Fifth Place Writing – Sports

Justin Wise

Fifth Place
University of Oregon
$1,000 Scholarship

Fandom, Company, And Conversation

By Justin Wise

When my father passed away, I feared I’d lost my biggest connection to being a fan. Instead, I learned the most precious thing about sports isn’t the competition, but the conversation.
“I love sport because I love life, and sport is one of the basic joys of life”

— Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

San Francisco Giants second baseman Kelby Tomlinson hit a grand slam in late August, and after seeing the news, I wanted to cry. Not because I had an emotional attachment to Tomlinson. Beyond the bounds of normal fandom, none existed.

Called up from the minors earlier that month, Tomlinson was someone my dad and I had a number of conversations about while we read the newspaper over breakfast each morning. The rookie was on a tear, and we were both amazed at how easy he seemed to make the transition look.

That day, after seeing the ESPN update flash across my iPhone screen, I’d seldom felt more alone. Because I couldn’t talk to him about it.

My dad lost his battle with lung cancer on Aug. 25. Two days later, after Tomlinson hit that grand slam in the Giants’ 9–1 win over the Cubs, I began to realize what would forever be missing from my life. Normally, I’d text or call him to let him know. If we were both at home, I’d rush to whatever room he was in. Then we’d talk about it, the resulting conversation spiraling into several more — mostly sports, but other realms as well.

Now, I couldn’t even think about baseball.The series that would ultimately decide the Giants’ playoff fate (against the hated Dodgers, no less) was just days away. I didn’t watch a single pitch.

I was scared, struck with a realization that this love I had — not just for sports, but the conversations surrounding them — was largely because of my dad. If I couldn’t talk to him, where would that love go?

My dad, Ron Wise, was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and had the sports-fan scars to prove it. I remember all the devastating stories he’d told over the years, recounting his days as a Browns season-ticket holder. He was in the stands for John Elway’s infamous 98-yard march that helped the Broncos reach the Super Bowl. He watched the Raiders come into Cleveland in four-degree weather and deny the Browns a championship opportunity in 1981.

When the temperatures warmed, he had the Indians. Not that this was saying much; even he was quick to admit the franchise played in a “sh-thole” of a stadium in the 1970s and 80s.

Things always seemed to get worse, and only worse. In 1995, the Browns tucked tail and ran off to Baltimore, lending even greater animation to the stories Dad would tell.

As he and my mom raised my sister and me in Walnut Creek, California, just an hour away from San Francisco, we latched on to the Giants, 49ers and Warriors. Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long to calm the frustration wrought from decades of Cleveland futility.

Still, his love — now our love — for Cleveland sports never wavered. Like any diehards, we held out hope that each new season would be better than the last, even if we knew, deep down, that it wouldn’t. We loved talking about “chances” —hoping against hope you might, for once, wind up being pleasantly surprised.
By the time I was eight, sports had consumed every part of my life. But it wasn’t merely about the fierce love of playing basketball in the back yard. More broadly, I loved waking up and scouring the morning box scores. I listened to Colin Cowherd’s takes on the radio as my dad drove me to school. Whatever helped me learn more. Whatever kept the conversation going.

Together, we’d each post our NCAA Tournament picks on the wall next to the other’s. We made betting boards for his annual Super Bowl parties, during which he always opened with a moment of silence for the Browns. We argued about seemingly every sports equation possible. He helped coach my football and baseball teams until I got to middle school. And he always found time to make every one-on-one showdown last hours, even if he’d been huffing and puffing from the first basket.

By the time I reached high school, the fall itinerary looked something like this: Play a game Friday night while he cheered in the bleachers; wake up early Saturday morning to watch endless hours of college football; repeat with the NFL’s Sunday slate.

This became our routine, our escape from the workaday wear. Going to Giants and 49ers games — just the two of us — became our tradition. Inviting anyone else, it seemed, would break that binding tie.

That happened, in a way, when I went off to college. My sister would call on Mondays to tell me how bad she felt for dad. Not because of some particular play that didn’t go our way; because of the loneliness. My mom and sister were never big football fans, so there was no one at home to celebrate with. Those obnoxious cheers he’d bellow — his signature “YEAH, BABY!” — no longer rose above my added chatter.

Sports didn’t define our relationship, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a defining part. Dad was the one who fueled my ambition to become a sports journalist. When I first began writing, I had an audience of one: him. As such, he influenced not just my love of sports, but how I thought about them. As I started to gained experience as a reporter, I began to recognize how impactful our discussions had been.

I didn’t merely gravitate to the games themselves, but to the stories behind the games: student-athlete rights, injuries in football — controversial topics with complex, nuanced points of view. I became attached to the colorful conversations, to the people these stories affected. In time, I grew to recognize where this affinity had come from: captivating games or controversial issues my dad and I would suss, discuss, and even debate.

Even after his 2012 diagnosis, Dad never ceased being that lively character, the fan with a fierce love not just for sports, but for being that fan. He never thought the world would end when LeBron James left Cleveland. In fact, he cheered for Stephen Curry and the Warriors in the most recent NBA Finals, because he understood — and was proud to root for — beautiful basketball. Sometimes, that’s what being a fan is about: shedding your history, your fire, your biases, for the love of the game alone.

He still read the local paper almost every morning, got his copy of Sports Illustrated each week, and always called or texted to voice his approval of a story I’d written. But as time passed and his cancer got worse, those conversations became harder and harder.

Many times this past summer, we sat inside the clinic, IVs in his veins, and both fell silent. Sometimes he’d fall asleep, leaving me to read a book, often for hours. Then we’d go home, and he’d sleep some more. As time passed, he grew more and more fatigued, losing weight at a frightening rate, his health only deteriorating. It never did improve, and we lost him before the new football season began.

Three months on, I’ve come to understand that, sometimes, sports impact us more — often far more — than we’re willing to admit. Recognizing, of course, they’re not always something to be adored, but it was never really about adoration or adulation. I had something much better: candid and engaging conversations with my best friend.

My dad’s love of sports — like that of many dads around this country — was given to his children. And yet I can’t help but feel I took for granted what really made our relationship so special: being able to share in this love, together. I somehow missed that the fandom he had for the Browns or Giants was never really about the Browns or Giants at all. It was about a much bigger fandom, one he associated with my sister and me.

I’ve missed not being able to text him after reading an SI expose. I miss watching the Browns and 49ers both become enduring football nightmares, and having someone to talk about it with. I miss him, and I miss these gifts he gave me. Still, this love I talk about will never dissolve, because as long as I’m sharing the things I love with the people I enjoy being around, sports can be what we need them to be. A perfect escape, sure, but also a genuine destination.

So I showed up to my fantasy football draft to talk positional shop and aimlessly debate with friends over who the best player in the NBA is. I’ve even begun obsessively playing NCAA Football ‘14 with my roommates. I continue to write. What’s more, my sister and mom have admittedly jumped on the Warriors’ bandwagon. Somewhere along the line, they became more privy to news pertaining to the team than I was. Their fandom has become, like mine, a fire to keep and tend, and we all know who lent the spark.

I sometimes long for Sundays sitting on a couch with a few bags of Tostitos, my dad and I mindlessly shouting at the TV screen. These are the gifts he gave me; the gifts we gave each other. Because of that, I still manage to smile every day, read and write with purpose and, well, live life as best I’ve learned.
More crucially, I still enjoy being a fan, forever ready to seek out — and savor — the conversations borne from being one.