I've been meaning to get to this Sports Illustrated article ever since Cam'ron pointed me to it, and it's more relevant than ever now that all the stories on the NHL playoffs seem to be descending on the fact that my fair city has never brought home a major sports championship (sorry, indoor lacrosse fans, the Bandits don't qualify). The SI article is a loving portrait of a city whose capacity for hopeful enthusiasm appears to be boundless, despite the fact that there's more than enough to be cynical about. In preparing to move away, I've given a lot of thought to how I'm going to look back on my hometown. I've got that very familial "I can talk shit about my town but you can't" attitude, and I think my reaction to the SI article is familial as well. Only this time, it's a desire to keep the family shame under wraps. To the excerpts!
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Weather was the last thing on our minds on Jan. 27, 1991. Not with paradise a mere 47 yards away in Tampa. I looked at the clock to preserve the moment: 9:37 p.m. Around town, similar scenes played out.I was ten years old when Scott Norwood's kick sailed wide right. I was crouched in front of my cousin's TV, crossing my fingers. I was also wearing Zubaz pants in the home team's colors, and if we won, I was prepared to take MC Hammer out of the tape player long enough to play Queen's "We Are The Champions." My point? We all had to be somewhere, but does the fact that Mayor Byron Brown watched the game at his mother-in-law's house really hold such a poetic cache? It's not like nobody knows that we lost four Super Bowls in a row. That's, like, our legacy. But do we need to fetishize it like this?
Buffalonians can recite a lifetime of torturous results, from the 1975 Stanley Cup finals...to Brett Hull's skate-in-the-crease, series-clinching goal (known as "No Goal" in Buffalo) in the third overtime of Game 6 of the 1999 Cup final against Dallas. For non-championship-game heartbreak, there is the Music City Miracle...If you're chronicling civic downfalls, you might as well count O.J. Simpson, too. He was the city's biggest hero before he took off in the white Bronco.
We're counting O.J.? Can we count Rick James, too? Timothy McVeigh? MTV's Sorority Life and Fraternity Life? I will not allow my city and its loyal sports fans to become the Red Sox Nation for the hockey set. That whole "Woe to our fans, none have suffered more than we" attitude is disgusting, even if it's in a different accent.
When I left Buffalo for New York City a decade ago, the Bills held a firm grip on the region's collective psyche. But the Bills have not been a good story recently. The team failed to sell out its final three home games last season...The threat that the franchise will pack its small-market bags and move to more cosmopolitan Toronto is always looming.Somebody's been talking to Willis McGahee. In related news: shut up, Willis McGahee. Have fun knocking up that superior Baltimore tail.
The Swannie House tavern, which sits on Michigan Avenue, less than a mile from the HSBC Arena in Buffalo's Old First Ward, is an old-school Sabres joint. Hockey is serious business here. Take the night that some regulars threw chicken wings at former Buffalo News hockey writer Jim Kelley after he wrote critically of star goalie Dominik Hasek.
Oh, like there's room in the Swannie House for anyone to get a good wind-up anyway. But this is an awesome anecdote for several reasons. 1) It's clearly true. 2) It's wildly stereotypical -- I mean, they threw chicken wings? Do the surly Philly fans throw cheesesteaks at people? No, they don't. They throw batteries. But 3) it's kind of the perfect portrait of a Buffalo fan. Working class, grumpy, and drunk enough to want to throw things at a sportswriter, but with enough of a self-awareness to throw something funny like chicken wings.
The bulk of Richard Deitsch's article is actually a warm and complimentary portrait of this season's Sabres, a likeable team by most objective standards who are playing a fun and high-octane brand of hockey and who have given this city's sports fans possibly the best two-year period in our history. It's not just the success, it's been the way the team has pulled the city together. That sounds lame and sports-movie-ish, but it's true. The Bills of the early '90s -- and maybe this is part and parcel of pro football as a whole -- were a larger-than-life team full of supermen who, while they enjoyed the support of the community, never felt of the community. Jim Kelly could have done his womanizing from Miami, for all we knew. These were football players -- literal giants among men. The Sabres of the past few seasons, while far too talented to be a Little Team That Could, are still a "small" team, by hockey standards. Small but quick and full of that non-specific and sportswriter-derived quality called "heart" that all too often means "white." But there is a heart in this team, even if it's mostly projected onto them by the fans, and when you hear them talk, you can sense that they know what this team means to this town.
So the article is a net positive. A pro-Buffalo article that magaes to avoid condescension even when talking abut how we're kind of pathetic in certain areas. Then again...
"Buffalo fans feel like Red Sox fans felt for all those years," says ESPN's Ron Jaworski, who was born in Lackawanna and gave his daughter Jessica the middle name Stormy because she was conceived in town during the Blizzard of '77. "We believe we are jinxed. We believe we will never win a championship. Yet we believe."
This is the big one: SHUT UP, RON JAWORSKI. The stadium they named after you looks like shit, you gave your daughter a stupid name, and you're from Lackawana (oh, that's gonna cost me). But shut up, seriously. We're not the fucking Red Sox. We don't think we're jinxed. No one thinks that. We're probably as small a market as you can get for a major sports franchise, and we recognize how that can make for an arduous climb to the top of any sports league. We're realists in Buffalo. We haven't adopted any stupid "curse" mentality. We're not the lovable losers. I cannot stress that enough. We're underdogs, and we own that. In every sport I watch, whenever I don't have a string rooting interest, I will always pull for the underdog, so I appreciate that the Sabres hold that appeal this year. But I'm also a Yankee fan, and let me tell you, seeing your team win an actual championship is infinitely superior to wallowing in your status as beloved underdogs. And yet, while the Yanks are my team, they're not my hometown team. Sharing a major sports championship with an entire town is something I've yet to do. The idea of getting to do so right before I pack up and leave? ...I kind of don't even want to think about it. Wouldn't want to JINX anything, eh Ron?