Jewish World Review Oct. 31, 2003 / 5 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Leonard Pitts, Jr.

Leonard Pitts, Jr.
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Consumer Reports

Now, let's get this straight: It's my team | Memo to Shaq O'Neal and Kobe Bryant:

My wife suggested I sleep on this. Which is why the salutation doesn't read, ``Memo to Two Festering Boils on the Buttocks of My Patience.''

I hear you two are feuding again. California burning down around you, Kobe being tried for rape, and you find time to snipe at one other.

Shaq, you said Kobe was a ball hog. You declared that, henceforth, this was your team. Kobe, you said Shaq was a fat malingerer. If it's his team, you said, let him show some leadership.

Yadda yadda. I'll let others deal with the substance of your dispute. What I can't get past is you two trading shots over whose team the Lakers is. Let me clear that up for you.

It's mine.

I bought it — or, perhaps more accurately, bought into it — over the last 25 years, in increments of T-shirts and caps, key chains and tie clips. I bought it by staying up till 1 in the morning to watch you sleepwalk through a butt-kicking from some lesser team. I bought it by cheering my throat raw when you walked away winners.

I am a fan. It's my team.

Sometimes, I think you forget that. You and all the other multimillionaires who show up at games driving dream cars and leave them trailing dream women. Sometimes, I think you guys forget what it means when I allow you the privilege of coming into my home. The privilege of my support.

What else can I think when Joe Corvo of the Los Angeles Kings is convicted of attacking a woman in a restaurant. When Bill Romanowski of the Oakland Raiders breaks the orbital bone of a teammate during a brawl. When John Rocker shares his theories of racial and social dynamics. When Latrell Sprewell chokes his coach. When Warren Sapp of the Tampa Bay Bucs compares himself to a slave while drawing an annual paycheck reported to be in excess of $6 million.

When you, Kobe, commit adultery — and, allegedly, rape — in a Colorado hotel room.

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Bonzi Wells of the Portland Trail Blazers seemed to speak for many athletes two years ago when he told Sports Illustrated, ``We're not really going to worry about what the hell [the fans] think about us. They really don't matter to us. They can boo us every day, but they're still going to ask for our autographs if they see us on the street. That's why they're fans and we're NBA players.''

I met a woman the other day who thinks sports commands entirely too much of our attention.

She has a point, I suppose. Sports isn't teacher important. Isn't rabbi, cop or firefighter important. But that isn't to say it doesn't matter at all. It does.

Yes, because it's a classroom for the verities and virtues of life — the importance of practice, mental toughness and teamwork. But also, because it makes people say ``we.''

Surely you've noticed that. How people tend to use the first person when talking about the home team. They don't say, ''We really played a great show last night'' unless they actually belong to the band. But the 50-year-old with the beer gut and the bum knee can always give you a learned discourse on how ''we'' need stronger pitching from ''our'' bullpen or more rebounding from ''our'' power forward.

Sports is about the human need to choose sides. It is a seasonal chance to be part of something. Maybe even something great. That's why we wear your colors and point you out to our kids. Why we linger over sepia memories of glory days and tell ourselves that this might be the year those days return.

Usually, it's not. Usually, the team's luck and prowess are unequal to greatness. It's no fun, but you deal with it.

What's harder to deal with is the acts of entitlement, criminality, stupidity or plain pettiness that give ''we'' a taste of ashes on the tongue. That's the real kick in the seat of the pants. And we get kicked all too often.

It's my team, guys. I wish that mattered to you more than it apparently does.

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