The framed picture of downtown Buffalo under evening snow clouds shook, then rattled, then gently settled back onto its pins, leaving no trace of its sudden, personal earthquake. Nothing fell from a shelf, which still surprises me three nights later. Not even my dog was startled enough to trot downstairs, although I think that's because of the noisy air conditioner in our bedroom where he'd dozed off Friday night.
By the time the commercials had ended before overtime of Game 6, it was just me and my TV. The dog, the wife, the kids and all the people I sit near at Sabres games were asleep.
The emotional side of me was prepared for defeat, in this case a Rangers goal, because that's what always happens. I mean not really, that's just how it seems. Last year I built my playoff pool team around the Lightning and while I got a few weeks of fun out of it, ultimately they fell one game short of what I needed and a loss is a loss. I've probably won a couple before but I don't know. For some reason the losing is much, much more memorable.
I need to skip ahead so that you don't think you're reading some clumsy Dashiell Hammett attempt. Before the playoffs, I picked New Jersey to win the East and loaded my pool team with Devils. And I've been (loudly) picking the Rangers to come up short all season long. And that's it. When Adam Henrique ended it I literally jumped off my couch so high that my head bumped the ceiling. Undaunted, I jumped at least five more times, moving toward the television, muting my repeated screams of "YES!" so as not to wake the uninterested.
I'm happy to have been right, but I'm somewhat ashamed of my attachment to it all.
It was before the handshake line that I started pondering my reaction to a game between two teams I've really never cared about. Holy cow that's weird, I thought. My friends probably would get it, but if my listeners ever knew that I cheered like that for another team, what would they think? I can't remember too many times I reacted to a Sabres win that way. It's probably less than five.
But it's true. And every time the last three days that I've thought about the playoffs -- which I've been doing numerous times a day every day since Game 1 of Round 1, all the while hoping the Devils would at least make the finals -- I felt relief. I had no game coming up to worry about. These were strong feelings. You know, for sports.
So what's it all about?
When we root for the teams we root for, what is it that we're backing? It can be anything, but the most interesting comparison is between your personal stake (like mine with New Jersey) and your hometown team. Rooting for the Sabres is rooting for the people of Buffalo. It's me rooting for you and, like it or not, vice versa.
I've got nothing against that. I want people here to feel good, and I want the community to share in exultation, and I want whatever minimal economic bump there is when a team wins, and so on and so forth. I just want to know what's really at the core of it. Do we really all like each other this much?
I think much of how we all root for the local teams is that like anything it gives us an easy and harmless card to play in conversation. Talking about the Bills or Sabres is like talking about the weather. It's assumed that both you and they are on the same side. Like how we all presume that when we talk about how nice the sunshine is to a stranger that he or she doesn't want it to be raining. As humans, we want affirmation.
I'd always rather reason it out. The upcoming Olympics will again be a challenge for me. Do you root for Americans you don't know anything about against a nice-guy, hard-luck foreigner that NBC just profiled? I don't. Should I?
All this has nothing to do with riding a winner. It's against my DNA to pick favorites so I often lose. And when I do, it hurts. Again, the emotions are pretty much the same.
I think the detachment half of the equation is natural. As we age we don't harbor the same sugarplum fantasies about our athletes, and our sports. When I was 9 I probably cried when the Bills lost a playoff game to San Diego but part of the reason is that I assumed Joe Ferguson was crying too.
It's not like that now, if it ever was.
I'm still not sure what to do with this realization, that I'm rooting for myself moreso than the collective. Do I want to suppress it? Not all of me does because there isn't much about sports anymore that brings on intense emotion like this did. Do I want to flaunt it? No, because most sports fans don't want to hear it. I'll probably just keep playing it where it lies.
I'll stick up for this maneuver to this extent: Without this attachment, I'm probably only barely watching these playoffs. If the only thing that mattered was the Buffalo Sabres' order of finish, I'd hardly be watching a second of this year's postseason. But to me it isn't, and as it happens my horse is in a duel down the stretch with a chance to win.