Tales of Bittersweet Loyalty

Learning to Love the Hated

June 27, 2011

There are people in Kentucky who will threaten bloody murder upon hearing the words “Christian” and “Laettner” one after another.  Because his shot was the kind of moment that creates hatred in the heart.  It’s the kind of moment that spontaneously imbues everlasting enmity towards not just players, but whole franchises.  And tragically, every fan has one of these moments.  For me, it was John Stockton’s three-pointer against my Rockets in Game 6 of the 1997 Western Conference Finals.

Little did I know that it was just the beginning: The Jazz went on to knock us out of the playoffs three more times over the next decade (1998, 2007, 2008).  On their first go-around, the Jazz were hated for being ruthless: On top of Stockton, you had the hard-to-love, nearly mechanical mailman in Karl Malone and James Bond-villain rejectee Greg Ostertag.  (Face it: If they remade The Spy Who Loved Me, Richard Kiel would have had some serious competition for the role of Jaws.)  As if that wasn’t enough of a trio to despise, Jerry Sloan came off as a brutally exacting coach.  He kept the Jazz competitive every year without actually winning.  They were the NBA-counterpart of the 90s Braves (though Bobby Cox did get his World Series win).  It’s frustrating seeing a team fail so often, especially when they do so at your expense.  Then came the crew of Boozer, AK47, D-Will and Ashton Kutcher.  While lacking the same sort of instant revulsion the old school crew brought us, Sloan’s basic presence still allowed them to embody the sort of cold swagger that reminded us of the Stockton-Malone era.  The first round exits in 2007 and 2008 were effectively the only real shot we ever had for the McGrady-Yao combo to bring home a trophy.  And the Jazz killed it.  They dashed our hopes, slashed our tires, left us on a ditch with our necks spewing blood on broken glass.  The team was broken, spirits dismantled.  Fans were on the verge of complete resignation.  The only thoughts that ran through our minds: “Fucking Stockton.”  It always went back to him.  To that one shot.

On February 9 of this year, Jerry Sloan coached his last game as the coach of the Utah Jazz.  On February 23, Deron Williams was traded to the New Jersey Nets.  Boozer left the summer before in free agency, as did Korver.  It’s inevitable that Kirilenko will bolt this summer (possibly to the Russian-soiled Nyets or literally to Russian soil).  And now the Jazz are no longer the team that I hated.  Been a huge fan of Al Jefferson for years, watching him toil away in the Minnesota cold.  Like Devin Harris and am looking for good things from Derrick Favors.  And when on draft night Enes Kanter found himself in Salt Lake City, I started feeling guilty.

I kind of want to support these guys.

Does that make me disloyal?  Am I suddenly a treacherous fool unworthy of cheering for the Rocket Red?  The Jazz and the Rockets don’t have a geographical rivalry: It’s been a purely incidental product of chance playoff seedings.  We’re not even in the same division anymore.  And the bad blood is mostly within a 15 year time frame.  Or wait: Am I just making excuses?

At what point are we allowed to stop hating certain teams?  If the Red Sox move to Montreal and change their name to the Expos, will Yankee fans still be mandated to wish ill on their pitchers and hock long-distance loogies at batters on-deck?   The Seattle SuperSonics were the bane of my existence as an early 90s Rockets fan.  But they’re the Thunder now.  In Oklahoma City.  With a crop of young talent headlined by a Longhorn.  I support them without guilt.  Is there a flaw in our logic of who we can and cannot hate?  The Jazz aren’t moving, but their pieces are drastically different from before.  The only real vestige of the old guard is Okur, and even he may be gone after next year.  Is change of culture enough of a justification?

Between love and hate, the memories we try to forget (or grudgingly hold onto because it feeds us the fire we sometimes need), there has to be a way to learn to love the hated.  Blind hate does a disservice to the beauty of a game.  It does disservice to players who are trying to make something of themselves.  All indications point to Kanter being the kind of guy you want on your team.  Shall we force upon him an unnecessary, inherited hatred?  We support teams because we like the sport.  The sport is the priority.  When we let blind hatred ruin the appreciation of a game, are we even worthy of being a fan?