Twenty years ago this month, the fat envelope arrived at my house, alerting me that I had been accepted early to Northwestern University. I was bound for Evanston.
Tonight, I will sit as close to court-side as possible, as Northwestern’s basketball team comes to Madison Square Garden to play St. Francis of Brooklyn.
For most of the rest of New York—let alone the rest of the country—the game is an afterthought. For me, it is a chance to watch my alma mater in the Mecca, during a season in which the Wildcats will try to earn their first-ever invitation to the NCAA Tournament.
The provenance of sports fandom tends to exist in fairly neat boxes, with the two most prominent being Geography (allegiance based on where you grew up or perhaps an adopted town from later in life) and Biology (a form of DNA—like baldness or those hips—a living inheritance from your parents).
But then there are those rooting interests that spring from nothing so much as serendipity, although we don’t like to think of it like that—that your Oregon tattoo could have been Oberlin.
And so my evening at the Garden is a moment to consider one prominent root of a sports fan’s rooting interest: What if that admissions envelope had come back not thick but the dreaded “thin”—a rejection?
Would I have ended up at, say, Michigan, actively rooting against Northwestern—lamenting the moment in 1995 when the Rose Bowl-bound Wildcats shocked UM in Ann Arbor’s “Big House?” In reality, it is one of my greatest memories as a sports fan.
I can only imagine the path for today’s Oklahoma die-hard who, by the vagaries of the college selection process, ended up at Oklahoma State, hating the Sooners. Or the would-be Gator who ends up a Gainesville-loathing ‘Nole. Or the true-blue UNC fan who "reached" their way into Duke, now waving a foam finger in the face of Tar Heel fans who might have been classmates.
Or maybe I would have ended up at some small liberal arts college in the Northeast, without any affiliation to high-end college sports that defines so many of our experiences as fans. For those who went to a college with big-time athletics, try to picture life since then—Saturdays in the fall or the way you perennially spend March in a bracket-induced fever—without it.
These are entirely reasonable alternate universes, where a lifetime of fan allegiance is dictated by the serendipity of the weather the day of a campus tour (say, Maryland vs. Syracuse), by the bit of test anxiety that cost you those extra 30 points on the SATs (say, Cal vs. Stanford), by the fatigued college counselor who said “Yale? Hmm, have you thought about UConn?”
Because, snobby academic credentialing aside, that UConn fan is now reveling in an unexpectedly spectacular season from the men’s hoops team—not to mention the unprecedented dominance by the women’s team. Alums: Wear with pride that garish sweatshirt with the Husky printed on it. But consider the scenario where you end up an Eli instead, and you realize how mortal your “die-hard” affiliation really is.
This isn’t like growing up in a city and finding your rooting interest regionally or having your parent pass on their fan allegiance to you, something close to biologically. This is a combination of serendipity, your GPA as a 16-year-old and the cogency of your answer to an application essay question or two — perhaps where your parents or older siblings went to college, thrown in for good measure. No condition in sports fandom is as awkwardly constructed. (As if the college admissions process could get any more pressure-packed, without decades of sports allegiance also on the line.)
Ironically, a year ago, I took my then-3-year-old kid to his first-ever college basketball game, at our neighborhood college… St. Francis. He now sports the team shirts and says hi to the coaches in the local diner.
I know who he will be cheering for at the Garden tonight. Despite daddy’s prompts, he couldn’t care less about Northwestern. Oh, well: Maybe when it comes time to apply to college.
Dan Shanoff is the founder of Quickish, launching early next year. He previously wrote here about being a terrible goalie.
Photo by bradleypjohnson, from Flickr.