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NBA / Sep 4, 2012 / 1:30 pm

The Truth Behind NBA Fanhood

brooklyn nets

The always intriguing Howard Beck wrote a piece for the New York Times, published this morning, about the homes of NBA stars. That, for the most part, players don’t live where they play. This shouldn’t be news to anyone, as the majority of players prefer suburbia over crowded city streets or, in the case of some arenas, the middle of nowhere.

The Brooklyn Nets, in particular, will continue to practice in East Rutherford, New Jersey, because the lease on their practice facility doesn’t run out for another two years. So for most players, they’ve made their temporary (or sometimes permanent, depending on contract length) season home in New Jersey or Manhattan – close to the practice facility but still a short drive from the Barclays Center. But the real catch is that not a single player will be living in Brooklyn.

“The Nets have 44 home games, including the preseason. They could have 75 days of practice. The housing choice comes down to simple math and, considering commuting issues, sanity preservation.

So when the final buzzer sounds each night, Brooklyn’s basketball ambassadors will retreat to TriBeCa and Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan, and to Edgewater, Hoboken and Clifton in North Jersey. You might see them in Fort Lee, but not in Fort Greene.”

The Brooklyn Nets, as a concept, are a niche franchise. The New York market is large enough to support two franchises, but Brooklyn is suave and clandestine and underground. The kind of franchise that will attract a kind of person more than a geographic location. Of course native Brooklyn-ers might jump ship and leave the Knicks hanging, but I envision these Nets as a pseudo-Cowboys – representative of something larger, a certain style, if not particularly worldwide or “America.”

But the simple idea that a franchise could steal fans previously attached to another team hints at a larger sports-centric enigma: why do we root for these teams, anyway? There was nothing particularly alarming about Beck’s piece. I always knew, somewhere, that NBA players generally don’t live where they play. But to be confronted with that reality strikes a peculiar absurdity in the realm of NBA fandom, because there’s nothing particularly personal about our connection to franchises and players. Really, they’re all just a bunch of hired mercenaries jumping from team to team (How many players stay on one team their entire career? Almost none.) building their own resumes and legacies, which seemingly contrasts the team-first mentality of basketball. And, even if winning is their truest priority, it’s only in the me-first sense. Whether or not it’s fair, championships, a team-centric accomplishment, is part of the personal barometer.

The only true unchanging association is geographic, but even that is superficial. Jerseys change, players change, styles of play change, and sometimes franchises move. All were left with, then, is the people who share these same perfunctory allegiances. And that’s what holds it together for so long, that measure of mutual agony or success or mediocrity. The Plight.

If you’ve ever been to a big playoff game, or even a close game down the stretch live in the arena, it’s not the drama of the on-court action that drives goosebump elation. It’s high-fiving the random guy next to you, hearing the emotionally charged roar of 40,000 people all at the same time. Try watching an NBA game with the sound off. It’s just not nearly the same. It’s pure basketball, minus the crowd and the announcers mucking up the thing, but really it’s not. It’s solitary and lonesome and uncomfortable.

Deron Williams‘ plight, no matter how intertwined it may be with that of the fans of the Brooklyn Nets right now, is ultimately different in its entirety. He’s a Brooklyn implant (though, all their fans will be too), and he’ll retire or change teams or in some way disengage from the franchise. But the fans won’t. They’ll always ride with the ebb and flow of the Brooklyn Nets.

And that’s what fandom is, I think. It’s not about the team or its players or the roster moves, but the emotional validation. That someone else feels your pain and understands your joy. You’re not alone.

Why do you root for your favorite team?

Follow Dylan on Twitter at @DylanTMurphy.

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