(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.


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Sunday, February 06, 2005

Figuring Out What Really Matters

As a fan that is.

Readers of this blog know that I'm a diehard Princeton fan, that I like nothing better than the Penn-Princeton rivalry in men's basketball, and that I love the Penn-Princeton game at the Palestra, because it's the most charged atmosphere for a regular-season college game, especially because the Ivies don't have a post-season tournament. I've always written with some sense of exaggeration that Princeton fans wouldn't care if the team went 2-24 in the regular season so long as the two wins were against Penn. Of course they would care, but at least they wouldn't have to suffer the sniping of Penn fans. Princeton fans particularly love winning at the Palestra, where the silence of the home crowd during such an event is more sonorous than the tones the Philadelphia Orchestra can produce at the Kimmel Center. If you're a Princeton fan, you know what I mean, and if you're a Penn fan, well, you know what that silence sounds like. Eerie, probably, to you.

The interesting thing for me in all of this is that my parents are/were Penn alums and that I grew up a diehard Penn fan. The Palestra was college basketball's mecca, and I went to games and watched them on a black-and-white set that always had trouble holding onto the UHF picture. That fact gives me a rather unique perspective on the rivalry, as I don't have the enmity for my alma mater's archrival that many of my friends at both institutions have for the other school. (Actually, some of the jingoistic comments I hear from both sides make me laugh as to their transparency and their lack of foundation, and I'm sure that can be said about comments made by Duke fans about Carolina and vice versa and, of course, within any intense rivalry). My bottom line is that I root for my alma mater, remember my (perhaps ill-advised) youth fondly, think that the rivarly is just great for both schools and always respect the opposition. I can't say I was always that way, but that's where my perch is today.

But right now I really do not care. I do not care that Princeton is 1-3 in Ivy play and Penn is 4-0. I do not care that Princeton is tied for last with a seemingly always overrated Yale team and that Penn is sitting atop the league. Okay, I am exaggerating, I care a great deal. I want the Tigers to win very badly, I want them to embark upon a great 10-0 run in their remaining league games, and I want them to win the title.

But all of this doesn't bother me as it otherwise would have.

You see, the Philadelphia Eagles are in the Super Bowl today. And in thinking about the Tigers, I realized that I am a Philadelphian first and foremost, and all other allegiances come second. Yes, I left the reservation, as it were, and moved to a foreign land about 45 miles from my hometown to go to school at Princeton. I loved my experience at Princeton, but when it comes to sports allegiances (and perhaps many other things) Princeton didn't change me all that much. In most years, I would feel empty at the prospect that my beloved Tigers were all but eliminated for the Ivy hoops title hunt in the first two weekends of conference play. That emptiness would last perhaps until the next basketball season. Yes, that's how big a fan I am.

But today I don't feel that emptiness. Because while I am a Princeton alum/fan, I now have confirmed what I always knew -- that I am a Philadelphia fan first and foremost.

You travel far and wide in life, you challenge your assumptions, broaden your horizons, learn new stuff every day and venture into arenas that were hard to fathom when all you cared about was whether John Reeves could turn the Eagles around or whether the Po James/Tom Sullivan backfield could make a difference. You go to college and live away from home, and you start growing into a responsible adult. You make your own choices, form your own allegiances, try new things. And it's all part of the journey.

But despite all of the journeys we take, in the sports world it's hard to prevent that journey from taking you too far away from the embarcation point -- the teams that you rooted for and agonized over with your grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, cousings and siblings. The pull is just too strong, the memories just too deep, just too enriching.

The Princeton rooting experience is my experience, and it's a great one that I share with so many good friends that I have made over the years who have a connection with Princeton. But that rooting experience is, in a way, the first floor of a structure that is unique to me. And it's a great floor with all sorts of wonderful features.

Yet, the foundation remains what I grew up with, going to 76ers games in a smoke-filled Spectrum where they would always tangle with the Celtics, seeing former hoops maven Eddie Gottlieb and his South Philadelphia Hebrew Association buddy (and foul-shooting champ) Jules Trumper sitting at half court, talking about the old Warriors and Neil Johnston and Joe Fulks, about listening to Dave Zinkoff's all-time best public address announcing. It was about crossing the South Street Bridge en route to an Eagles game at Franklin Field, seeing forty-thousand plus at the same field in the late 1960's for a Penn-Princeton football game, going to Temple Stadium, going to Connie Mack and Vet Stadiums and now Citizens Bank Park.

The foundation is all about talking Phillies' baseball with my grandmother, who grew up in Brooklyn but who listened to every game, with my great uncle, who had a radio almost surgically attached to his ear, with the messengers at the bank I once worked at as a teller in the summer in between college years, it's about talking Eagles-Cowboys with the kids in the mailroom where I once worked, about calling a friend away at college in the Midwest and relaying the play-by-play when Mike Schmidt hit a late-season HR against the Expos in 1980 to clinch the NL East for the Phillies, about watching the Sixers sweep the Lakers in the 1983 NBA Finals (where Moses Malone had promised "4-4-4" -- three sweeps, and he was only off by 1 game), about looking for Nick's Roast Beef in South Philadelphia en route to a Flyers' game and getting lost, about sitting the sub-freezing conditions watching Ron Jaworski and company beat the Vikings in 1980 en route to the Super Bowl. The foundation is about talking Eagles with the barber, talking Phillies with the folks who you're waiting with while you're car is being serviced, talking anything Philadelphia with the folks who sit next to you on airplanes.

That's the foundation.

Never will it be more in evidence today, when the Eagles play the Patriots in Jacksonville in the Super Bowl. Reports are that about 40,000 Philadelphians have descended on the city, most without tickets, just because they want to be there and share the experience. On the way back from the airport yesterday I listened to WIP, and they were doing their shows live from Jacksonville. In the background, you could hear constant renditions of "Fly, Eagles, Fly" and the "E-A-G-L-E-S" cheer. It was not for the faint of lung.

Yes, those are people who consider the same place home that I do, and I am proud to stand with them.

I won't go into a great analysis of what I think will happen, but if you've read this blog you'll know that I have great respect for the Patriots, love Bill Belichick and actually think that they have much more talent (especially in terms of football IQ) than anyone gives them credit for. You'll also have read that I think that the mainstream sports media has underestimated the Eagles all year. They didn't give them credit for much, as I believe they were always waiting for the floor to fall out from under this team. They were waiting for them to lose some bad games this season, to get pasted by Green Bay on December 5 (and it was the Packers who got shellacked), waiting to run into a suddenly hot Vikings' squad and then the unbelievable talent of Michael Vick. Well, none of the bad things happened, but they're still waiting for them to, and that's where I'll part company. So much attention has been focused on New England, that people are underestimating the Eagles. Again.

It should be a great chess match, and I do look for Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson to figure out a way for the talented Eagles defense to get into the grille of the best protected passer in the NFL, Tom Brady. I do look for the Patriots to underestimate the Eagles' receivers (with or without TO) and dare Donovan McNabb to run. I do worry for the Eagles that without a healthy TO and without TE Chad Lewis that the Patriots will jam the Eagles hard and take away their running game after they deny the passing game. I also think that the Patriots have an edge because they've been there.

In the end, I think it will be a close game, and while I like Adam Vinatieri a whole lot, I think that it's the other kicker (who doesn't get that much mention in comparison), an all-pro in his own right, who will make the difference. On the strength of David Akers' foot, and perhaps a few key hits on Brady from the likes of young LB Keith Adams, a sledgehammer whose dad, Sam, played 16 seasons for the Patriots, the Eagles will win the game.

Call it 24-21, Philadelphia.

And then let's have a party that will cause the windows on the top floors to rattle, and the foundation to shake and sway.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

ToTheBank (from sportsfrog) here.

I loved the post. It's very unfortunate that things didn't turn out the way we wanted it. I admire your long standing as a fan.

In my opinion, the shell just gets tougher with this loss. But I, like everyone else, am tired of this "next year" attitude. The Eagles offer our only hope and training camp doesn't open until late July. That's what I'm looking forward to now.


12:22 AM  

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