"Daddy, who's winning?"
My 5-year-old Gabe may or may not have a vivid recollection of his earliest sports memory. I am not sure I have one. But I will always remember the summer he became a sports fan, and that is far more meaningful to me than my own history.
The gateway drug was the NCAA Tournament back in March. I went through the bracket with Gabe, telling him the team names, the mascots and -- to his pointed question -- if they were good. He had this incredible sub-regional where, certainly without my help, he picked Richmond over Vanderbilt and, far more improbably, Morehead State over Louisville.
Overall, he had a mostly reasonable bracket -- like most with reasonable brackets, his picks fell off a cliff somewhere around the second weekend. He had Florida winning it all (the same result his bracket had in 2006, when his mom picked his bracket for him while he was in utero, with Florida winning the title, and finishing in the Top 10 out of more than 10,000 entries in the Daily Quickie readers bracket group).
Gabe wanted daily -- even game-by-game -- updates on his bracket, down to the percentile he was in compared to all brackets nationally. There is something about the sheer volume of games in the NCAA Tournament that can turn a 4-year-old into a die-hard sports fan: Games on all day and all night, with mom and dad glued to the TV, shouting or muttering about upsets and brackets, a scoresheet he can use to compare himself to all the other fans out there.
The tournament ended in early April; he turned his attention to baseball. A day-care classmate was a die-hard Yankees fan -- all of a sudden I'm hearing about "CC Sabathia is my favorite player." He is a New York kid; we are not a New York sports family (even if I had already taken Gabe to see his first college hoops in person at nearby St. Francis College, then to the Garden to see the Knicks, with a couple of trips out to Coney Island to see the Brooklyn Cyclones in between). It could have been worse -- the peer pressure could have been toward the Red Sox.
In the middle of April, his fandom accelerated with the start of the NBA Playoffs -- he became obsessed. He wanted to learn every team -- city and nickname -- and wanted to know every result, every night. My kids share a bedroom adjacent to our living room, and after their bedtime, I would settle in on whatever game happened to be on that night. Then, from the top bunk:
"Daddy, who's winning?"
This is not "Daddy, I'm thirsty" or "Daddy, sing me a song" or "Daddy, my pillow fell on the floor." I couldn't help but answer him, even if it only got him more fired up. He wanted to know the score -- and I would be derelict as a parent and a sports fan not to tell him.
He was very specific about it: I couldn't just say "The Celtics," because then he would reply, "Against who?" The Knicks. The Celtics are beating the Knicks. "The New York Knicks?" Yes. "The Boston Celtics?" Yes. [Beat] "What's the score?" The Celtics are winning by 8. "No, what's the SCORE?" Celtics 54, Knicks 46. "8 points!" Yes. Five minutes later: "Daddy, who's winning?"
(At least with basketball, the score changed frequently. With hockey, it was "It's STILL zero-zero, Gabe!")
Our ritual in the morning during the playoffs involved him coming out of his room and joining me on the couch. He would ask me who won -- eventually I figured out that I could earn a smile by telling him before he could ask. And I would fire up the highlight clips on my laptop and show him what happened, pointing out the players and big plays.
The kids have a mini-hoop in their room, and in the evening it would become the place where the inkling of NBA dreams would be played out, Gabe taking the role of Durant or Dirk before flinging up some crazy errant shot or camping out under the basket and cramming the ball through the flimsy plastic orange rim, posterizing his 2-year-old little brother.
Gabe has his NBA favorites: Whether it is his age or simply the paternity, Gabe is a front-runner. The team that is winning the game or the series would become a favorite. Losers would fall by the wayside. Allegiances would shift with the scoreboard and the series tally.
For a little while, it was the Bulls. For a long while, it was Kevin Durant and the Thunder. Then it was the Heat. And the Mavericks. He knew "Nowitzki" had a "v" sound -- I'm sure the actual spelling would confuse the hell out of him.
Finally, there were only two teams to pick between, the Heat and Mavericks. He started with the Heat after Game 1, flipped to the Mavericks after Game 2, then back to the Heat after Game 3 -- hey, just like most sportswriters -- then settled in with the Mavericks for Games 4, 5 and 6, waking up on Monday morning to the news of me telling him the Mavs had won the title. He pumped his fist and hissed "Yesss!"
Between mid-March and now -- just three months -- Gabe has become a sports nut. But he is hardly athletic; this isn't about him flashing skills as a player, like some of those bitty YouTube legends where you spend less time saying "Wish that was MY kid" and more time wincing at everything that is behind that video clip.
Gabe has become a sports fan, which for me is a much more important development in his life. It has become a way for us to connect, part of the cycle of parents and kids -- yes, in honor of the weekend, fathers and sons -- sharing sports fandom.
It is important to me that he came by it of his own curiosity and interest. Undoubtedly, that I consume a lot of sports and talk about it and have made it part of my job has exposed him to it. Maybe, consciously or not, he saw it as a way to connect with me, to win my approval and attention. But I want him to enjoy it for its own sake, and I will let that take whatever course it might -- even if he wants to be a Yankees or Heat fan. Even if he loses interest in sports.
There is an urge for sports-fan parents to loop your kid into sports as fast as possible, precisely so you CAN share this thing that has been such a big part of your own life. I have pictures of Gabe in Gators gear in his first weeks home from the delivery room. All I can say from the experience -- to young dads and future dads -- is the best thing in the world is to let it happen on its own timetable, in its own way. It is so much more satisfying for both of you.
One of my earliest sports-fan memories as a kid was of my father saying the name of a city and me reciting back the name of its NFL team. More than 30 years later, I found myself a couple of Sundays ago sitting with Gabe at the dining room table. I had drawn a rough outline of the United States. First, Gabe wanted me to label all the NBA teams on the map in their proper cities. Then MLB. Then the NFL. Then the NHL. The map filled up and I could see him committing the cities and nicknames to memory. (Any graphic designers who want to make a slicker version of this for me with team names and logos, shoot me a note. Happy to pay you for the effort.)
Gabe wanted to know who the good teams were. He giggled when he would mention a team name and I would say, almost sounding like Charles Barkley, "Them? Oh: They're TERRIBLE." He finds it particularly amusing that I am a fan of the "terrible" Wizards while he is a fan of the champion Mavericks. Or Heat. Or Thunder. Or Bulls. All going in the "great" teams bucket. He wants to understand: Who's good. Who's not. And, most interesting to deal with: Why?
There are an insane number of amazing things about being a dad... about being a parent. For parents who are sports fans, that first inkling of fandom from your kids has been one of the most remarkable moments I have experienced -- those first hours, days and weeks he has spent as a fan, in front of the TV or just talking about sports.
Those will become literally tens tens of thousands of hours of his life to be spent in front of the TV or at the game or prepping for a fantasy draft or reading great sportswriting or just talking about sports with his friends -- or his dad (or mom). He is signing up for years of joy (and frustration) and the unlimited account of social currency that comes with being a fan. And, as I will remind him later when his team inevitably lets him down, he came to it willingly.
It all started with the simplest and most fundamental question in sports: "Who's winning?"
Happy Father's Day to all the dads out there.
For more, check out VarsityDad.com, a site I created a few years ago to investigate the idea of raising an all-star athlete sports fan and have updated irregularly since. With Gabe's life as a sports fan really only now starting to kick in, the site will become increasingly active as a real-time memoir of stories, photos and interesting things I find to share with you -- and other fans/parents share with me -- that might relate to your own parenting, either now or down the road.