivals who make for terrific basketball theater. But those weren’t emotional, watch-with-whiskey-on-the-side life-or-death matches. I rooted against the San Antonio Spurs earlier because they’re a boring team, but again, it had no impact on my emotional well-being the following day. The only time I really got emotionally involved with a basketball final was way back in 2004, when I was still in college, about the time I began paying attention. That was the year the Lakers put together their must-win dream team when they signed Gary Payton and Karl Malone to single-year contracts to compliment Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neil. I consider such signings to be a classless win-without-working-for-it ethic and wanted the Lakers – whom I had liked until then – to get their comeuppance, which they did spectacularly against an underdog Detroit Pistons team which turned the Lakers’ superstar galaxy into nonfactors.

This made the recent NBA Finals unusual. Not even in 2004 was I so emotionally invested in the loss of one team to another. To one extent, it’s the same ring-chasing philosophy which put me off the Lakers seven years ago – a team going on a signing spree and bragging about how good it is before they hit the hardwood in an official capacity. But even in 2004, I was merely cheering against a team, a set of uniforms. I had nothing against any of the big four, not even the widely hated Bryant. This year, however, I was holding a grudge against not quite the Miami Heat – whom I found a fun novelty team in their title year back in 2006, when they signed Shaquille O’Neil and Dwayne Wade burst into basketball consciousness – but specifically against James.

I understand LeBron James really isn’t a bad guy in real life, but he is NBA villain number one at the moment. It isn’t the fact that James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to win with a team he thought would give him the best shot. The Buffalo Sabres, after all, are such masters of letting their best players go to hit pay dirt that my family and friends and I have taken to referring to them as the NHL’s official farm team. But James did it in the most classless fashion imaginable. His hourlong “The Decision” was never going to come off as anything other than a giant middle finger to the city of Cleveland, even if he had announced in three seconds flat, “Cleveland got me to the Finals three years ago, and I’m signing back with them to finish the job!” But he played Judas against the team that made him on national TV, which had to be embarrassing for Cavs fans. This is why they reacted the way they did – the jersey and effigy burnings were the fans saving face.

Blatant ring-chasing isn’t something I normally have a huge problem with. As I mentioned, professional athletes in their primes rarely come to Buffalo. A superstar landing with the Sabres or Bills is either making his name there so he can head to sunny skies and a big payoff (Daniel Briere, whom I still think very highly of) or dodging retirement once he’s accomplished everything that can be accomplished (Rob Neidermeyer). It’s very rare that Buffalo teams land a superstar-caliber player who stays with Buffalo through his career, thick and thin. It does happen – Jim Kelly is a prime example, and things are looking good with Ryan Miller – but it’s very rare. So I’m used to seeing my favorite players walk out of Buffalo’s revolving door.

James’s ring-chasing is a bit different, though. James popped off to do it at age 26. Ring-chasing isn’t something he should be doing at 26 – that’s an unspoken sports code which Payton and Malone both understood. If he did it at 36 having exhausted his best opportunities earlier, then it’s okay. That championship ring, after all, isn’t there just to look pretty – it’s a symbol which is representative of all the work, sweat, training, and frustrations that go at least through a hard 82-game season. Earning just one is a real point of pride. Many players simply luck into one, and here’s James begging off the added burden of leading his team to it in lieu of riding the coattails of Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. He may well now be permanently barred from any discussions regarding the greatest basketball player in history for failing to grasp that. Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwan were both the souls of their teams – they saw their teams through the worst and were eventually rewarded. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson proved to be keystones on teams already brimming with talent and needing one more important piece. James looked at his cast and begged off because it was too hard.

Since then, he’s done an impressive job chipping away at his public image. There was the commercial. Then there was trying to call critics of The Decision racist. Then his comments about his critics after the Heat lost the Finals to the Dallas Mavericks gave off a lot of implications – he called his critics losers without lives, even though plenty of smart and successful people hated the way he left Cleveland, up to and including the owner of the Cavaliers. His bragging about how good he has it also came off as though he doesn’t really care, which again can’t sit well in Cleveland because it holds the implication that James, an area native, just wanted out.

Cleveland and Buffalo sports are in similar places, as they are in many other respects. That’s why I have such strong feelings about this. Both Cleveland and Buffalo are hard luck sports cases, and neither can reel in free agents on the appeal of their cities or the prospect of their teams suddenly turning it around or being one player away. They need all the help they can get, and LeBron ditching Cleveland without even a thank you really doesn’t do anything for the city’s image.

What Your Favorite Sports Teams Say About You

As Rob pulled up to my little haven in West Seneca to pick me up on St. Patrick’s Day, I threw on my Buffalo Bisons jersey. My Bisons jersey is one of my better togs because it can give a sleek sheen to an otherwise somewhat frumpled outfit. It was also St. Patrick’s Day, and the jersey’s green sleeves and piping and orange lettering met my immediate need for Irish colors. Rob, being a close follower of professional sports, didn’t take long to spot it and ask “Oh, are you re-establishing your loyalties now?”

“Hey, you did catch the Bears shirt I’m wearing under this, right?” I asked him. It certainly sounded natural as a response, and as a follower of professional sports myself, I did feel a bit defensive.

“Oh, so you’re saying you’re a Buffalo guy on the outside, but true Chicago on the inside,” he concluded. I flashed him my piratical half-grin half-sneer which I reserve to tell people to go to hell in the most affectionate way possible.

This is something sports fans who move from one metro area to another struggle with, and they all find different solutions. It’s said that a real fan never leaves his team, but in reality, many do. Some of the ones who don’t simply adopt the more geographically convenient team while continuing to cheer for the team they watched and loved since childhood. My mother took this route; she grew up on Long Island, embracing the hot new teams in town when they arrived: The New York Jets in football and the New York Mets in baseball. Since Buffalo’s baseball team is the minor league Bisons, she didn’t have to worry about turning her back on the Mets. But she also adopted the local NFL team, the Buffalo Bills, and she supports both the Bills and the Jets. This drives a lot of locals crazy because the teams play in the same division. My situation was different in some ways and similar in others, but here is my ultimate analysis and the rationale behind it. I love all of these teams, but if you wonder who I would cheer for when they play against each other (and people do) these are my choices.

Hockey: Buffalo Sabres/Chicago Blackhawks
I adopted the Blackhawks upon my move to Chicago in large part because I had no major reason to hate them, and the Sabres and Blackhawks play in different conferences. It was a little unusual because the Sabres were in the first of their two best seasons, both of which culminated with conference finals appearances with one President’s Trophy, while the Blackhawks were deeply mired in the basement and weren’t looking like they could so much as reach the bottom step to begin the ascent out. They clearly weren’t going anywhere quickly, and indifference and contempt for the team’s mismanagement had reached such a level that Chicago’s minor league hockey team, the Chicago Wolves, were outdrawing their NHL brothers. (The Wolves, by the way, won the Calder Cup, their league title, in 2008) Despite their ineptitude, I was attracted to their storied history, colorful look, and hard-hitting image. Being a naturally jaded Buffalo kid, I could take more hockey ineptitude and looked forward to watching my newly adopted team lose.

Then in late 2007, something unexpected happened. Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz died. Bill’s business methods were aged, and he went as far as to black out the team’s home games. His position as the team’s owner was taken up by his son Rocky, who gave the Blackhawks a major overhaul which resulted in a sudden turnaround. In 2008, the team was a potential challenger. In 2009, the Hawks were serious contenders. And in 2010, I saw them do in just a few years what I am spending my life still waiting for the Sabres to do: Drink beer from the Stanley Cup. It helped that their star player, Patrick Kane, was raised in Buffalo. But I never played little league hockey on the ice of United Center, which I’ve done on the Sabres’ home ice. I’ve never yelled and screamed and felt frustration with a bad season in Chicago, which becomes indifferent instead of frustrated with bad hockey.

Decision: Sabres. I love the Blackhawks to death. I wholeheartedly support them and wear their crest with pride. But my family and friends all share my favorite hockey memories with the Sabres, not the Blackhawks.

Baseball: New York Yankees/Chicago White Sox
That I – or anyone in Buffalo, really – cheer the Yankees makes no sense whatsoever. They’re an uber-rich global team from the part of the state that no self-respecting Buffalonian can stand. They prefer offensive flair to gritty, dirty hands scrapping and defense, hire reputed cheaters without a second thought, and require their players to be faceless monoliths. But the Yankees played a big role in my social development when I started trying to crawl out of my social hole in college. Yes, folks in my college fought over traditional issues – the abortion debate was starting to crack under extreme pressure, and George W. Bush was fighting to rally support for an invasion of Iraq. One of the other hot issues, however, was the fight over whether MLB should instate a salary cap. The Yankees were the team most of us worshipped, and knowing the summer escapades of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and the rest allowed me access to a lot of pre-class conversations that otherwise would have flown over my head. When I worked for PBS, my team bonded over the Yankees. They were the one thing we all had in common.

When I moved to Chicago, I knew I wasn’t going to cheer for the cutesy frat boy Cubs on the North Side. Their image wasn’t befitting of a rust belt factory kid. In the White Sox, I discovered the grit, passion, character, and underdog flair the Yankees lacked. I loved that the players could be themselves and yet play a win or die style of baseball. I loved that the peoples’ promoter, Bill Veeck, had once owned the team. I loved the exploding scoreboard and the doomed promotions and the overall hard rock band edge of the team. I cheered them hard, and occasionally against the Yankees, as they marched to their 2008 division title in the most thrilling fashion possible.

Decision: Way too close to call. I clung to the Yankees as a link to Buffalo when I was in Chicago, and I’m doing the same with the White Sox now. It’s as equal as it gets, and placing one above the other will depend on my mood when they meet on the baseball diamond.

Football: Buffalo Bills/Chicago Bears
Buffalo Bills is a stupid name, and the team itself still loses for winning. The arguable greatest running back of all time, the first man to ever rush for 2000 yards in a single season (and still the only one to do it in 14 games) is a murderer. No other team ever made it to four straight Super Bowls, and I guarantee that if that ever happens again, that other team isn’t going to lose all four. These I can handle. I draw the line at the Toronto series, which robs the team of a home game and puts them into what is considered enemy territory in a sports context. I cheer for the Bills, but if you come to Buffalo and suggest the team is purposely tanking to squander any goodwill toward it to make moving easier, we’ll actually agree.

The Bears were one of the founding members of the NFL. They won their division when I first came to Chicago, and during their Super Bowl season, they were just a joy to watch. They made everything they did look easy. Then they lost the Super Bowl, but gee, it isn’t like I hadn’t watched my home team do THAT before! Even so, it’s a reputation thing: The Bills garner laughs and contempt everywhere, even when they’re doing well. The Bears garner admiration and respect from everyone, except maybe Packers fans.

Decision: You’re best off asking me this again once the Bills move out of Buffalo.

Basketball: New York Knicks/Chicago Bulls
Basketball is the sport in Buffalo that’s more chosen than inherited. I chose the Knicks simply for my state loyalty – in other words, it’s just easier. Most basketball watchers here align themselves with the Boston Celtics. But as my understanding of the sport grew, I began to appreciate the mental toughness of the team. They could never beat the Bulls during my lifetime, but they were a hard playing team that, after those tough, heartbreaking losses, would get up and fight again. Also, even during the doomed Isiah Thomas days, they were entertaining. But they have two major strikes against them: First of all, most people in upstate New York believe they have more in common culturally with the midwest, so being in the most overhyped section of New York City isn’t considered a good thing. Second, the Knicks share an arena with a hockey team I hate – the New York Rangers.

With the success of the Bulls in the 90’s, it’s easy to forget they weren’t always a glamor team. They were the scrappy little team that could. Like the Knicks, they always got back up after falling repeatedly to Detroit in the 80’s, and 1991, they got back up and went all the way. Then they did it again five more times, and in doing so, they became one of the great success stories in sports. The Bulls were never supposed to contend, but not only did they completely reverse their fortunes, they did it in a way which made them popular throughout the world. They were Chicago’s third attempt at a basketball team, and they were destined to be doormats forever. But they became a team synonymous with the sport they play, and the greatest player of all time.

Decision: Bulls. I don’t want Michael Jordan to kick my ass.

Ultimately, though, I’m like my mother, a fan of them all, even through rivalries. But my bandwagon is now full, so this is it, no matter where I go from here.