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The Heart of a Sports Fan

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Recently I have been thinking quite a bit about what exactly it means to be a sports fan. Obviously, as with most things in life, there is a simple answer and a complex answer. The simple answer, of course, is that being a sports fan means that you enjoy a particular sport and, in most cases, have a specific team within that sport that you hope will be successful. The complex answer has to do with the part of sports fandom where we stay awake all night agonizing over the minutiae of missed opportunities and wake up each morning eager to check for news regarding our favorite players and teams. It's this second version of being a sports fan that I have been thinking a lot about lately and, if you are reading this article on a SBNation fansite, my guess is you have thought about this some as well. Let's explore this issue together.

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I will start with a brief personal story about my own evolution as a sports fan. I suspect many of you will have a similar story. It all began when I was a young boy being dutifully dragged behind my father to Minnesota sporting events. Some of my earliest fandom memories are of rooting for Neal and Aaron Broten or Corey Millen in the old Mariucci area (that's right, I should be a hockey fan by birthright). We also attended Gopher basketball games in the barn (Randy Brewer, Trent Tucker), Twins games at Metropolitan Stadium (Roy Smalley, Bombo Rivera), and we listened to Vikings games on the radio while we did yard work. I learned early to pick a team and stick with them regardless of outcome and this, combined with my emotionally reactive disposition, made for some early heart break. I distinctly remember bursting into tears when the college football team my grandfather had chosen for us to root for lost whatever New Years Day bowl game we happened to be watching. I know now that, since I'm not old enough to have seen the Gophers play on January first, it was probably an arbitrary choice on his part. What can I say? I rooted hard then and I root hard now.

Somewhere along the way my sports fandom became my own and I spent way too many hours on the family couch watching a wide range of sports. I watched Larry Bird duel with Magic Johnson, I watched Wayne Gretzky slice up the rink, and I watched Reggie Jackson earn his nickname; but mostly I watched football. There was no concern about concussions in those days, there was only Tommy Kramer, Ahmad Rashad, Chris Dolman and Joey Browner. I was head over heels and my love for the Minnesota Vikings would last decades (I still have a fling with them every fall but it's not the same).

When the Timberwolves came to town in 1989 I was excited but I was also in my surly late teens. I looked at them skeptically, like I did everything adults did in those days. Sure I attended a few basketball games in the Metrodome, who didn't, but I was on the doorstep of college and most of my basketball energy over the next six or seven years would be directed to that particular version of the sport, with a healthy dose of Michael Jordan sprinkled in for good measure. I payed attention to the Wolves but in those days it was more along the way I pay attention to the Twins now (sparingly).

Then Kevin Garnett happened. By the time KG was drafted it was clear that basketball was my favorite sport (despite the Vikings still being my favorite team) and I had gained enough knowledge of the NBA and NCAA to be pretty excited about the lankly young man from Farragut academy. I was actually working in Alaska the summer he was drafted and I distinctly recall reading about it in the newspaper in the Denali National Park employee dining hall. My interest in the Timberwolves grew from there until, within just a season or (maybe) two I was on the edge of my seat for every televised game. About this time I was also working in a bar filled with sports fans, most of who were willing to talk about the Timberwolves until well after the time it stopped being legal to pay for drinks.

Well, most of you are familiar of how things went during the Garnett era. Needless to say I was all in by the time the now mythical  Western Conference Finals run happened. Then there was the decline and oh what a decline it was. Still, I was a Wolves fan and I would ride it out. I still am- we all are. At some point in all this Al Gore invented the internet and I began to get involved in the online sports nerd community. I would be lying to myself and others if I didn't admit that this elevated my Timberwolves fandom to new levels. Recently a friend asked me if I would rather have the Wolves win an NBA championship or the Vikings win a Super Bowl. This was a difficult question given that I fell in love with the Minnesota football team over 30 years ago but, after thinking about it for a bit, I can confidently say that my preference would be for the Timberwolves to win it all. I'm not sure that this would have been my answer even two years ago but here we are. I have evolved as a sports fan.

One of the things that has prompted me to write this is my realization that there are many different ways of being a sports fan. I consider myself pretty hardcore but compared to some people I hardly even count as a fan. Hell, I have never even painted my face. Others are much more casual. They know the star players and watch a game or two if they have time. Wake me up if and when the team makes the playoffs. We all also know those people who seem to have a new favorite team ever few years and, unsurprisingly, the team they like at the moment is inevitably contending for a title. Then there are the fans who like specific players or certain styles of play and fans who just seem to be around for the party (I'm looking at you Packer fans). Yes indeed, there are a good many ways to approach this hobby and a lot of hand wringing about which approach is the most righteous.

Occasionally we here at Canis Hoopus receive criticism from other parts of the Timberwolves fan base that we are too negative. I hear this from friends sometimes as well. On some level I guess I get it but then again I don't really. First of all most of the criticisms of the team I read here fit my internal narrative pretty well. I watched us basically squander Kevin Garnett's career and saddle the team with horrible contracts for players like Troy Hudson. I was there when we tried to build around Al Jefferson and Sebastian Telfair and when we hired David Kahn so he could draft Johhny Flynn and Wes Johnson. Are we just supposed to ignore that these things happened because it's the our favorite team? Does it make me less of a fan that I said swear words out loud in front of my child when Flip Saunders was brought back because I knew in my heart of hearts that it was only a matter of time before he returned to the sidelines?

There can be a fine line between negativity and accuracy sometimes. We good people at Canis Hoopus sometimes give it back unnecessarily to fans who take a different view point. Flip Saunders was the head coach during the most successful era of Timberwolves basketball. Who am I to begrudge fans who are elated to see him back in charge? They are happy and optimistic. Me, I'm more guarded in my outlook. I had lost some faith in Flip's coaching during the end of his first go round and was pretty vocal about not wanting him back. Does this mean I'm not hoping he's successful at the helm of my favorite professional sports franchise? Of course it doesn't. I hope he rides his new found power as a both GM and coach to multiple championships. Why else would I be on an SB nation fan site every day trudging through hundreds upon hundreds of comments from other dedicated Timberwolves fans.

So that brings me to my final point. Is there a "correct" way to be a sports fan and, if so, what is it? Personally, I'm a pretty loyal fan. The name Minnesota being in the title of team goes a long way for me. Maybe this makes me a boring fan. Who knows. Perhaps I'm just signing myself up for years of misery interrupted (in theory at least) by an occasional blip of euphoria. It was pretty sweet when the the Twins won the World Series in 1987 and then again in 1991 but I can't say my life is better for that having happened. Sure I have some fond memories but in a weird way I have fond memories of commiserating with my friends in silence at Little Tijuana's immediately after the Vikings blew it in the 1998 NFC championship game. Sports gives us a chance to feel the whole range of human emotion without actually having anything at stake. I think this is important. The agony of those tough losses is probably as important for our development as complete individuals as the rare moments of fleeting joy (game seven versus Sacramento).

In the end, who am I to judge fans who jump from sailing ship to sailing ship while I remain on deck of my chosen iceberg crinkled wreck. It's a hobby for me and a hobby for them. Derive happiness where you can, the world can be a cruel place. I find enjoyment in following the ups and downs of a particular team. I gain further from being part of a passionate fan base to share this with. Although I doubt that any two of us approaches this thing in the exact way or gets the same satisfaction (or whatever it is we seek) from our efforts. Is the loyalty worth it? When isn't it? Some here have threatened to stop supporting the team if certain outcomes occur. Does this mean they are less of a fan or does it simply mean they have stopped deriving personal benefit from their efforts? I'm not one to judge these kinds of things but I am curious what other people think. Is there a right and a wrong way to root for a sports team? Is blind loyalty nothing more than blissful ignorance or is it an enlightened union with a force larger than the individual parts it's made from? Help me out here friends, why do I do this day after day and how will I know when enough is enough?