I’m reading Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to The Sports Guy. It’s a lot of fun, and something most NBA fans should enjoy, albeit full of analytical claims I disagree with. One of the most interesting of those claims is a kind of meta-claim he makes near the beginning of the book attributing to himself extra-normal insight from his youth spent as a Celtics fan. It was from watching the truly great teams like the Celtics and the truly great players like Larry Bird that you come to really understand the game since those are the guys who, themselves, understand the game best.
I think this is kind of backwards. You sentimentalize teams you root for, and if you root for a team that’s really good — the Celtics or the Lakers or the Yankees (or the Canadiens?) — you wind up sentimentalizing success. And since the point of a sports competition is to win the games, sentimentalizing success gets people extremely confused. Thus we wind up hearing an awful lot in the book about “character” and how you need good character guys to win. If you’re a Celtics fan, this probably makes a lot of emotional success. The Spurs succeeded in the 2000s because of their great character guys. They were good people. Which means that the Celtics won all those championships because they were such good people. But of course I don’t want to say that the Knicks teams I rooted for in the nineties lost because of “bad character.” So more prosaic ideas come to mind — for example, by the time the team peaked Patrick Ewing was already on the old side and even at peak Ewing, though very good, was never the top big man in the association.
I think common sense is that you understand a sport by watching the best teams play it without having a strong rooting interest. Just watching, relatively dispassionately, to see the best athletes in the world go at it. To wax poetic you need to be “the listener who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Otherwise you get too hung up on the idea that the ’86 Celtics were better than the ’96 Bulls (something that all and only people from Boston seem to think) and start twisting your whole worldview around to accommodate that conclusion.