A story by Hilary Jane Smith, December 2019
Hilary Jane Smith is originally from Northern California. A graduate of Chapman University’s Film and Media Arts program, she has found her voice in cultural critique and poetry. She is a professional based in New York City. She loves “love,” her city, and her partner.
I’ve been brainstorming how to write my wedding vows for a few months now. It’s challenging for anyone, but I feel like our love is so straightforward it’s difficult to craft a literary masterpiece summing up the last 4 years in a neatly packaged speech. My fiance, Charlie, and I are your run-of-the-mill late-20’s couple who watch Netflix documentaries, cook with a cast iron pan, and have corporate nine-to-five jobs. I’ve mulled over the defining pillars of our relationship, our shared interests, as average as they are, and there’s really only a few things that stand out as definitive in terms of how we fell in love and why we continue to grow together. To put it simply, it’s really all about sports – and lately it’s about basketball.
I met Charlie over four years ago when we were both living in Southern California. We were both transplants – I grew up in Northern California, and he had moved from New York to work for a sports agent as a research analyst. I loved that he was from New York. I had an affinity for New York City, like most women who came of age on a diet of Carrie Bradshaw and Mad Men. In particular, I loved the sports history of the city. My favorite book in high school was Jonathan Mahler’s Ladies and Gentleman: The Bronx is Burning which detailed the turmoil of the city in the 1970’s and the lead up to the Yankees 1977 World Series season (it was later made into a great ESPN series of the same name.) That book was the perfect mix of sports and culture as zeitgeist. I think it’s overall emblematic of sports’ relationship to the city. The history of New York teams always possessed this romantic, literary quality to me; they were like a living breathing example of a David McCullough book – baroque, but informative.
When Charlie and I decided after a year of dating to move to New York City for job opportunities, that’s when I knew our relationship became much more life-changing. Moving across the country with a newer boyfriend might be a bit naive, but we knew that our commitment, was something that would hold us together as we emerged into an urban landscape on Charlie’s hometurf.
Although I was extremely eager to move, I had my own athletic affiliations and personal history to consider. I knew in my mind that I would always identify as a Californian, and I would never relinquish my life long fandom of The Oakland A’s. As a team, they have their own complicated history, filled with emotions and potential stadium moves that I have suffered through. The amount this team has embedded into my soul is its own essay on love and sacrifice. Thankfully due to Charlie’s background as a collegiate baseball player, he completely understood my love of the A’s: their strengths and weaknesses, and how invested I was in their success. That was something we’ve always succeeded at as a couple; we understand those intense feelings of ebullience and anguish a fan has no matter which team they support. We’ve played for and supported organizations that have their share of shortcomings, but make you believe in them. It’s like watching someone commit so fully to a cause they know will most likely fail, with the best case scenario is to get people to talk to one another. Sports fans of opposing teams can often paint each other in a villainous light, but we have always been appreciative of each other’s teams (even if it is The Yankees.) I don’t know if it was our own maturity, or just our love of the game itself, but we always were able to love and cheer each other on. He could see that type of emotion in me, and I could see it in him with his own affiliations.
We’ve been in New York for a few years, and now that we’re getting married, we thought we’d take our relationship a step further. Outside of baseball, our fragmented support for hockey and casual interest in college basketball wasn’t satisfying our urge to adopt a sports organization as an alternative. We really wanted to commit to adopting a team together much like other couples seek out a furry friend to join the family. We would support each other’s respective MLB franchises during the season, but we wanted a mutual love, one we could share together. We could have this new passion to nurture and grow with, strengthening our bond. After taking a deeper look at the things we shared, we knew that basketball was the one sport we both loved but hadn’t taken seriously. We had been out of touch with the NBA, and with our own histories, it seemed like the perfect fit for our journey together.
Charlie and I both played basketball with CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) growing up. My father was a high school basketball coach, and my sister and I were avid Nintendo 64 “NBA Hangtime” players. If I see the game in a barcade now, I’ll immediately queue up my two-man team of John Stockton and Karl Malone. Charlie graduated from Georgetown University at a time when the basketball program was in disarray, but continued to support them. Now that Patrick Ewing was the head coach of the program, they were on the upswing. He had that connection, we were both finally New Yorkers, and it seemed like a natural progression to us becoming full-hearted New York Knicks fans.
I watched a game or two and was sold on the idea of a new season with a clean slate. We went to the NBA Store on 5th Avenue, bought New York Knicks t-shirts, and I began to religiously watch the games and familiarize myself with the players. It took only a few games before I realized what we had done, and Charlie knew it all along… this was not going to be an easy commitment.
It was an active decision on my part, to open myself up to The Knicks and their fanbase, as a big step in our relationship. However, with this came dealing with a lack of institutional knowledge of how bad things really were, how they hadn’t improved over several years, and their emotional baggage. It was going to be a much more challenging relationship than I realized. Charlie was much more pragmatic going in, prepared for the worst and the stresses that came with loving something so problematic. He cautioned me about this before we committed, but I was so eager to dive right into the deep end, I ignored a lot of the warning signs. They’ll get better! The history of the team and Madison Square Garden sells itself. It’ll be a fun activity, just the two of us!
Yet there was still so much toxicity to unpack in liking this team. They were not playing well, lacked motivation, and started the season in a dismal place (they are still currently in last place as of this writing). They lost by over 20 points to the Cleveland Cavaliers followed by a press conference with the GM Scott Perry and team president Steve Mills complaining about the coach in what looked like an attempted coup. Each time we watched, Charlie would get more and more frustrated, with both of us on opposite sides of the couch stewing in disbelief over how awful our newfound family addition was. This was supposed to be our rom-com rosy montage of doing kissing high-fives and joyful screams for a team that has been featured so many times this way in the rom-coms of my teenage years. The reality of it all was, this team was not going to be a euphoric montage of slam dunks and vicarious wins. This would be a relationship with an organization that would test our limits.
There was a moment after that game I referenced with the press conference, when we were listening to Stephen A. Smith, the messianic broadcaster on ESPN, tear down The Knicks organization. He bluntly yells into his mic that they are “straight-up trash,” and my shame was so severe you could have seen it seeping out of my pores.
Why did we commit to them? It wasn’t too late, we could just write it off as a couples project that didn’t work out, like that time we tried tandem kayaking. I felt so low and ashamed so soon into this relationship, I didn’t know what to do. I assumed Charlie felt the same, knowing he had his reservations going in.
That’s the thing with having a relationship with a sports team, you better be prepared to deal with its entirety: all of the flaws, history, and self-destructive behavior that goes along with it. Charlie and I had a fairly easy-going relationship with each other, we didn’t think about things in the same way with our new one with The Knicks. Our status as fan, was something we had to address almost as if we had adopted a dog: we had to show up for our team and be there for them, even if they repeatedly peed on the rug.
The Knicks played The Cavaliers a week later and dominated the team; yes the Cavs didn’t have their star player Kevin Love in the game, but the win was enough of a flint to make me feel good. Charlie was still a bit uneasy about it, but he too saw the promise. They were set to play the Dallas Mavericks the following week who featured the Knick’s old star Kristaps Porziņģis returning to Madison Square Garden. The game was an epic showdown with The Knicks winning at the buzzer, and we finally got our victory kissing high five moment I had been waiting for.
We’re at peace with our decision to become Knick fans. When I say at peace, I mean “for the time being” because we know it’s evolving. We’re committed and taking it one day at a time. There will always be challenges and we might not be on the same page. Even when we’re losing, I still feel that deep connection to Charlie I’ve always felt, even if it’s in our shared frustration. It’s so great to know that you’re supporting something together. We believe in the same group of people and have been bound by our shared spirit. We’re in this together: us, The Knicks, New York. But that’s what relationships are: love and devotion, and hoping that one day you’ll see your team win it all, together.