Ryan O’Hanlon and Max Ornstein discuss Fernando Torres, Carmelo Anthony, and ‘liberated fandom.’ See if you can keep up.
This was written before Carmelo Anthony was traded to the Knicks. Check out the details here. More reaction to come.
Ryan O’Hanlon: When I first heard the Torres news, I laughed it off like I do any soccer rumor. But as I dug a little deeper and saw it was coming from Sid Lowe—the foremost authority on English-language Spanish soccer news—I spit out my green tea (what? It’s good for you!), looked around my empty kitchen, and shook my head. Seriously? He’s either going or Sid Lowe just lost all of his credibility as a journalist. I mean, the guy was wearing a Liverpool scarf in the locker room after Spain won the World Cup. He could’ve left during the summer or pushed for a transfer—sort of like Melo—when the team had crooked owners and a manager with a crooked sense of reality, but now they have successful owners and a former legend as coach—a man Torres supposedly admires. Plus they brought in Luis Suarez—the guy who intentionally blocked Ghana’s goal-bound shot in the World Cup—as a partner in crime (get it?). Yet, now he wants to leave?
I guess what I’m getting at here is that, as fans, we almost expect players to have the same loyalty to our teams as we do. They should want to succeed here. They should want to bring this team back to glory. Why would you want to set the rushing record, lead the league in points, or score the most goals anywhere other than where you already are? But that’s not the case … any more. This is Torres’ career. Like so many of us, he wants to advance his career whenever possible. Going from a team in seventh to the defending champions, by all accounts, is a step up. We’d love for Torres—or our other stars—to have some loyalty for the team that first wanted him, that gave him that first opportunity to play on the big stage. Didn’t the Cavs deserve to be treated better by LeBron? Shouldn’t Torres have waited until the summer to let Liverpool put together a plan for replacement? It’s the least they both could’ve done, right? Well, not really. They both excelled for their respective first teams, and they both gave fans a reason to watch. Why should they need to give anything more? And I think that’s a harsh realization to come to as a fan. It’s slowly happening in Cleveland, and it’s just beginning on Merseyside.
Max Ornstein: The most pertinent thing to our Torres conversation about “The Decision” was that LeBron, in his sense of entitlement, failed to tell his employer he was leaving until after he’d left, hanging the Cavaliers out to dry in the free agent market. The consensus view on LeBron was that he had a right to go to a better situation, but that he exercised that right in the worst possible way. I think it’s the same with Torres. Whether or not he has a duty to his fans, or the broad strokes “You’ll Never Walk Alone” badgekissing ideal of Liverpool’s history and legacy etc. is debatable. But Fernando Torres, like everyone else in the world, should have the common decency to give his employer notice so they can find a suitable replacement, especially when, in contrast to LeBron, he asked out of his contract three years before it was set to expire. This is basic workplace decency, and it’s only exacerbated when you’re on 110,000-pounds-a-week wages. Instead, he hung NESV out to dry, and forced them to pay a last-day-of-the-winter-transfer-window premium for Andy Carroll. It would be understandable if it was Hicks & Gillett, but we’ve moved past them, thank God.
Last year, Torres said that Liverpool needed four or five more World Class players to compete at the highest level. I felt the exact same way, but it was a fantasy for both of us, as Liverpool was never going to go on a Manchester City–style 125-million-Euro spending spree. Looking back on it, it feels like an ultimatum that no one took seriously, and six months of Roy Hodgson (a cardboard cut-out of Kenny Dalglish would have more coaching acumen) certainly didn’t bolster his desire to stay. And while Chelsea are the defending champs, they’re struggling to stay in the top four of the Premier League right now, and the outlook for the future might not be much brighter. Between the Financial Fair Play rules being implemented in the summer and the fact that the backbone of their team (Terry, Essien, Drogba, Anelka, and Lampard) are aging and on the downswings of their careers, Chelsea could be heading for winter just as Liverpool is starting to see spring. And we already know Fernando Torres’ hamstrings don’t like the cold.
RO: I’m not so sure I agree. Sure, you expect common decency, but why? So he can have Liverpool as a reference in the future? If he’s got a chance to move to a bigger club (and sorry, but Chelsea is a bigger club right now), he’s going to do it. Who knows what happens over the remainder of the season if he doesn’t leave. Maybe for him, that’s not a risk worth taking. It’s hard to stomach it when a guy like Torres—one who I always thought was “different”—pulls something like this, but it just hammers home the point that they’re all in it for themselves. Some want to play at the highest level. Some want to make as much money as possible. But Torres seems to be a combination of the two. And this is the friction between every so-called diehard fan and pro athlete today.
(Side note: I absolutely loved when Agger stood Torres up and elbowed him in the face a few weeks ago.)
Fans root for a team. Athletes play for themselves. And owners reap the benefits. Duh. Yeah duh, but it’s easy to forget. You want to root for the guys in the jersey because you’re human. And humans connect to other people. But at the end of the day, the team is the only constant for however long you’re a fan … unless you’re from Seattle.
And this brings me to another point. I’m a Knicks fan. I want them to be good. Systems, the return of Isaiah, and the now-completely-inflated price they’ll have to pay aside, no matter how you look at it, trading for Carmelo will make this team better. They’re two games over .500. Adding one of the best players—no matter how little defense he plays—in the league will make the Knicks a much better team. Yet, I struggle with the idea because I’ve come to love Wilson Chandler and Landry Fields. They’re both good players—no more, no less. But since I’ve seen them both grow with the Knicks, they’re more than that to me. Thankfully Fields seems to be removed from the talks, but that’s beside the point. They’re “my guys,” and I don’t want to see them get shipped off to Denver. Is that selfish of me? It’s a sort of bizarro Torres situation, and it just shows how complex and completely irrational the fan-player relationship can be and usually is. Especially when I’m involved.
MO: You’re completely right, and looking at the Torres transfer makes you realize how special the players who spend their careers in one place—acknowledging their relationships with their fans—are. There’s a
reason Iker Casillas is known as “Saint Iker” in the stands of the Bernabéu. And Agger stiff-arming Torres was the perfect coda to that whole transfer saga.
I’m not a Knicks fan, despite growing up in New York. When I was 6, 7, and 8, Reggie Miller won me over before I knew to root against him. Then, years of Scott Layden and Isaiah Thomas, combined with James Dolan torpedoing the Jets’ West Side Stadium plans, turned the Knicks into a team that I love to root against. Since the aftermath of the Malice at the Palace decimated the Pacers, I’ve subscribed to the FreeDarko idea of “liberated fandom” in the NBA and followed players, not teams. It’s a lot easier to follow players than teams. You can root for “your guys” the same way you’d root for the players on your fantasy team and, if you want to, adopt their actual teams from year to year. On the other hand, being loyal to one team is far more rewarding than jumping around like that.
It’s always tough to say goodbye to young players that you watch night in and night out. You’ve watched them develop, know their games inside and out, and are dreaming of their potential. Even if you’re getting superior talent in return—in this case an elite scorer, decent rebounder—it’s always hard to say goodbye to that potential “what could be” of the player you’ve grown used to watching.
There’s been a lot of talk about how well Carmelo and Amar’e are going to mesh because they’re both “catch and hold”–type volume scorers, but what everyone needs to remember is that neither of them has ever played with a scorer of the same caliber.
RO: The New Yorker in me—the non-Yankee fan one—originally told me that ’Melo ends up with the Nuggets after the new CBA institutes something like the franchise tag in the NFL. But worse, and somehow more plausible, it looks like Isaiah could come back to power. Plus, now Jimmy D. has them trading Felton and Gallinari and Chandler and Mozgov and Charles Oakley and Xavier McDaniel for Billups and Carmelo. That makes my head hurt. Why not bring in Ben Wallace and Rip Hamilton too and then we can have the team the Pistons should’ve had if they passed up on Darko. Passing up on Darko? Hm, that’s a funny thought.
Serbian draft flops aside, I’m glad you brought up the idea of liberated fandom—from our friend Bethlehem Shoals. Any “true” sports fan scoffs at the idea, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. With fantasy sports, I’m surprised you don’t hear more about it. As I said, we’re attracted to teams because of the players, no? The humanity of it all and whatnot. It’s also interesting how your interest in one guy spawns interest in other players, based on what team he plays for, because you’re watching that specific team more than others. It’s like a family tree kind of thing. Expect this infographic in 15 years.
I see what you’re saying about team-based fandom being more rewarding. It would make sense because, theoretically, you’re more focused on team success and not individual success—individual success being more common. So, the less success, the more rewarding it is when it comes. I get it. I also think it’s because, as a fan of a team, you, the team name, and the uniforms are the only true constants—if that. And there’s something to that. Rooting for a player, you’re just following him from place to place. You’re a groupie. It’s hard to look at it as a shared experience in any way. But really, as the fan of a team, you’re doing the same thing, it jut doesn’t feel that way. And that’s really all that matters as a fan. None of these dudes know or care who I am, but we did it! We won!
Are you a liberated fan and a team fan based on the sport? Is that even allowed? I’m confused. Enlighten me.
MO: Players are whom the fans strive to connect with, but the teams are in our hearts. They become constants in our lives, representing something more than the players or the jerseys. My Syracuse fandom is a familial experience—my father, sister, and brother went there. My Jets fandom encompasses all the fun I have with my friends—tailgating at home games and watching the away games in the same seats at the same bar (superstitiously, and we switched it up for the AFC Title game, damn it!). These are shared experiences that bind us. Cheering for a team is about the journey. The peaks are higher because long suffering fandom often becomes a shared badge of honor. When you get to the Promised Land, it’s a communal experience that means more than a trophy you don’t get to touch and rings you’ll never wear.
Basketball is the only sport that I don’t have a team, so it’s the only sport where you could say I was liberated. Why the NBA? I think it’s a combination of how hopeless the Pacers became post-brawl and because of how much personality there is in the league. There are so many good storylines spiraling around the NBA from year to year that I think it’s a lot more rewarding to look at from afar, all at once, than to focus on any one part of it for too much time.
I’d enjoy seeing the Thunder win the title, but you’d love it if the Knicks won. I like Durant and Westbrook as players, but I don’t really have anything invested in them. I like DeMarcus Cousins, but I don’t care about the Kings—in fact I hope he gets traded. I overrate JR Smith and will continue to do so. I like Derrick Rose’s dunks and Joakim Noah’s interviews, but that doesn’t mean I ride for the Bulls. If I had to pick a rooting interest this year, I’d probably go with the Spurs, because I think the “Best Post-Jordan Player” debate between Duncan and Kobe gets really interesting if Duncan gets a fifth ring too. More than anything else, I root for good basketball and good stories.
In other sports, it’s different. I like Chris Johnson and DeSean Jackson, but when they play the Jets I want them to get flattened. I like Jose Mourinho, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Iker Casillas, but if they’re playing Liverpool, I hope they get crushed. My team winning is paramount, but against everyone else, I hope those guys do well.
RO: I think that’s a good conclusion. Being a fan is so specific, varied, and random. It varies from fan to fan, and then it varies within each fan between each team and player he roots for.
This was fun. I’m not sure how much we accomplished, but I think we figured something out: being a sports fan is about doing random, irrational, and subjective shit. You can root for any team or any player for any little reason. There’s really no rule that governs anything—except that you should never, ever, wear a jersey with your first or last name on it—you just do what you want, root for who you want, because you want to. And that’s what makes it so great.
Yes, it finally happened. Carmelo Anthony was traded late last night. In case this wan’t long enough for you, Ryan and Max weighed in with their thoughts on the deal.
RO: I’m conflicted. I think I’m just so worn down by the rumors that I still really can’t believe what just happened. The Knicks now have two all-star starters on their roster. They haven’t had one since 1992. That’s progress, no? Plus, unless some crazy, convoluted rules rise up out of the new CBA, one of Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, or Deron Williams should be coming to the team in 2012. That’s exciting.
But it’s scary when you look at how it went down. Knicks GM Donnie Walsh either gets too much credit or too little in the media. But he got screwed over here. James Dolan pushed this deal through with the help of Isaiah Thomas—the worst GM in the history of the NBA. Walsh wanted to take a measured and patient approach—as he has with building the roster—in getting Carmelo. He knew he had all the leverage, despite all the bogus reports coming out of Denver and New Jersey. Yet, Dolan panicked and pushed a deal through. We now have a lame-duck GM. Is that worse than a lame-duck coach?
So, I guess you can say I’m excited, just with an eye on some shadowy figure from the past, lurking in the woods, ready to kill any joy I might now have.
MO: As someone without a rooting interest, I am just happy it’s over, because it was approaching Brett Favre-level tiresome to read about.
And I think you summed up the situation better than I could. I’d add two things: The first is that I’m in the camp that thinks the Knicks gave up too much for him. Giving up Danilo was a mistake. He fit the Knicks better than any other team in the league, although getting Corey Brewer is an unexpected bonus that’ll help the Knicks defensively, and prevents the phrase “gut the team” from coming into play.
The way you theorize the trade went down, with James Dolan sidelining Donnie Walsh (and all the lost leverage that entailed) in favor of Isaiah Thomas, makes me rejoice that my fandom is liberated.
Max Ornstein is a freelance writer and screenwriter in New York. Follow him on Twitter.
Ryan O’Hanlon is the sports editor and a blog editor for the Good Men Project. He used to play soccer and go to college. He’s still trying to get over it.