As an unabashed fan of the professional sports teams from an area outside my current city of residence, I'm no stranger to the outspoken disdain that comes with attending local sporting events (being a Boston sports fan, I've even grown accustomed to trendy-within-the-last-four-years hatred expressed via the internet). I've been taunted by chants of "VIAGRA!" (re: former Red Sox backup Carlos Baerga--get it?) at Dodger Stadium, hit in the head with garbage at Qualcomm Stadium, challenged to fights at Network Associates Coliseum, threatened to be thrown over a railing at Petco Park, assaulted in the parking lot of Angel Stadium, and scolded by the late, great Principal Vernon at the Staples Center...just to name a few such run-ins. (My one visit to Yankee Stadium surprisingly went without incident, perhaps because I was in the company of a clearly-demarcated Yankees fan.) Not one of these times--whether my team was winning or losing or had won or had lost--did I incite the provocation beyond being dressed in the opposition's colors, nor did I respond to it beyond what was minimally necessary for self-preservation.
So how is it that, following the Celtics' loss to the Lakers on Tuesday night, during which I was in attendance, I ended up in an argument with my wife because I wanted to punch a guy in wheelchair?
Her case was fairly cut-and-dry: "He's in a wheelchair and you're not, jackass!" Mine was a bit more complicated, going well past the fact that the guy in the wheelchair totally started it.
My wife--who is a semi-reluctant (except with regard to Jacoby Ellsbury) Boston sports fan through marriage--and I attended the game with another couple, both of whom are die-hard Lakers fans. Due to the fact that we hadn't all gotten our tickets at the exact same time, our friends and we ended up sitting a few sections apart from each other. Before we parted ways upon entering the Staples Center, I remarked to the male half of our friend-couple that--despite the fact that I was proudly decked out in Celtics green--I had a feeling that the Lakers were going to win the game. My friend appreciated my peaceful objectivity...which would prove to be lost on the other 19,000 or so people in attendance.
It's commonplace for a fan of a visiting team at a major sporting event to feel like he's wearing a target on his back--I've been both a victim of and a witness to this phenomenon on numerous occasions--but the people surrounding my wife and I might as well have been reading from a script:
"Somebody stab Paul Pierce!"
"Look at that guy--he was too scared to clap for that Garnett dunk! [meaning me, after I'd applauded at length] You scared, buddy? YEAH, you're scared!"
"Kobe nailed that jumper like he was raping a white girl!"*
...and so on. My wife initiated several attempts to confront the most vocal gentlemen directly behind us, all of which I nipped in the bud--bless her heart, the girl still doesn't understand that guys don't hit the female who mouths off to them but the male standing next to her--until the first half mercifully came to an end.
We reconvened with our friends during halftime, pleasantly discussing the events of the game to that point as we stood in line for concessions. Eventually, I wandered off alone in search of condiments for my Skyscraper Dog.
This Sisyphean trek led me to encounter horde after horde of confrontational Lakers fans emboldened by their team's lead and by alcohol, all of whom I responded to with little more than a congenial grin and a hopeful shrug. By the time I reached the conclusion that there was no relish to be found within miles of the Staples Center, I was still shrugging...though I was much less congenial.
After I had given up on my hunt for satisfactory hot dog accoutrements and was at my wit's end in my attempt to locate my wife, I tried to slide past a pack of drunken, purple-and-gold-adorned lunatics--alas, without success. My pathetically condiment-starved footlong and I were cornered, inundated with chants of "Boston sucks!", "Lakers rule!", and several incoherent references to "Black Mamba" and "Paul Pierce's knee" (as well as--if I've not mistaken--someone's slip about his father not loving him enough and that's why he is the way he is now).
No sooner did I escape that ruckus than I ran right into my wife, who was engaged in a conversation with another friend-couple of ours (not the same as the one we came with)--both of whom were dressed head-to-toe in Lakers gear. Silently struggling to bury my small-minded inclination to go into a Lakers-fan-hating rage, I smiled and congratulated the couple on their second-quarter appearance on the JumboTron. They went their way, my wife and I went ours...and all was right with the world.
Then the third quarter started, my wife went back to our seats...and I ended up stuck in line behind a group of goldenrod-clad Lakers fans who would not get out of my face while all I was trying to do was get a beer for the second half.
What began as an accidental blockade by a couple of drunk guys quickly turned into a Lakers-fan team effort, as any time I moved from one line to another--and ultimately from one entire concession window to another--one or two or three of the people who were already in front of me followed suit, staying in front of me. This ridiculous charade was exacerbated by the fact that the the Celtics--as we all watched on the monitors--took control of the real game happening just inside. My team had their first solid lead, which only further motivated the rival team's fans to keep me from seeing it in person. Eventually, the last of my drunken defenders got his own beer and gave up the goose; I got back to my seat with about five minutes left in the third quarter.
Knowing that nothing good would come from explaining to my wife what had taken me so long, I didn't. My lack of training Inside the Actors Studio, however, tipped her off to the fact that things had turned sour for me; this inadvertent revelation was worsened by the fact that things on the court turned very sour for the Celtics not long after the start of the fourth quarter.
Slimy-headed Sasha Vujacic kept draining three-pointers like they were the mythical cure for slimy-headedness, and I realized well before the game was actually over that the game was over. I mentioned as much to my wife, and she gave me the option of leaving. This being my first-ever attendance at an NBA Finals game--never mind a Celtics-Lakers finals game--I declined the offer. As a true Celtics fan and a married-into-it Celtics fan who--purely out of love--was trying to ignore the fact that her husband was going to a bad place, we stayed for the duration.
In hindsight, that was probably a mistake. And that's on me.
The inevitable became the official: the Lakers defeated the Celtics. As my wife and I side-stepped our way towards the nearest aisle, one of the fine gentlemen who'd been seated behind us shouted out a confrontational, beer-drenched "See ya!"; my only response was to raise one hand showing two fingers and another showing one finger--representing the series score--and, without having turned around, I followed my wife down the stairwell.
The conversation in the stairwell went as such:
ME: See that, baby? I was the bigger person.
WIFE: Good for you. (Pause) Why are you taking your shirt off?
ME (removing the unbuttoned outer shirt from a "BEAT L.A." t-shirt): No reason.
...and we headed outside the Staples Center.
Did I take my outer shirt off to invite trouble? Maybe. (Or, as my wife would say, "Yes".) But one reason I definitely took it off was to let everyone know that, even though my team had lost the game, I stand by them to the bitter end.
My wife and I hadn't gotten ten steps outside the arena when a man in a wheelchair--being pushed by one woman (presumably his wife or daughter or granddaughter) with another woman (presumably his wife or daughter or granddaughter) walking at his side--seeing my t-shirt, stopped, put on the brakes, stared me in the face, and pointed.
"HA HA HA HA HA!" he said.
I stopped dead in my tracks. "Excuse me?" I said, as the man released the brakes and let the women push him along.
"Let's go," my wife said.
"Two games to one!" I shouted.
The man kept laughing as he was rolled away.
"Can you not count?" I shouted louder, starting after him.
"Jesus Christ!" my wife said, grabbing hold of me. "He's in a wheelchair!"
Realizing that I had been about to engage in a fight with a guy in a wheelchair, I turned away, heading with my wife along the sidewalk. But I couldn't let it go.
"Who the fuck does he think he is? Can say whatever he wants and get away with it just 'cause he's in a wheelchair?" I stopped walking. "I should go after him."
"He's in a wheelchair," my wife strongly reiterated.
"And if he weren't, I'd be fighting him right now. In fact...for me not to fight him just because he's in a wheelchair is to treat him as a second-class citizen. That asshole has a Constitutional right to be fought with by me."
"He's in a wheelchair!"
"You're in a wheelchair!"
"It's a basketball game!"
"You're a basketball game!"
"Neither one of the last two things you said are true!"
"Whatever!" I said, pivoting to ninja-strike the guy in the wheelchair.
My wife and I were across the street; the guy in the wheelchair was long gone.
"Let's go home," said my wife.
"You're go home."
My wife shook her head. Tail between my legs, I followed her towards the entrance to the parking structure.
Before my wife and I reached our vehicle, I was challenged to two more fights by two different Lakers fans, neither of whom was in a wheelchair, the second of whom opened with the taunt: "E-li Man-ning!" I really wanted to fight that second guy, given my feelings about Eli Manning...but my wife, aggressively restraining me at this point, wouldn't let me. She dragged me all the way to the car.
Driving home, my wife demanded to know what in the hell would possess me to consider fighting a guy in a wheelchair simply because the basketball team he likes beat the basketball team that I like.
I told her it was more complicated than that: He laughed at me.
She told me it was much less complicated than that: He laughed at my t-shirt.
Like every sports fan, I am a fool.
*(to preempt the "Boston fans are racist" retort) this remark was made by a Lakers fan whiter than the offspring of Whitey Ford and the Michelin Man.