Energised by recent Netflix series The Last Dance, Liverpool author James Davidson considers the appeal of sport on the far side of the Atlantic and how to go about choosing your new team.
If you’re like me, you’ve been casting around for new things to obsess about in the absence of gigs and live sport. You try online kung fu tutorials, but quickly tire of monotonous stretch routines. Homemade tofu is fun, but there’s nobody around to eat it with. You give up on Duolingo after a four-day Hungarian streak is broken by weekend apathy. You didn’t even realise it was the weekend.
Then your ears pick up the muffled online whispers of something new and exciting on Netflix: The Last Dance, a documentary following Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in their 1997-98 NBA campaign. Previously you’ve never fancied basketball: the five-a-side dimensions of the sport seem insubstantial compared to association football, and the razzmatazz, cheerleaders and T-shirt cannons are off-putting to your northern chips and gravy mentality. But OK, you’ve heard Michael Jordan called the “Greatest Of All Time.” David Beckham wore 23 in Jordan’s honour during his Real Madrid period. And it’s not as if the Premier League is going to be back on TV anytime soon. Let’s give it a try…
I’m not disappointed. This is Tiger King but without the casual animal cruelty and veiled misogyny. Get your popcorn ready. Tell your friends on Zoom. The Last Dance is exactly what we need! Everything that ever made me love sport: the storytelling, the rise and fall of dynasties, heroes and villains, rivalries and grudge matches. The sheer athletic virtuosity of Jordan is mesmerising, I could watch highlight reels like this all night. And the characters! Jordan’s singled-minded quest for greatness, supported by the melancholy of Scottie Pippen, the eccentricity of Dennis Rodman, the Native American-inspired wisdom of coach Phil Jackson.
All of this leaves me hankering for more, maybe I could become an NBA aficionado? As I used to be with the 1990 World Cup. In fact, US sport is enriched with multitudes of folklore a hungry obsessive can dive into. The great documentary filmmaker Ken Burns made a 10-part history of baseball that won an Emmy in 1995. For those with time on their hands, it offers a pageantry of nostalgia. Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio hold a place in the American psyche comparable to JFK or Elvis Presley. The start of the upcoming MLB season is currently suspended, but storylines abound when it returns, as the Houston Astros attempt to rebound from the “sign-stealing” scandal which shook the sport during this offseason.
The American sport most familiar among British viewers is NFL, which has made a strong pitch to win new fans over here, amid a global arms race among sports to increase their international following. It is not only Liverpool and Man United who are playing games in Asia or Down Under to packed stadiums, the NFL has taken the unprecedented step of holding real, regular season games at Wembley and the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
The Jacksonville Jaguars, (another team belonging to Fulham owner Shahid Khan) have been singled out for our attention, playing a home game each of the last six years in London, and earning the moniker “the Union Jags”. However, The Jags are a relatively new team, founded in 1995. It strikes me that overseas fans are surely more likely to get behind historical teams like the Green Bay Packers, winners of the first ever Super Bowl, or a modern day dynasty like the New England Patriots, winners of six titles in the last two decades. Furthermore, I like to believe that the British are a contrarian people, unlikely to accept the team that is foisted on them. A recent NFL poll supports this idea, showing that the Patriots and the Packers are indeed the two most popular teams over here.
Ice hockey has made less headway in the UK, focusing its international efforts more on snowy regions like Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, but the sport is nonetheless growing in popularity over here. NHL offers a nice contrast to gridiron, with less of the razzmatazz and more down-to-earth grit: it’s a physical sport in which on-ice fights between players are still tolerated, albeit increasingly frowned upon. If you like beards, you’re also in luck. The league has a strong Canadian character, with seven teams based north of the border, and the Montreal Canadiens are the most successful side in NHL history with 24 titles. Despite this, no Canadian side has lifted the Stanley Cup since Montreal’s last success in 1993, and this ongoing quest offers a storyline to catch onto when the currently suspended season returns.
Back to MJ and the gang and I do a little research, digging deeper into the current situation with the NBA as The Last Dance draws to its exciting crescendo. This year’s half-completed season is currently on ice due to the pandemic, but there is talk of resuming without fans, perhaps a truncated season, perhaps just the playoffs. So the obvious question is: which basketball team should I be rooting for?
The Last Dance provides an immediate enthusiasm for Chicago, but hold your horses: the Bulls’ roster is weak this year, with just 22 wins compared to 43 losses. In fact, a little more digging shows they haven’t won a title since Jordan left. How about Milwaukee Bucks then? They currently lead the league with 53 wins. Would that make me a ‘glory chaser’? Conversely, what if I pick the absolute worst team in league history and get behind them… it’ll be an investment in hope. The Minnesota Timberwolves seem to fit the bill. Moreover, they have a cool uniform and badge! But am I trying too hard? Is this a self-consciously contrarian choice? Like the follies of my youth when I wanted to rebel against The Beatles, resulting in some embarrassing assertions that I was later obliged to defend, in ever-widening circles of bitter contrariety. Let’s not make any hasty decisions that we’ll have to justify for the rest of our lives.
Comparing my new All American obsession to music is helpful. Music plays an important role in identity, especially when we are young, helping to define us and to connect with similar-minded people. But there is a certain paradox at the heart of these allegiances: an artist must be special in order to inspire a following, but if it’s too obvious, then everyone will like them, and the identity becomes diluted, it no longer offers the personal sense of belonging. There has to be a ‘sweet spot’, if only we can find it, where the artist has that unique quality to inspire devotion, but underground, non-commercial enough, to conceal it from the rest of the musical world. Does such a band exist? For me, I always go back to Leeds post-punk innovators Gang Of Four… but I don’t want too many people to like them, so I’ve already said too much.
As for basketball, if the Boston Celtics are the “winningest” team, with 17 titles, that must make them The Beatles, so jump on the bandwagon if you please, but I’ll move on. With 16 titles and a cooler vibe, including such iconic players of the past as Magic Johnson, the LA Lakers might be The Beach Boys. Now we’re getting somewhere. Every story needs a bad guy, and viewers of The Last Dance will recognise the Detroit Pistons as the archetypal villains. Aggressive, mean spirited and talented. Are they… slowthai??
But, then again, taking up an interest in a new sport offers the opportunity to add a new element to your habitual allegiances to musicians, sport stars, restaurants or fashion brands. We are not bound to just one team, and we can follow the storylines as they emerge, rooting for the good guys as we find them. Above all, we do not have to be limited by the naïve choices of our youth, or the foolish social media assertions of the past.
Having said that, have I found an NBA team to call my own? The Philadelphia 76ers hail from a tough, blue-collar city, and with three titles in the record books, offer the right amount of history and success… but not too much. In Charles Barkley and Allen Iverson they can boast two generations of iconic players, and yet neither of these stars ever won a championship; in the case of “Sir Charles” because his prime years coincided with the reign of Michael Jordan (as attested to in episode six for The Last Dance).
The 76ers have a legacy of greatness combined with misfortune and underachievement lending an aura of bittersweet reflection. The “next year will be our year” mentality that many football fans in the UK can relate to. You’re also unlikely to bump into another Iverson vest on Bold Street, and if you do, it’ll be like that moment when a shared love of Gang Of Four comes up in chance conversation with a stranger, but nobody else at the party has heard of them. Briefly, all is right with the world.