How To Watch Sports Like A Mother

The stereotype is that women just want a reality show. What I actually want is a different way to be a fan.

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As a little girl growing up outside of Boston in the ‘90s, my favorite basketball player was David Wesley. If you’ve never heard of him, don't worry. Most people haven’t, even long-standing NBA fans, because Wesley was not particularly good. His Celtics were never contenders. His jersey was not retired. Even when he was playing, no one paid him much attention. I loved Wesley not because he was impressive, but for the simple reason that he was awfully cute (if you have a thing for ears) and a clear underdog (he was just over 6 feet and passed over in the draft).

At the time, my younger brother Alex and I spent every weekend blowing our allowance on basketball cards. Alex could easily spout the stats lines of everyone on the Celtics roster (and as an adult has lamented the space this takes up in his brain). But though I loved looking for patterns and had a mind for numbers (I like to shock friends by revealing to them that I received a perfect score on my math SAT), this kind of analytics bored me. It didn’t seem like there was room for the vibes-driven sports fandom that felt most authentic to me, so I faked it. I would have rather been one of the boys than all alone.

Personal interest has always been a huge part of sports journalism, but historically, it’s centered around highly-curated, often simplistic narratives: tales of right and wrong, villains and heroes. In the early 2000s, there seemed to be some relief from this in the form of Boston-based sports reporter Bill Simmons, who added a level of irreverence to the going commentary and built a narrative sports journalism empire with Grantland and the Ringer. I loved the quirkiness of this kind of sports coverage, but following it still often required a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the game. It was fun to listen to Simmons and his friends tell the tale of Celtic Kevin Garnett’s allegedly taunting the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony by saying his wife “tasted like Honey Nut Cheerios,” but then I found myself zoning out while Simmons and his friends rattled off facts about both teams’ historical records, peacocking. I wanted more feelings, more randomness, more permission to be incomplete.

When my mother became a basketball fan, in the Celtics’ first run up to a title in my conscious lifetime, I at first scoffed at her ignorance. I had so internalized the dominant image of what a good sports fan was at that time — detail-oriented, well-read, moralistic. She loved Rajon Rondo, not because of his assists record, but because of the sadness in his eyes. She sent messages that revealed her lack of interest in basketball nomenclature, like "he does those close baskets so good!" But after a while, watching basketball with my mom reminded me of why I’d loved the sport in the first place. She gave me the freedom to admit that I, too, didn’t care about the distinction between a jumper or an alley-oop or what those in the know were saying about our star players. I just wanted to witness the art on the court, to describe the humanity I saw, to have fun.

It used to be that if you loved basketball but couldn’t keep up with it, fandom was a lonely place. The most prominent gender stereotype in sports-watching is that women just want it to be a reality show, or care more about “the journey” than the outcome. Though I do love the journey, it’s not more entertainment that I crave, but a different bar for entrance into the fan club. An appreciation for the erratic, loose, and random. For love that can exist with little research.

With more and more athletes and superfans going direct to fans on TikTok and other social media platforms, there are now plenty of on-ramps, for every kind of person, at every juncture. This season, with two young kids at home, a career, and a monthly rotation of viruses, I have had even less time to track the ins and outs of my team. I wasn’t there for all of the slumps, runs, and trades. But when Celtics Coach Ime Udoka had a *maybe consensual relationship with an employee that seemed to be an affront to his widely-adored partner, the actress Nia Long?? I lost a few days on Twitter. And throughout the last two months of playoffs, while some fans debate who should play how many minutes, I’ve settled in with my Tostitos for a front-row seat to the real action, such as the die-hard cheering of a 9-year-old girl, the bottled-up elation of Knicks fans, and the endless nut shots.

And for the artsy among us, who only see the forest and not the trees, there are exquisite tales to be consumed that are by no means simplistic, and require nothing but an interest in the sinews of the sport. Hanif Abdurraqib gives us several thousand words that are ostensibly about the NBA summer league, but really about the impromptu joys of local communities. Katie Heindl writes a poetic manifesto on the invisibility of women in sports, that clearly comes from authority but can be easily comprehended by someone who has never heard of the actors involved. It is a good time to be alive, literate, and a little bit in love with the game. These writers and others, along with my rabid and inconsistent mother, my friends, male and female, who would rather go down a shared rabbit hole about Jayson Tatum’s tattoos than discuss his contract, have given me a home.

So join me. Come for the hunks, and stay for the hugs and the touching post-game jersey swaps. Watch for the body language, the backstories. Draw plays in your sketchbook. Find yourself a favorite player, and if you love their numbers, dig right in, but if you couldn’t care less, give yourself the permission to know absolutely nothing about them except for their obsession with dipping Oreos in milk as a symbol of American possibility. Ask your children to help you make up nicknames for all of the players. Teach them the ins and outs of the game if you want, or simply let them enjoy the commercials (my kids love to expose fast food joints by yelling “it doesn’t look that good in real life!” at the TV).

This is a safe space, where you don’t have to pretend to be one of the boys. Watch basketball like a girl, you won't regret it.

How to watch the NBA Finals like a girl:

  • Fall in love with Nikola “The Joker” Jokic, the Denver Nuggets’ slapstick Serbian big man, who received news of his second Most Value Player award while riding a horse-drawn cart.
  • Take in the legends of Miami star Jimmy Butler, such as his inspiring “constant confidence” speech, his insane attempt to get paid more in Minnesota, the NBA picture-day prank that earned him the nickname Dread Head Jimbo, and the time he traded his jersey with a fan for a pretty stylin’ hat.
  • Root for Jeff “Uncle Jeff” Green, who has never won a championship despite having played for TWELVE different NBA teams, and who survived open-heart surgery in the middle of his career.
  • Get the kids involved. Kids love basketball stories too! My son often references the tale of Jimmy Butler (see above) charging other NBA players $20 a cup for specialty coffee he was making in the covid NBA “bubble.” My kids love this out-of-print book of “5-Minute Basketball Stories.”
  • Make a bet with a friend about something silly and non-outcome related, like whether someone will get kicked out of the game or have an altercation with a fan, or whether the combined scores in a game will add up to an even or odd number. Or make a bet about the outcome that leads to irreverent things, like texting a friend an embarrassing pic of yourself every time your team loses (this one I’ve done and highly recommend!).
  • Watch as much or as little of as few or many games as you want. Don’t worry about everyone’s names. Pick a player you think seems like a great dad, another who looks like a Pokemon character, another who seems like the kind of dude who doesn’t pick up his mother’s calls and says the phrase “I’d like to speak to your manager” way too often. Go with your gut, feel all the feelings, and remember that if you say you’re a fan, you are one.

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