Love, Sports, and the Secret to Happiness

Katie Cortese

One of my earliest memories is waving a foam finger at the original Boston Garden as my heroes in green crisscrossed the gleaming parquet court. I was six when Bird, Parish, and McHale defeated the Rockets’ “Twin Towers” of Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon for the 1986 championship, and before I’d learned to tie my own shoes I knew cheering for the Celtics was my birthright, a given, like being born already in love. That went for the cursed Red Sox and miserable ’80s Patriots too. Like the harsh religion of the pilgrims haunting my hometown, my allegiance to New England teams came predetermined, intrinsic as the gene that gave me brown eyes.

My husband, on the other hand, grew up with nothing but choices in New Mexico, which has no professional franchises. His teams span the country. Because a grandfather hailed from Philadelphia, Robby follows the Eagles, and when I met him eight years ago, he was a Yankees fan — a fact we withheld from my father until after we were married.

As for basketball, the guy who grew up sixty miles north of the Mexican border lives and dies with San Francisco’s Golden State Warriors. Before they snagged the 2015 title, his Warriors hat elicited one of two reactions: a blank stare (often from an East-Coaster, like me, who’d never heard of them), or watered-down sympathy (Too bad they can’t stay healthy … ).

Invariably, when Robby lists his hodgepodge of affiliations, explanations are required. The family connection makes the Eagles fairly easy to claim, but the Warriors link is more obscure. It starts with his father, who followed Tim Hardaway’s UTEP Two-Step all the way from the University of Texas-El Paso to San Francisco, where he went fourteenth overall in 1989. Robby’s dad convinced him to buy Hardaway’s rookie card that year, an investment he’s treasured for twenty-six years and toted along to every state he’s lived in since then  — New Mexico, Arizona, Florida, Texas. Hardaway spent seven seasons as the “T” in “Run TMC” alongside Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullen, and helped the Warriors make the playoffs three times between 1990 and 1994. When Hardaway went to Miami in 1996, my husband’s support did not.

Robby and I started dating in 2007, the first season the Warriors had made the playoffs in thirteen years, this time under the dynamic leadership of one ferociously bearded Baron Davis. When Robby headed to China that summer for six weeks of teaching and traveling, while I was more interested in watching the rejuvenated Red Sox rebound from their dismal 2006 season, I earned girlfriend points by watching Davis school the Mavericks, recounting the games via lengthy emails Robby checked in an Internet café continents away. It turned out, though, that he’d landed in a country of displaced fans like himself. Due to players like Yao Ming and Wang Zhizhi, the NBA has grown steadily more popular in China. He was able to find many of the games on TV, even if he had to get up at five a.m. to watch them.

Regardless of his surroundings, my husband wears his heart silk-screened onto his t-shirt sleeves or else snugged firmly onto his head. As we prepared to sit through a Foxboro blizzard and watch Philly slip beneath the wheels of the Patriots’ perfect 2007 regular season, Robby fit an Eagles cap over his beanie and patiently weathered the barrage of insults that fell around him thick and cold as the swirling snow.

Being the odd fan out is a common experience for both of us  — neither of us has lived in a state that hosts our teams for decades  — but only Robby’s affiliations repeatedly come under fire. When I met the couple who became our best “football friends” in Florida, naming Boston as my birthplace justified my Pats jersey. Half of the couple grew up in Philadelphia, so I told him my husband was an Eagles fan too.

“He’s from Philly?” our new friend asked.

“No, New Mexico,” I said. His eyebrows furrowed as he tried to puzzle out the connection, instinctively closing ranks with the host of invisible birthright fans at his back.

It’s ironic that cheering among strangers at a bar generates instant fraternity while getting to know fellow fans leads to the third-degree. Again and again, I’ve watched homers test Robby’s grasp of their team’s institutional history, only granting him entrance to the fold after he recites enough stats and anecdotes. While Robby doesn’t seem to mind the routine, I bristle at what seems to me a bulldoggish territoriality.

But then, those homers haven’t witnessed his anguish following a hard loss, which more often than not culminates in a vow to swear off the sport. Too, they didn’t see his face the first time he sang the Eagles fight song in Philly after a DeSean Jackson touchdown, his voice blending seamlessly with the other green-clad devotees. They don’t see the way his veins course Eagles-green or Warriors-yellow, depending on the season.

On average, Robby explicates his loyalties five or ten times a year to friends, colleagues, students, strangers in bars, and cashiers at the grocery store unused to customers wearing anything but Cowboys blue. The only people who don’t require explanations are also from sports-bereft states, like his high school friends whose NFL affiliations range from the Miami Dolphins to the Washington Redskins, Dallas to the 49ers, Denver to the New York Giants.

Alone among our acquaintances, they get it. So committed to their medley of franchises are they that when all of them lived in Las Cruces, each paid for a portion of DirecTV to spend Sundays at “Football Heaven,” an all-day event that found them cursing and whistling in a host’s living room, often at the same play. The only guarantees were that someone would go home defeated and despondent, and that they’d all be back the next week, faith and hope restored.

A recent move from Florida to Texas meant we both had to issue a new crop of explanations. This is even more necessary, it turns out, when one’s team wins a championship, because it entails separating oneself from bandwagon fans. While being born into Boston’s storied sports history means I have it easier here, as usual, even I’ve even encountered the occasional challenge as a fish-out-of-New-England Patriots fan. I always take care to remind whatever skeptic raises the challenge that the Pats were paper-bag bad when I was kid and I stuck with them then, so I’m not about to abandon them now. For some, the notion that the Patriots overcame adversity to get where they are seems to soften the blow of their current success. Everyone loves a comeback.

Still, these days I give my own spiel with some amount of queasiness. After the Red Sox won their third World Series of the new millennium in 2013, I was happy, of course, and proud as any average Masshole, but whereas the 2004 Series left me weeping amid a spontaneous dance party in my Tempe, Arizona, living room, baseball isn’t really on my radar at all these days. At first I justified it by saying it was hard to find the Sox on TV in Arizona and Florida and Texas, and while that’s true, it’s not the only reason I’ve fallen away from the tribe. Winning was sublime  — reward for a faith held firm over several generations  — but winning again was a little less so, and again less still. I still consider myself a citizen of Red Sox Nation, but if I’m honest I have to admit my enthusiasm has paled the farther I get from home base. In this way, fan-love is the same as every other kind: it needs to be fed to thrive.

As for Robby, loving his teams from afar seems to have protected him from suffering affiliation fatigue. He’s battle-tested, accustomed to the effort of maintaining long-distance love over many cheerless years. Every time I hear my husband validate his loyalties in Texas where Cowboys and Texans fans abound, I picture him singing that fight song in Philly, subsumed into the home crowd at last. Aside from our wedding day, I’d never seen him so happy.

It takes a special person to love a team that almost always disappoints. Robby denies being an optimist, but as each new season dawns, I watch him convince himself that this year is, without a doubt, The One. While the golden ring remains tantalizingly out of reach most years, in 2015 he was right, thanks to the Splash Brothers, Steve Kerr, and Andre Iguodala’s inspired playoff performance. And unlike the cavern I’ve allowed to yawn between me and my Red Sox, I know he won’t waver even if the Warriors win every season from here on out.

I am lucky to have a husband who loves through adversity, is undeterred by disappointment, and refuses to go down easy, even when defeat is imminent. The fierce loyalty that makes him a good fan is also what makes him a good partner and friend, a good son and brother, a good writer and teacher, a good man by any measure.

It’s what makes him a good father too, and when our son is old enough to choose his own favorites (just, please God, not the Cowboys), the advice we’ll offer is that the secret to happiness is not amassing championships. It has nothing to do with honors or awards or dynasties or winning. Happiness is not the same as gratification. We’ll teach our son that the secret to happiness is making everything we love a choice, whether inherited or adopted, no matter what anyone says or thinks. We’ll teach him to love when it defies reason, even when we are challenged, even when, especially when, we are guaranteed to lose.

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