Being a fan of athletes, not teams

Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) dunks over Miami Heat's Hassan Whiteside (21) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Jan. 14, 2018, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

What team do you root for?

If you’re engaged in a conversation about sports, someone will probably ask you just that. People want to know what teams you are a fan of, or what teams you support, either to find common ground or to create a little friendly rivalry. It’s a common question and is something usually pretty easy to answer.

For the most part, I can pretty easily tell you what teams I support. Football? New York Jets. Baseball? New York Yankees. Hockey? New York Islanders. All teams in my region. Basketball? Well, that’s where it gets a little tricky.

I have more or less been a San Antonio Spurs fan for as long as I can remember. You could say I’m being a bandwagon fan, and I’ve gotten plenty of heat for that over the years, but the truth is I was just really obsessed with the likes of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker growing up. Add on a legendary coach like Gregg Popovich and a few rings and they’re a pretty sweet team to be a fan of.

Still, I’m not super invested in watching every Spurs game. Mostly, I’ll just follow along with box scores and highlights on social media. Nowadays, my fandom for basketball is rooted in the players. Even growing up, I watched for the players I liked best. And that hasn’t changed.

The Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard is one of my favorite NBA superstars now, keeping me quite interested in San Antonio, but he’s been hurt for much of this season. Other athletes such as Russell Westbrook and James Harden electrify the league and keep me interested outside of the Spurs.

Despite all that, my favorite NBA player now, and perhaps all-time, is the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo. I actively campaign for him to win the MVP award and have followed him since he entered the association in 2013.

At first, I probably liked him more because of his name, but the Greek Freak has become a legitimate superstar and is arguably the most uber-athletic player in quite some time. Antetokounmpo makes watching the NBA that much more enjoyable and exciting for me, and is thus the best example for why supporting players, not teams, can be just as fulfilling as a fan.

This doesn’t just apply to the NBA either. Exciting players can make fandom more fulfilling in any given sport. In the case of soccer, my favorite team is FC Barcelona. Much of that is due to the spectacular play of Lionel Messi, who is an all-time great in his own right.

That said, I also make room in my heart for Tottenham in the Premier League in England and Juventus in Serie A in Italy. Those teams are led by Harry Kane and Paulo Dybala, respectively, players very near and dear to me because of their incredible skillsets.

The same goes for football and hockey. Being a fan of the Jets and Islanders can be depressing for years and years at a time, but when I can support players like the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Jalen Ramsey or the Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid, there’s an added spice to my fandom of sports.

Ramsey, in particular, has been a revelation as a cornerback for the Jaguars. He’s brash, trash talks, guarantees victories, gets in opponents’ heads and, more than anything else, backs it up on the field as a key cog in the best defense in the NFL. He’s been named First Team All-Pro as a second-year cornerback and could very well be one of the great ones come then end of his career.

With the Jets flailing to another poor record, Ramsey’s production and personality has kept the league exciting for me. That’s especially impressive since he’s a cornerback, a position that might not keep people enthused. But he has done so in breathtaking fashion, reminding me of the play of Jets great Darrelle Revis at his peak.

It’s these types of athletes that we can get behind when we don’t have a team to support, or when our team is letting us down, that can keep fans invested in the sports they love.

So if you are one like me, don’t be afraid to answer a question like “Who do you root for?” with an athlete. Be it their skillset or their persona off the field, it’s okay to root for athletes just as much as a whole team.


Chris Hanna is the associate sports editor  for The Daily Campus, covering women’s basketball. He can be reached via email at christopher.hanna@uconn.edu. He tweets @realchrishanna.