People who are obsessed with Star Wars, comic book heroes, vampires, defunct boy bands, and long-canceled television series of the 1970s are effortlessly (and frequently) mocked by the self-satisfied masses who have managed to not care deeply about strange and specific phenomena. Blatant nerdiness makes an easy target.
But what of the tens-of-thousands — millions? — who are passionately involved with bass fishing? The Simpsons? Collegiate athletics?
Recently a friend invited me to attend a couple of early-round games of the Pacific Athletic Conference men’s basketball tournament, on a weekday afternoon, at the Staples Center arena. I was struck by the size and grace of the athletes, the general excellence of the play, and the behind-the-scenes machinations that allow a simple child’s game to become a nationally broadcast televised spectacle. But what made the strongest impression (aside from the peculiar sexual role cheerleaders play in these carnivals) was the intensity and conviction of the fans. Many of them wore the colors and insignia of their school, or at least of the school that they supported. Many of them screamed and hollered at the referees as though the men in stripes were there on the court to endure a kind of athletic boot camp. Many of them cared. Deeply.
Few, if any, of the people in attendance, I reckon, viewed themselves as objects of mockery; after all, they were wearing Washington Huskies sweatshirts and carrying program books filled with stats, not Darth Vader headpieces and light sabers. Indeed, the energy at Staples, especially around the luxury “skyboxes,” near which I was seated, was the kind one associates with board meetings and corporate law offices. Swagger was in the air. The people who pay $75 and more to watch college basketball games are by and large achievers. They eat at steakhouses, drive fast cars, and live in large, highly leveraged homes. They know how important winning is, on and off the court. So when a 19-year old lad misses a lay-up or fails to block out his opponent for a rebound, the exclamations and exhortations have a kind of over-the-top intensity, like what one hears at a Hannah Montana sighting, except in a different octave.
The night earlier, I attended a Keith Jarrett trio performance at UCLA. (It was transcendent, mind-blowing, and at times just as raucous as a basketball game). Although the Bruins were slated for an evening match-up against Washington State, I was probably the only cat to witness both events. Art events and athletic contests have different consciousnesses. At, say, a Phish concert, one expects to smell marijuana in the bathrooms (and elsewhere). At a semi-professional sporting event, one expects the aroma of pot to inspire frantic calls to the police. Stoners generally don’t care about who wins the PAC tournament, or any other tournament. Achievers do, because their magnificent obsession isn’t with a fictional character or a song or an imaginary universe. It’s with achieving.
A friend of mine is obsessed with the songwriter-poet-mystic Leonard Cohen. Another friend is obsessed with birds. Another with movie posters of the 1940s. Watching college basketball helped me understand that the object of our obsessions can often provide a shorthand sketch of our character and values. But, more important, these obsessions provide powerful incentives for being alive, for continuing the hunt and the feast. Whether rare orchids or the original vinyl of a Charlie Parker record, having something to worry and jubilate about that is bigger and more important than our unremarkable selves makes life seem to have a point. Even if that point is throwing more balls through a steel ring than the other guys, it’s something.