Back in my college days when I was working at the school radio station, I had an interesting conversation with a fellow member of our sports department. The 1990 NCAA Basketball Tournament was about to begin and "March Madness" was dominating the sports world. As is the case today, much of the focus in the early rounds of the tournament was on which teams might wear "Cinderella's slipper" and upset a top seed.
My classmate was well-versed in basketball - she had played on her high school team and followed the sport closely. She knew her stuff. When I asked her about potential upsets she'd like to see, she said plainly, "I really don't pull for underdogs. I like seeing the best teams get rewarded."
At first, her comments surprised me. Who doesn't like an underdog? But as I thought about what she said (both at the time and since), I found that I share the same sentiment. I too like seeing top teams get rewarded for excellent play.
Before I elaborate, a disclaimer. What my former classmate meant was that she pulled for the favorite over the underdog when she had no prior rooting interest. Obviously, emotion is a big factor in why fans cheer for some teams and against others. Fans can be devoted to their hometown team. A team they've followed since childhood. Conversely, they might consistently root against a rival of one of their favorite teams. Also, individual players can breed likeability. Or contempt. And that can affect a fan's rooting interest.
For example, I remember that two of her favorite baseball teams were the Boston Red Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates. She cheered for them every year whether they were strong, weak or somewhere in between.
So her comments had to do with teams in which she was not invested emotionally. And in the NCAA Basketball Tournament, she didn't particularly care to see an upstart club knock off a perennial powerhouse.
I think for each sports fan, the question about rooting for the underdog or favorite boils down to a secondary question: do you prefer drama or artistry? Upsets are dramatic and exciting. They are unpredictable and a reminder that no matter what the statistics may tell us, nobody knows exactly how a game will unfold. The plucky, against-all-odds victor makes a great story.
On the other hand, the favorite is the favorite for a reason. That team has consistently performed at a higher level during that season (or many seasons). Compared to most of their opponents, the top teams operate like a well-oiled machine. There is artistry in that kind of execution. It is a standard to which all teams and players - in all sports - strive.
Personally, I enjoy watching the unpredictable drama of sports. But more than that, I love seeing an elite team execute its game plan, regardless of the opposition. That's the biggest reason why I like the New England Patriots.
Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, here's some background information. When I was nine, my family moved from New York City to a suburb of Boston. I lived there until the age of 15. From that point until I graduated college, I attended school in Connecticut, but still came home most summers and holidays.
While it's true that my sports consciousness evolved while I was a resident of Massachusetts, I didn't have a strong connection to the Patriots. During that time, the Patriots were the weakest of the four major-league Boston teams. Those Patriots clubs don't resemble the current version, either in terms of performance or appearance. The Patriots of my youth played on Astroturf, had different helmets and uniforms and usually missed the playoffs. The 1985 season was the one exception, as they qualified as a wildcard and advanced to the Super Bowl. I cheered for that team - and was disappointed when the Bears annihilated them in Super Bowl XX - but by the time I had left Massachusetts for good, I had no deep ties to the Patriots.
Though not a big Patriots fan, I was emotionally invested in the other three Boston clubs. The Celtics were my favorite. That was the era of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. One of my best sports memories from that time was Game Two of the 1984 NBA Finals. The Celtics had lost Game One at home to the Los Angeles Lakers and were trailing late in Game Two. But Gerald Henderson stole a pass and tied the game in the closing seconds. The Celtics eventually won the game in overtime and the series in seven.
As any fan knows, though, there's agony to offset the joy. The Celtics' losses in the 1985 and 1987 Finals to the Lakers stung, but those defeats were nothing compared to the roller coaster ride of the 1986 Red Sox. In the fall of '86, I was a high school senior and listened to Game Five of the ALCS on the radio in my dorm room. Against the California Angels (as they were known then), the Red Sox were trailing the series, 3-1, and down 5-2 in the ninth. I heard them rally with two two-run homeruns to take a momentary lead. Though they surrendered the tying run in the bottom of the ninth, they ended up winning in extra innings. It was a euphoric comeback - and they took Games Six and Seven to advance to the World Series. Against the New York Mets. Ah, yes. That World Series. On the fateful night of Game Six, I was visiting a prospective college in Pennsylvania. I had a friend at the college, so I was staying overnight with him. Obviously, I remember seeing the Red Sox take, then relinquish, a two-run lead in the 11th inning. What sticks with me just as vividly was what happened in that dormitory right after the ball went through Bill Buckner's legs and Ray Knight raced home with the winning run. A student burst out of his room, grabbed his head with his hands, began running up and down the hall and screamed: "METS! METS! METS!" Clearly, he wasn't from Boston.
So I've had my share of emotional memories tied to specific teams and games. But as I began my career as a hockey broadcaster, my connections to those clubs began to weaken. I was putting all of my energies into a single team - the one whose games I was broadcasting.
Today, with the exception of the Lightning, my emotional ties to sports teams are mostly gone. I follow the fortunes of the Yale hockey team, since it was at Yale that I cut my teeth as a hockey broadcaster. And I notice when the Celtics are doing well, though it's not really as a fan - rather, I'd describe it as feeling glad that an old friend is having success. Frankly, it's been years since I've watched an NBA game on TV.
So unless it's a Lightning game, I don't have a dog in the hunt. Which brings me back to the Patriots. Actually, let's go back to 1990. One of the first "favorites" I rooted for was the San Francisco 49ers. Just months before my classmate made her comment to me about appreciating the play of elite teams, the 49ers played the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV. The Niners destroyed the Broncos, 55-10, and I was happy about it. The 49ers of the 80s and early 90s were a joy to watch. Joe Montana carved up opposing defenses like a surgeon and Jerry Rice was an electrifying receiver. They were one of the first well-oiled machines I'd been drawn to. Because they were a well-oiled machine. Their level of sustained excellence continued through the mid-90s, with Steve Young as QB.
So perhaps it's not surprising that Tom Brady's favorite team when he was growing up in Northern California was the Bill Walsh-coached 49ers. The Patriots remind me of those 49er teams.
I understand I may be in the minority. I've heard all the reasons why so many football fans outside of New England hate the Pats. "They cheat." "Their fans are arrogant." "Their coach is unlikeable." Etc., etc.
Opposing fans are entitled to those opinions, but none of that matters to me. What the Patriots have done is establish a level of excellence that is almost mind-boggling. Brady became the Patriots' starting quarterback in 2001, when he took over for an injured Drew Bledsoe early that season. In the 15 seasons in which Brady has been the starter (he missed virtually the entire 2008 campaign due to injury), the Patriots have reached the Super Bowl seven times and won five championships.
So count me in as someone who likes watching elite teams do their thing. Where do you fall on the spectrum?