On rooting for laundry

Steve Nash forced a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers. Ray Allen took less money to play for the Miami Heat. Charles Barkley was traded to the Suns’ bitter mid-90s rivals the Rockets, and Johnny Damon traitorously left the Red Sox for the Yankees.

This list could go on and on as time and again athletes have made it clear that these seemingly deep rivalries on the playing field are more about one fan base against the other rather than any kind of authentic disdain from one team to the next.

Although I could not imagine Derek Jeter opting to finish his career with the Red Sox or Larry Bird taking his talents to LA, Jerry Seinfeld’s old bit about how local sports fans are really just rooting for laundry has never been more true.

Bill Simmons made that point in an offseason NBA column:

These guys don’t care about rivalries.Only we do. We want to believe players care about things like “We hate Miami, we have to beat those guys!” … but they only care about that stuff in the moment. Fan bases, not players, keep rivalries going. Ray jumped to Miami because it was the best move for him. Nash jumped to the Lakers because it was the best move for him. That’s sports, that’s the way it’s always been, that’s the way it will always be.

This issue will come into play on Jan. 30 when Mr. Nash makes his first return to the Valley.

As Seinfeld put it in the aforementioned clip, “Fans will be so in love with a player, but if he goes to another team they boo him. This is the same human being in a different shirt, they hate him now. Boooo, different shirt! Boooo!”

It does seem a little silly the way Seinfeld puts it, but if you really wanted to think about sports in this manner you could question the wisdom of 20,000 (or 70,000 in football’s case) people cramming themselves into a building to holler while grown men throw a ball into a net.

When you strip sports down to the basics it all does seem a little ridiculous, but the reason we do care so much and root so vigorously for laundry is because it’s fun. It’s fun to watch your team through the years and all the accompanying ups and downs, from the thrilling come-from-behind wins to the heartbreaking defeats. It’s fun to talk a little trash and to take real pride in your team’s accomplishments even if you personally have nothing to do with them.

It’s also fun to boo that flopper on your team’s biggest rival and to make a ruckus in hopes of causing a missed free throw so that you can at least tell yourself that you made a contribution to your team’s effort.

Through rooting for laundry we become connected to certain players, and when they leave it becomes much more difficult emotionally than changing your underwear so to speak should be, especially when that player is Steve Nash.

It can hurt us when we thought we were rooting for more than just laundry, when a player transcends the player-fan relationship the way Nash did in Phoenix.

He was the face of the franchise for eight years, the engine that drove a contender and by the end of it the only reason to come out and watch a mediocre Suns team.

From a Seinfeldian perspective, it might seem crazy to boo a player who received this kind of ovation just a few months ago, but I think the rule of thumb should be to do everything in the spirit of fun and not take any transaction personally, no matter how bitter the rivalry may be. It might feel personal that Steve Nash wanted to play for the Lakers, but it isn’t.

I don’t think Nash deserves to be booed. That designation should be reserved for “villains” (from a Suns perspective of at least) like Manu Ginobili and Kobe or players who screw over the franchise on the way out (a la Dwight, who deserves Hell from the Magic faithful).

The Suns and Nash came to a mutual decision to split ways, so I don’t think it makes sense to hold it against him that the best situation for him happened to be with a major rival.

The Nash situation provides one more piece of evidence that it’s kind of silly to think of a player as belonging to a city or representing a city since he could be repping your biggest rival a few years down the road. From that standpoint, we really are all just rooting for laundry.

And that’s OK, so long as we realize that sports are meant to be fun and player movement is a part of the business, and thus we should not take it personally when our favorite player moves on to a hated rival.

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