On Sport, Place, Myth and The Most Hated Man in America

John Connolly, 18, of South Boston, Mass. is the most hated man in America. He just graduated from Boston Public Schools, where he earned above-average grades and athletic honors in football and baseball. He’s about to enjoy his last, great summer before he’ll be expected to start thinking about internships, building his resume and THE REAL WORLD. But, for the next three months, John and his friends will have fun just being teenagers in the neighborhood, and in the city, where they grew up. In September, JoCo – that’s what Connolly’s friends call him – will attend Fairfield University, where he’ll quickly learn that America suddenly hates Boston sports fans, and, by extension, people from Boston.

Once rumored to be the new location of Fenway Park (in 1999, when John was 7), South Boston has changed more than most people could have imagined in his lifetime. Large companies like Fidelity made significant capital investments in the South Boston waterfront creating a commercial district that had only been imagined as possible. The City built a massive convention center there that came with brand new hotels to service out-of-town guests. Southie has become a destination living spot for twenty- and thirty-somethings with fashionable restaurants and bars. Almost any observer of the city would say it’s been an improbable rise for South Boston over John’s 18 years. The same could be said about Boston sports teams, and about the City itself.

When John was 8 years old, the Patriots won their first Super Bowl ever with a team of largely unknown players and a coach that had been labeled a failure for his shortcomings in Cleveland. They went on to win two of the next three Super Bowls, and enjoyed one of the most dominant stretches the NFL has ever seen in 2003 and 2004 (for good measure, the Patriots finished the regular season undefeated when John was 14, and came within one insane Super Bowl catch of the second perfect season in NFL history). Nine months after the Patriots won their third Super Bowl, the Red Sox improbably completed a 3-0 comeback against the Yankees, their arch-rivals, and won the team’s first World Series in 86 years; they went on to win another in 2007. A year later, the Celtics won the NBA Championship for the first time in John’s lifetime, and played in another staggeringly close Finals against the Lakers two years after that. Then, finally, about a week ago, the Bruins won the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1972. Seven major sports championships in 10 years. And that is why, when John Connolly arrives at Fairfield University, his roommate is assuredly going to hate him.

To understand why any of this matters to John Connolly and to Boston is partly to understand why we watch sports and to understand why sports matter. It is partly to respond to derisive comments about grown men playing children’s games or throwing leather balls through iron rims or knocking each other senseless repeatedly. We watch sports, those of us that do, because it reinforces some of our basic assumptions about life – that if you work hard for a long period of time, you will succeed; that talent and skill are rewarded; that teamwork is important; that anyone can rise to an occasion and be a hero (Frankie Cabrera!). We watch sports because we like the certainty and finality that they give us when life usually cannot; knowing that one team, the best team, will win and one team will lose, even if, as in life, we often discount luck too much. We watch because, like a good Greek play, there are heroes and villains. We watch because sometimes the completely improbable becomes entirely possible.Sports is theater, sure, performed for sums of money that are incomprehensible, sure, but it can be the highest form of theater we have.

To grow up a Boston sports fan is to grow up hearing the same stories and the same names over and over. That type of oral history might be true of a sports fan in any city, but it’s particularly true here because of Boston’s historical presence in all four major sports. John Connolly heard those stories, the same way I did – from my father and coaches, from friends, on sports radio talk shows and in newspaper columns. For Celtics fans, it was stories of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, and before them Havlicek, Russell and Cousy, wars fought with the Lakers in the ’80s, the Bill Laimbeer clothesline. For Bruins fans, it was Bobby Orr, Phil Espositio and this goal. For Patriots fans, it was the ’86 Super Bowl and letting The Fridge score a touchdown. For Red Sox fans, it was Ted Willians, Yaz, Fred Lynn, Carlton Fisk, stories of the Impossible Dream season, the ’75 Series, Bucky *bleeping* Dent, and most of all THE CURSE OF THE BAMBINO. These stories and names were repeated so often, to so many people that they became myth – again in the Greek sense – more than historical recounts, parables about greatness and destiny and flying too close to the sun. Those were the Boston myths, inextricably tied up with the City, because so many in the city were inextricably tied up with them. For the Boston sports fan, they were all encompassing and inescapable.

When the Bruins finally won the Stanley Cup, more than one commentator described the team as “gritty” and “a reflection of the City of Boston.” It was, truly, an absurd premise. Were we really to believe that because a lot of the team resides in the North End that somehow these players – from Europe and Canada and other parts of this country – were imbued with the grittiness of a kid from the streets of Charlestown or Dorcester or the South Boston of John Connolly’s childhood? Of course not. But, the City is certainly a reflection of its sports teams. How could it not be? Those myths are rooted deep inside Bostonians, influencing our impulses, our moods, our behaviors like all those Greek morality plays were written to do. It’s not our fault as much as a byproduct of being raised as sports fans here, in this city. So, it’s easy now to call Boston, The City of Champions, given our teams’ recent successes. It’s an easy story to write (note: I’m aware the smug tone of that article kind of undermines my point here, especially from someone who profitted off of the fucking Curse of the Bambino. Screw you).

The individual fan experience is not nearly so universal. My dad’s experience as a Boston sports fan – 40-odd years before this winning blitz started – is different than mine (I was 21 when the Patriots won their first Super Bowl) is different than John Connolly’s. For me, I don’t think any sports moment will ever be better than the 2004 Red Sox – that epic comeback against the Yankees, the heroics of David Ortiz and Curt Schilling, winning that first World Series. That was the most meaningful for me (along with the Braves World Series victory in 1995, another story for another time). The stretch of Patriots dominance in 2003-2004 would be second; the clinical precision with which those teams dismantled the league, and Peyton Manning particularly, was awesome. Then the Celtics: watching Ray Allen play when he’s on is really fun. I was happy for Paul Pierce whose loyalty to Boston paid off in the end and Kevin Garnett. Then, finally, least meaningful to me, was the Bruins. I’m happy they won, but I never grew up playing hockey nor do I watch regular season hockey games. I’m more happy for my friends who did grow up playing and for whom the Bruins win was the spiritual equivalent of my 2004 Red Sox. Someone else would have a different order and John Connolly yet another one. Thats the thing about stories and myths, we self-select the ones that are important and meaningful to us.

A city doesn’t quite work like that. Boston will slowly change – with new stories and new myths, from a place shaped by my father’s experiences, and mine, to one shaped by John Connolly’s and people of his generation; maybe that process has already begun. If anyone can tell you about how a place can change, and shift, and become something it never was before, it’s John Connolly. It’s just too bad he’s going to be hated at Fairfield.

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