Learning to Believe Again: Confessions of a Bandwagon Fan

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

When I was seven years old, the Utah Jazz went to the NBA finals for the first time in franchise history. Stockton hit an iconic buzzer-beater three over Charles Barkley's Rockets to seal the deal. They would go on to lose to Michael Jordan's Bulls in six games.

The next year, the Jazz went back again to Chicago. They were the quintessential underdog against the GOAT of GOATs. Jordan pushed off; Bulls in six.

Before Michael's dagger, my dad took me to some Jazz games. I knew they were really expensive for our tight budget. We would have Greek food at a place downtown that closed a long time ago, an unimaginable treat. The strange, sour flavor profile of the shish kabobs and lemon rice we always ordered only added to the exoticism of attending a Real Live Jazz Game in the Big City.

It was a lot for my heart to handle. I cried when our fans booed during the other team's introduction. ("Why is everybody being so mean?") Then I screamed myself hoarse by the time they finished announcing our starters. I danced to get on the jumbotron. I air guitared to "We Will Rock You." I employed an inscrutable magic chant ("BOO BRICK SWISH") at the opposing team when they shot their free throws.

But for all the emotions of a live game, my most vivid basketball memories are of sitting on Berber carpet in front of a square TV with a finicky antenna. That was where we watched the ‘97 and ‘98 playoffs. When Stockton hit his immortal three, it was like we had won the lottery. I have a visual memory of my dad running up the walls, across the ceiling, and then down the other wall, like a cartoon.

But when Jordan sank his iconic shot, a year later, there was the lasergun "pew" of a CRT television turning off, and then silence. My dad left the room. We wouldn't speak of it again.

* * *

After ‘98, my dad didn't watch much basketball. And if dad wasn't watching, why would I? I was just a kid, I still needed cues to know how I should feel about a lot of what was going on. (For instance, I recall asking him why a player was smiling after being called for a foul—I mistook their exasperated expression of disbelief for genuine mirth.)

So the Jazz and I fell out of touch. Before long, their roster was full of names that I did not recognize. Soon, I wouldn't be able to watch the games if I tried—they stopped airing on network television, and we weren't about to pay for cable. As I grew to adulthood, I still counted myself a "fan," but in the way that a lapsed Catholic might still claim the faith. I had my Christmases and Easters; I might occasionally catch a game here or there at a friend's place, and I liked hearing good news about the team through the grapevine. But while it would always be a part of who I was, I wasn't practicing.

* * *

Years later, my interest in the Jazz would be indirectly stirred in mysterious ways. For example, while attending law school in Chicago, I went to a Bulls game. I was not prepared for what I would experience. Walking into the United Center, seeing that logo (unchanged to this day!) on the hardwood, being submerged in a sea of red: I was a soldier behind enemy lines. I marveled at the fight-or-flight response I had. It was a visceral reminder that, though I may stray, I would always be a part of the tribe.

I also watched several NBA Finals, entirely for LeBron James. I cared about him because he seemed like the only person who could realistically avenge our team. If the Jazz weren't going to win a title—and I knew they never could—at least someone might challenge the throne of the Jazz's greatest villain, who built his legacy on our bones.

So the vicarious joy of the Cavs that I felt in 2016 was sweet. Watching the hitherto hapless franchise regain their prodigal superstar and defeat an apparently unstoppable juggernaut against all stirred something in me.

Maybe I should see how the Jazz are doing next season, I thought.

* * *

I had just finished law school and moved back to Utah. When the next October rolled around, I paid some attention. I learned that we too had a home-grown star named Hayward who was just maturing into his full powers. Not a LeBron, of course; not really That Guy. It was nothing to get my hopes up about. But it was worth following.

Being in town, I had the chance to go to a couple of games, including Game 6 of Round 1 against Chris Paul's Clippers. We lost. But we moved on after a thrilling Game 7. My inner naïve eight-year-old started thinking that maybe we could give the Warriors a run for their money. But no—not even King James himself would be able to pull that miracle off a second time.

But it had been fun to follow the Jazz a little bit, and I was glad that I had. Around this time, I asked my dad whether he might be interested in watching some games with me again.

"I don't really like watching basketball these days," he said.

"Why not?" I asked.

"Well," he said, matter-of-factly. "Seeing the Jazz lose broke my heart. It hurts too much to watch them anymore."

I was floored. After all this time? But he meant it. The conversation was over.

* * *

My dad has made an art form out of managing his emotions about sports. He still follows one of the local college football teams very closely. When they are down late with a chance to come back, he will often turn off the TV.

"I'd always rather find out that I missed an amazing comeback than watch my team lose," he'd say.

"But that's the best feeling in sports! Isn't it worth the risk?" I'd ask.

"Not for me," he'd say.

When our home-grown star left on a fateful Fourth of July, I wondered if maybe he was right. My dad was unfazed. "That's a bummer," he supposed. It was more than a bummer for me. I had just begun to hope again, to believe. In retrospect, it seemed so foolish.

Of course Hayward left, I thought. That's how it goes. Believing in the Jazz doesn't pay. I fell back into faithlessness.

* * *

Six months after Haywardgate, I was minding my own business and ignoring the Jazz—for my own good!—when I overheard some talk in the breakroom. Something about ten wins in a row. I pretended to be engrossed in the numbers counting down on the microwave, but I was listening. That was a lot, right? Especially for a team that had just lost its star...

Nah, I thought. This isn't my first rodeo, I'm not getting my hopes up. I ate my leftover lemon chicken at my desk.

But soon, there was no ignoring it. I pieced things together from snippets—Rudy Gobert, defensive genius, was turning our paint into a black hole. Quin Snyder had shaped a ragtag group of role players into a buzzsaw engine. And we had a new blade. I started hearing his name everywhere.

Donovan Mitchell, Donovan Mitchell. Have you heard about Donovan Mitchell?

I told myself I wouldn't get sucked in. But I couldn't help it.

It started with curiosity. I'd read a couple of posts on sports blogs, or the occasional headline in my newsfeed. Commentators and fans felt like there was something special about this team. What was it?

Then I got tickets to a game through work. Seeing this team play in person was electric. I realized that the commentators were right—there was something special about the team. But I still couldn't put my finger on it.

Soon, I was devouring everything I could about the Jazz. I read game summaries. I asked friends if I could mooch off their cable to watch games. I spent my free time looking at basketball numbers.

(As it turned out, there were lots and lots of numbers about basketball, called "stats." These "stats"—some of which are even "advanced"—turn basketball from a beautiful, physical contest of athleticism and will into basically a Finance exam. It's all very exciting.)

I loved seeing us win; I was a bandwagon fan, after all. But I started to understand that "something more" about the team that had taken me from casual to obsessed in April, when Rudy Gobert published his piece in the Player's Tribune.

His piece was about being the underdog, being overlooked. It was about Proving Everyone Wrong. On the one hand, I felt like he understood my pain as an eight-year-old fan watching the Bulls gore my heroes back-to-back. On the other, he was reaching into the dark corners of my mind, grabbing the doubting voice by the shirt, and telling it that it wasn't welcome on his court.

Rudy himself summed up the way I felt: "Inside, I was on fire."

* * *

The next season, I resolved to try on true sports fandom for the first time in my life. I subscribed to all the Jazz's games on NBA TV. And from my new home in Indiana, I watched the Jazz. In fact, I watched probably 75 Jazz games—around 74.4 more than my season average for the last 20 years.

I also started reading everything I could. I dove into the data analytics. I participated in the Jazz and NBA Twitter communities. I came to understand the meta-game of basketball played by front offices and coaching staffs. I steeped myself in the storylines throughout the league, followed trade rumors, and started having opinions about rotations. I drank deeply and greedily of the stories in the national media who were sitting up and paying attention.

My wife, who had never before displayed an iota of interest in basketball, also got in on the action. Her interest having been piqued the season before by my enthusiasm, she ended up watching many games with me. I blasted facts at her about the nuances of the game, the storylines, and the players. She quickly grew to love our team and its various personalities, who she started to call her "friends."

"Oh, my friends are playing tonight!" she would say.

I took her to a surprise Jazz game in Chicago, which was a couple of hours from where I was living. When she realized where we were going, I saw her eyes fill with tears as she said, "I'm going to get to see my friends."

This time, I felt much more comfortable in the United Center. I wasn't alone against the Red Legion; our troops were there. We dunked the Bulls' collective heads in the toilet.

* * *

There was one game that season that I will never forget. On March 2, we played the Bucks and their player-on-loan-from-Mt.-Olympus, Giannis Antetokoumpo. It was probably unwinnable; they had the best record in the league at the time (only 14 losses by March). And Giannis was making players around the league look like they were a Junior High JV squad and he was...well, Giannis Antetokoumpo. I just hoped we would make it a fight.

Shortly before the game, I got a call from my dad: He was at the game. I think he had gotten tickets through his work. We texted throughout about the Jazz's herculean effort against one of the league's elite teams.

There were ups. He said: "I loved the sequence where we just lost it out of bounds and the crowd went crazy because of the hustle! On a defensive sequence[,] when sefalosia [sic] and O'Neill [sic] went after it."

There were downs. He told me that Quin Snyder needed to bench Rudy, who was having an uncharacteristically bad game. "He can't guard Giannis, he can't hit a free throw, he can't catch the ball and the refs are in his head. He's done"

At the end, Donovan Mitchell erupted. He scored 17 points in the last 8 minutes of the game to bring us back from a 17 point deficit to the Bucks. He finished with a career-high 46 points and sealed the W. My dad, with the call:


And then, after another big three:

"DONOVAN FOR EMPEROR!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

There were thirteen exclamation points in both. I counted.

* * *

I think almost every fan could agree that in the last two years, our team has given us something special. A lot of things, actually.

At first, it was the thrill of having one's expectations, brought low after Hayward's exit, so wildly exceeded. A sort of karmic reward for doing everything the hard way for so many years.

Then, there was the increased national attention and respect for our franchise. Having the defensive player of the year and finalists for coach of the year and rookie of the year in the same season was special.

Now, with our recent high-profile additions boosting our incredible core, we have a renewed hope of a title. It seems more attainable than it has in a long time. Maybe, against all odds, we will get another chance: a chance to change narrative from one that climaxed with proximity to glory; one where our defining moments are our greatest failures; one where we are two feathers in a legend's cap.

But the most special thing about this team actually turned out to be altogether different for me. The Jazz were my wife's "friends"—and mine too. They were connected to each other, the community, and the fans in a way that felt real. Teams always matter to the fans, but it felt like the fans mattered to the team. We were in it together.

Taking all of those things together, there was an attitude, an energy, an excitement that made following basketball a joy to experience—even at the low points. In fact, for a while there, I got so busy experiencing that joy that I forgot that I needed a ring to be able to love basketball again.

And the best thing was that, for a minute—while we watched the Jazz from different states and texted, just a grown-up eight-year-old and his hero—I think my dad forgot too.

It's enough to make a guy want to believe again.

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