The 49ers are winning again. This is a familiar feeling. I grew up with the red and gold. In seventh grade, when it was announced that Joe Montana would be traded, a news team interviewed my friend Brian Fry. They were looking for local color, a fresh young fan to reflect what the Bay Area was feeling. The camera followed Fry into his bedroom, where he cradled a football signed by Montana and openly wept on the evening news: “Don’t go, Joe!” At school we mocked Fry for crying on TV. But many of us would have done the same thing.
Nineteen years and nine losing seasons later, the Niners are atop the NFC West again. But the team is utterly changed. New coach, new players, and a brutal running game that could not be further from the high-flying West Coast Offense of the Niners golden age. The San Francisco Chronicle ran an article recently about the difficulty, for many 49ers faithful, of adjusting to a team whose greatest strength is its defense. Is this the same team I rooted for as a boy?
At some point we are all asked to name our favorite team. It’s a simple question, but its criteria are impossible to define. I went to high school with a guy who couldn’t get behind the San Francisco Giants because he didn’t like the way orange and black looked on him. A friend from the Bronx fell in with Green Bay because he considered Brett Favre to be the pinnacle of athletic excellence, and he stuck with Green Bay after Favre moved on. I’ve never felt more devoted to a team than I did to the Minnesota Twins when I was eight or nine, when my father told me stories of his hometown heroes. Answering the favorite team question requires you to determine what, exactly, the question is asking. It’s impossible to take anyone’s reply at face value.
Packers fans wear Cheesehead hats. Braves fans do the tomahawk chop. Portland Timbers fans saw a log every time their team scores a goal. The traditions are unique, but the people are roughly the same. In their love of the sport, any team’s fans have more in common with their opponents’ fans than with people who don’t follow sports at all. But while their loyalty is specific to one team, it’s so abstract that it tends to outlast any tangible changes to the team itself. There’s a paradox attributed to Zeno: if you have a pile of sand, and you start taking sand away, at what point does it cease to be a pile? If you trade the players, replace the coach, redesign the logo, build a new stadium, and move cities, at what point does your team cease to be your team?
For nineteen years I’ve told myself that devotion to a professional sports team is naïve, passe, illogical, unsophisticated, embarrassing, childish. But as I’ve moved—San Francisco to San Diego to Boston to New York—the local teams have become a kind of shorthand for my life in that place. The Chargers bolt is shorthand for summers spent on Pacific Beach. A red stocking is shorthand for nights I couldn’t cross town because the train was crammed with Sox fans. Blue pinstripes are shorthand for my girlfriend’s family, who, despite their many wonderful qualities, back the Yankees.
If allegiance to a team is essentially arbitrary, so is individual life. Casting one’s lot with the Phoenix Suns, for example, is analagous to our essentially arbitrary commitment to the life we are born into, and the life that will unfold before us. In a world we can’t control (no sports franchise asks us to vote on its decisions) what’s marvelous is not the particular team we choose, but the fact that we commit to anything so abstract and uncontrollable in the first place. By siding with a team we take pride in ourselves, even if “ourselves” is a gang of random strangers in face paint. This is the life we are given. What else could we cheer for but this? Who’s going to cheer if not us?
A month ago I went to a Golden State Warriors game, the second game of the season, at home against the Chicago Bulls, thinking it would be a massacre. The Bulls have the league MVP and had just beaten the Lakers in an instant classic. The stands were full of blue and yellow, the newish retro logo worn by longtime season ticket holders. Girls in Monta Ellis jerseys raised a finger on the Jumbotron: We’re #1. The Warriors have never been the #1 anything. But they surprised us all by winning that night. Stephen Curry threw an alley-oop for a late-game dunk, and I knew that feeling.
– Brian Hurley