Pondering changing teams, and the meaning of fandom

As long as there has been WNBA basketball, I’ve been watching it. But this season has been strange for me because I’ve crossed a bridge I never thought I would cross, and I’ve become a raving fan of a team I used to dislike. What’s more, I predict I’ll be a fan of this team for at least the next 16 years or so, or until Candace Parker retires – whichever comes first. And knowing me, by then I’ll be so attached to the team I’ll never be able to let go, so I might as well say “lifelong fan”.

Have I lost my mind? I’m trying to sort it all out. It doesn’t help that my former team and present team have always had something against each other, though I sense that the Seattle Storm’s grudge is bigger.

I was a Storm season ticket holder for that team’s first five years. During that time I was as passionate as the next Storm fan. From the get-go, for whatever reason, Storm fans got to hating the LA Sparks, and a rivalry was born.

Back in 2001, 2002 and 2003, the Sparks were the bad girls of the WNBA. Latasha Byears, Mwadi Mabika and Tamecka Dixon would do anything to win, including throwing punches and/or shoving or throwing objects at the opposition. Lisa Leslie and Delisha Milton didn’t go that far, but they did use elbows a lot. Storm fans called Leslie “horse face,” “diva,” and other names. They didn’t like Milton, AKA “D-Nasty,” either.

I remember the night that the “Beat LA” chant in Seattle became routine procedure. It was July 12, 2002, when the Sparks came to visit. On a running play, Storm guard Michelle Marciniak fouled Byears hard on purpose, and Byears turned around and threw the ball at her head. Marciniak, furious, pushed Byears, and Byears responded by shoving Marciniak to the floor. Storm teammate Amanda Lassiter stepped between the two, and then the refs intervened. Both Byears and Marciniak were ejected, and both walked off the court to the deafening chant of the crowd (myself included) screaming “BEAT LA!!!” It’s been modus operandi ever since to chant that when the Sparks come to town.

Fast forward to 2008 and you have a completely different LA team. The only two left from that 2002 championship squad are Leslie and Milton – now Milton-Jones. Both players are a little older and a lot more mellow. There are also three new Sparks players from my beloved University of Tennessee. But the “thing” between the Sparks and the Storm remains.

This past Sunday during playoff game two in Seattle, “Beat LA” was flashed on the jumbotron to incite the crowd to chant it. The Storm powers that be also ran some kind of video in which they compared Sparks Coach Michael Cooper to Grover on Sesame Street. The Sparks organization objected, and apparently the WNBA asked the Storm to stop running the videos.

Seattle fans then complained after the Sparks won game three and lingered on the Key Arena court celebrating after the game. No doubt the Sparks did it because of the videos, so I guess they got even. But I guess I don’t see the point of hating the Sparks so much anymore.

Last season, which Leslie took off after the birth of her daughter, the Sparks lost more games than they ever had before as a franchise. Fans of other teams made comments on message boards that it was “hard to hate LA now” that Leslie was gone and the team was losing. When Leslie came back this year, some of those same people went right back to hating the Sparks.

Leslie, they say, is a popular villain. So no matter who else is on the team, they will hate the Sparks. That seems pretty stupid to me, but hating on certain teams for the duration of your life is an American tradition.

I was raised by a father who hated the Dallas Cowboys, the New York Yankees and UCLA Bruins (I will spare the particular cusswords he attached to each team). Thirty years later, everyone that was associated with any of those teams are either retired or dead, but my dad still hates them. There are a lot of people around like my dad.

Personally, though, I don’t see the point. I don’t care what the Sparks did to my team six years ago. Grudges aren’t useful.

Take a look at the Sparks now and you see a group of close-knit women who are trying to figure out their high-low game, among other things. I still see a few elbows here and there from Leslie, but that’s about it. The Sparks are a team of which I can be proud, and I am. I have passion for them, and while I still like the Storm, I lost what was left of my passion for that team when they traded Betty Lennox last winter.

Then there is the issue of fandom. Somewhere between the two extremes of Storm fan and Sparks fan, there has to be a happy medium. And I want it to eventually happen in LA.

Last winter, fans at Mac Court at the University of Oregon in Eugene taunted UCLA forward Kevin Love when the Bruins came to town. Mad because the Beaverton player chose UCLA over the UO, Duck fans held up signs with Love’s cell phone number on them, and signs that accused him of being gay, among other things. It was a horrible display of bad sportsmanship. Seattle Storm fans come close to crossing that line sometimes, too.

Sparks fans, on the other hand, need to yell louder, bring more signs, and all stand up until the team scores at the beginning of each half without having to be reminded. They’re too nice. Hopefully, they/we can find that balance.

Which brings me to my final thought – actually, a question. Is booing the other team before the game acceptable? Or is it in poor taste and an example of bad sportsmanship?

The reason I ask is because before last night’s game, when the Silver Stars were being introduced, several fans booed most of the players. They hadn’t done that before this season, and I was surprised.

Personally, I don’t like it. You’ve gotta respect the other team, because without them there would be no game. But I want to hear from others. What do you think about booing the other team? I’d sincerely like to know.