Posted by: Ethan | September 21, 2010

Names, Narrative, and No Tomorrow, Revisited

Back in 2007, I wrote an article on a since-defunct web site titled Names, Narrative, and No Tomorrow. The original article has been lost – presumably forever – to the ethers, but the gist is this: Sports hold our collective interest one of three ways. (See the title of this article.) Of course, it’s possible to like sports without any overarching reason other than pure enjoyment. Or it’s possible to like a team or individual player. Maybe you played the sport in the past and like to keep it on the radar. I’d argue that these latter reasons tie in with “narrative” but not one put forth by the sport, but your personal narrative, which can be even more compelling.

As mentioned earlier, the Cross-Conference Collector blog got me thinking about my years-old thesis of sorts.

Hope Solo is half-right about statistics. There are intangibles that matter. If you can’t affect the numbers, there are other things you can be doing. One of the intangibles that keeps sport alive and relevant is story. If you know the history, if you know what inspires you to care about the sport, you can pass that on to share or strengthen the same interest within others. (For instance, I don’t care if one keeper has a better statistical average against a team. I care that the other keeper earned the starting position over time and has dedicated her performance in this tournament to a recently deceased relative.) You know how Our Game Magazine is trying to drum up subscribers? They have some of the stories that the mainstream media isn’t hooked into. When you talk someone into going to a game or following a team or player, you have those stories, too.

I think the reason why I have put an emphasis on this site being about the erstwhile fan experience at a given event rather than re-hashing the game that was on national TV is because I want to not only document the experience for my own purposes, but to confide and commiserate to others that, say, Dallas Diamonds games really are real football action or that roller derby is a blast. My dad is always going on about how he prefers seeing the game on TV because “when it’s over, you’re home already.” But didn’t we have the best time going to see Michigan State play Northwestern (at Northwestern)? Wasn’t he raving to anyone who would listen that the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) put on a fantastic show and was worth every dime, after pooh-poohing the weekly telecast? Being there matters. And when we can’t be there, we want to hear the details from someone who was.

Ergo sports blogging, for starters.

How have the “three N’s” factored in to my interest in women’s athletics?

Names:

I got into watching WNBA games for one reason: Candace Parker. I didn’t actually see her play for Tennessee, or if it did it was in very small doses. I did hear that she was good, and ESPN using the clip of her celebrating a 2nd national championship in their SportsCenter opening montage certainly helped with name recognition. I learned that the LA Sparks (her team) was playing the Chicago Sky one evening, and I took the remarkable step of actually signing up for the WNBA site so I could see the webcast. Prior to that moment “women’s sports” was confined strictly to soccer. The action was amazing and the game was a back and forth nail-biter that revealed a second name to me: Candice Dupree. If memory serves, LA won the game, but the experience was so eye-opening that I wanted to learn more about the league and who the players were. Over time, I got into other “names” like Becky Hammon, Diana Taurasi (she grew on me, but she was far from a favorite when I first started watching WNBA games), and one by one, the roster of the New York Liberty, since they were the team I could tune into most often.

Narrative:

Names help, but we often want “meat and potatoes”, or “texture” with our sports. Sadly, many sports announcers think that narrative is satisfied by repeating the same factoid on a loop: “Candace Parker missed most of the season with her first pregnancy.” “A-Rod (Amy Rodriguez) had a terrible season in Boston and is hoping to get a fresh start with Philly.” “DeWanna Bonner was the Sixth Woman of the Year in 2009.” Okay, we get it.

This unfortunate affectation crescendoed when I was watching a few minutes of an MLS game with some soccer pals:

Them: “Hey, where’s Brian Ching from?”
Me: “Um, isn’t he from Hawaii?” (wondering why they don’t know that all the sudden)
Them: “Now let’s tell you that FIFTY MILLION MORE TIMES!”

That’s not narrative. This is:

Another sport that I didn’t think I’d have any interest in was women’s volleyball. I liked volleyball as a kid, and I liked going to the games in elementary school because I wanted to be supportive of my classmates. Being over 40 now, it feels wrong somehow to watch NCAA volleyball, but the 2007 Nebraska Cornhuskers turned me into a volleyball-lovin’ fool. And for the record, I grew up HATING Nebraska. You know how people don’t like Notre Dame? Well, I hated ND too, but Nebraska really chapped my hide. Not rationally, as I had no “feud” with them other than just hating the team and wanting no part of them.

But the 2007 Huskers reshaped that irrational hatred into respect and admiration. Here’s the story:

The stats page gives only a glimpse of the greatness that was that team. Sarah Pavan was one of the first names and faces I came to learn, quickly, followed by Chris Houghtelling. Followed by the coach, John Cook.

John Cook’s record over 8 seasons with Nebraska at the end of the 2007 campaign was 250-16. Let that sink in. In 2007, Nebraska not only won nearly all of their games, but only lost ONE set over NINETEEN consecutive games. That bubble finally popped against Texas, in Austin (and how). Their regular season record was an astounding 27-1, which kept them firmly ranked at #2 ever since the Texas shellacking. The announcers remarked that it was entirely possible to fill the USA Olympic Volleyball roster with Nebraska players and not want for quality. No disrespect to Texas and Penn State, but they’re gonna have to be stories for another time.

At the time, I had DirecTV with the hardcore sports package. I found the Nebraska games up and down the dial, and made a point to watch as many as I could. As the NCAA tournament drew near, I was salivating for the opportunity to see Nebraska go all the way to the final.

The trouble was, once tournament time rolled around, Nebraska wasn’t showing up in the TV listing anymore. I recorded the playoff games “blind”, figuring they had to be in there, only to see other teams gutting it out. Where did Nebraska go?

The stat sheet lists their season record as 30-2, which by any objective standard is incredible. One of the “and two” games came against Cal, in the Regional Final of the playoffs. Nebraska, with enough firepower to destroy a planet, did not play for the title. Stanford and Penn State did, and Penn State won it all.

I was incredulous that Nebraska didn’t go to the finals, and when I asked around, someone said, “you must be new here. Nebraska never makes it to the final.”

I guess I missed that key part of the narrative. But oh, what a season. And yes, I do want to see a game in Lincoln someday.

No Tomorrow:

In short, this is every playoff game or championship, ever, but not always. Lisa Leslie’s final WNBA season, Mike Modano’s final season with the Dallas Stars, the last Bulls game at the Chicago Stadium, are just a few examples. We might not have been around for the glory days, and might even be new to a sport, let alone team or player. But we got that one last time to be able to say “thanks for the memories” or “there goes one of the greats”. Or in my case, just being able to be there, if only once.

I gave my account of meeting Becky Lahmann here and here, but want to take a moment to stress the importance why being there matters.

Becky Lahmann isn’t a star player. She doesn’t have product endorsements, and isn’t a household name outside of a select number. Chances are, one could spend a lifetime on this Earth and never, ever know that she existed. I didn’t know she did either until I “discovered” women’s tackle football. Seeing a photo of her simply smiling during a game was an iconic moment for me. I saw the future, embraced it fully, and began to realize the smallest seeds of my mission. To tell the story of Becky Lahmann exemplifies the Three N’s.

Becky Lahmann (Name) served in Iraq, and while there, clung to the hope that she’d one day be able to play tackle football. She returned safely from her tour of duty and signed on with the WFA Austin Outlaws (Narrative). I found out that she was coming to town and I had one shot to see the team, and I made a point to be there to hopefully see her play (No Tomorrow).

I have since moved far away from Texas, and might never see Becky Lahmann or the Austin Outlaws play again. I’m glad I didn’t let the opportunity pass me by.

Closing Remarks:

Women’s athletics has been a rich wellspring of names and narrative. New names have come to light like Sydney Leroux and Angel McCoughtry. Narrative is seemingly everywhere, including a book I found at the local library called Nike is a Goddess, filled with short histories of various sports played by women. And No Tomorrow? That looms large, not only in the guise of the WNBA Finals and the WPS playoffs, but missed opportunities to see players like Aya Miyama and Camile Abily.

I keep thinking that there are more “N’s” to add to this list. Numbers? No, that’s part of Narrative. Nothing Else Like It? Narrative again, probably.

Maybe I shouldn’t get hung up on the semantics and just enjoy the games.

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Responses

  1. Very interesting! I deal mostly with Narrative, then Name, but I’ve never given much thought to No Tomorrow. It’s a big factor in my attendance at games. One of my biggest regrets is missing SCU at Penn State (soccer) in 2005. That was my one and only chance to see Tina Estrada play in person–and currently my one and only chance to see Santa Clara play–but I got sick the morning of the game. Missed it. Since then, I am much more conscious of my opportunities to be at games.

    Strangely, your three Ns have a lot to do with why I stopped following the WNBA. A few seasons ago, there were a series of No Tomorrows with particular Names and Narratives that I was invested in. Unlike with soccer, where every day is No Tomorrow, basketball seems to have more hope for the future, which is why when No Tomorrow pans out, it can cut pretty deeply. For me, at least. 😉


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