It’s Wednesday, and I’m watching the Northwestern-Indiana basketball game when Dad comes in.
“What are you watching?”
“We’re up eight at the half.”
How does one become a fan of a particular team? Certainly geography has a lot to do with it, but it’s not the only factor. You can live your whole life in Chicago, but if your parents grew up in Michigan, you’re likely to be a Michigan fan. For me, fandom begins with my parents. Both of my parents grew up in the Chicagoland area—my dad on the North Side, my mom in Glencoe—and they raised me to be a Chicago fan. This is because their parents raised them to be Chicago fans, and so it goes.
But not all parts of our fandom are the same. I was born in 1981, three years before MJ came to town, so when I was growing up the hottest consistent team in Chicago was the Bulls. I was, and am, a huge Bulls fan, and while my parents also loved the Bulls, their interest in them was growing as was mine. As children, my parents were exposed to a different sports landscape, as the Bulls were not a team until 1966 when they turned 16. While basketball did have short lived stints in Chicago with the Stags, Zephyrs, and Packers, the popular sports in Chicago were always football, baseball, and hockey. My dad’s dad David took him and my uncle Eddie to see the Cubs, Bears, and Blackhawks, though my uncle was much bigger into hockey than was Dad. In fact, the first time I ever sat down to watch a hockey game was with Eddie on an evening when he was watching me and Mike. The Hawks did go to the Stanley Cup in 1992, and as a Chicago fan I got swept up into the fun of that team. I knew the big players—Roenick, Chelios, Larmer, Belfour—but even with the Cup appearance I was never huge into hockey. If I’m a fan of any NHL team, it’s the Hawks, but I don’t gauge my fandom by what the Blackhawks are doing.
As for my mom’s family, they were huge into the Bears and Cubs. There were no boys growing up in my mom’s house—just her and her older sister—but my grandfather still raised them right. Like my grandfather David, my mom’s dad Mort—we called him Papa—educated my mom by taking her to Wrigley to see the Cubs and the Bears. There obviously wasn’t as much sports on television as there is now, so game attendance was very important and quite influential on sports fandom.
I was handed the Bears and the Cubs, and my family’s Chicago ties gave me the Bulls and the Blackhawks, but what about college sports? My parents don’t have strong sports-related ties to their alma maters, so the school that I began rooting for as a young pup was Northwestern. I liked the Illini as well—and later grew to root for any Illinois school, most notably DePaul, Northern, and Southern—but due to proximity Northwestern was my team. Dyche Stadium was a short bike ride away, and so we all went to plenty of NU games. We loved watching the team play, no matter how bad they were, but I also remember being really excited about seeing players from the other schools, guys who seemed to exist only on ESPN, guys like Tyrone Wheatley, Desmond Howard, Ki-Jana Carter. There was also the added bonus of the stadium’s “flexible” ticket policies, namely allowing multiple kids in on one ticket—sometimes one ticket stub, borrowed from somebody leaving the blowout early—or even just opening the gates in the third or fourth quarter for games with low attendance. On days when we didn’t go to the stadium and just played football at the park across the street from my house, we could hear the bare bones details of the game from the p.a. announcer over the loudspeaker. (“That scoring play for the Wildcats caps off a 7 play, 82 yard drive. And at the end of the first half, the score is Ohio State 42, Northwestern 7.”)
Northwestern Football was my team. It was our team. The Bulls and the Bears and the Cubs and the Sox and the Hawks may have been the big tickets in town, but when you went to their games as a kid, it felt like you were being transported into a different world, a world only known from a television set. When you went to Dyche Stadium, it was like going to your own backyard. The park was left open during the week, and my friends and I would often go and play football on the turf. After games, we would run onto the field to high five the players, regular schmoes who played football for the worst team in the Big Ten (and maybe the country), but heroes to all of us. We knew our way around the bowels of the stadium, and when the players were giving their jerseys to the laundry, we’d be there to shake their hands and tell them that they’d get ‘em next time. And every so often, when the team did come through with a big win, myself, my friends, and the other kids of Evanston would celebrate like we’d won the Rose Bowl.
When it came time for me to go to college, I chose Indiana University. I loved their newspaper, I liked that it was only four hours away from home, and I liked that it was a big school. I chose to attend Indiana University for four years, but I grew up with Northwestern. When it came time for NU and IU to hook up in football in the fall of 2000, I went home for the game and rolled into the stadium in purple, and I did the same the following year when Northwestern came to Bloomington. Most kids go off to college and immediately become fans of their schools—my brother is a diehard Kansas Jayhawks fan for that very reason—but that never happened for me. It would have felt like a betrayal. I did, however, end up taking to IU, and while I refer to IU as “we” nowadays, my Northwestern “we” always takes precedence.