Sports Envy
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Sports Envy

My wife was shocked when I suddenly turned into a rabid basketball fan 12 years into our marriage. But not as shocked as I was about to be.

Sports Obsessions? Not Me

They say you should never marry someone expecting him to change. But that's a myth. In fact, you should marry someone assuming he will change. But it will always be in some absurdly unpredictable way -- and never the way you might have secretly hoped.

Here is one big way I've changed: When Diane and I got married, I was one of the only men she knew who didn't give a damn about sports. Didn't read the sports pages. Hardly ever watched sports on TV. Went to Super Bowl parties pretty much for the big buffets.

Generally, I was baffled by my friends and their obsessions with sports. Which I guess made me more like a typical wife. And, like too many wives, I learned to fake it. This was especially easy during football season, since teams play only one game a week and it's simple enough to get the gist from the TV news teasers (home team won, be happy) so you can nod knowingly in the locker room.

I always knew Diane really appreciated that I wasn't like the other sports-obsessed guys. And I remained that way for so long that she had every reason to believe that my non-interest in sports had reached some sort of tenure status in our marriage.

The Metamorphosis into a Sports Fan

So imagine her distress when I suddenly began morphing into a raging pro-basketball fan. It began innocently enough. Several years ago some friends of ours conned us into buying half of their season tickets for the Philadelphia 76ers. I initially saw this not so much as a commitment to sports as a commitment to 20 nights out. (Just like anything else married people subscribe to, it's more about getting out together than seeing the Belgian touring company of Les Miserables.) I even thought Diane might enjoy coming to some games, but she only came when she felt sorry for me because one of my guy dates backed out at the last minute. And then she spent most of the time drawing amusing caricatures of players, fans, and cheerleaders in a little sketchbook.

She was missing what turned into a magical year in hoops. Much to everyone's astonishment, the team suddenly got really good. In fact, we (yes, I had started thinking of 76ers and me as a "we") made it all the way to the finals against the Shaq/Kobe Los Angeles Lakers, the NBA's evil empire. And somewhere in the middle of those dizzying playoffs I became hopelessly addicted.

I started memorizing the sports pages, obsessing over substitution patterns and obscure stats. Around the guys I could suddenly talk the talk.

At home, however, this made things a little weird. Diane was confounded by these changes. I was turning into a "guy guy" and she had gone out of her way to marry someone who wasn't. She did her best to tolerate my aberrant behavior and adjust to having an ESPN-pecked husband. She only really complained when I began insisting that any televised basketball game should automatically edge out whatever program we would usually watch on our only TV, the one with the dysfunctional VCR.

Diane's Surprising New Passion

For the better part of two years, the 76ers came between us. And then, during the third season, something even more surprising happened. One night I called from the car, on my way home. All I heard was a woman's voice saying, "You would not believe what Allen just did!" At first I thought it was a wrong number, until I heard "but wait, baby, hold on a second... ah, c'mon, man, that's a foul!" It took me a second to get my bearings. I was feeling a little light-headed. Diane was watching the game? On purpose? Without me?

When I got home, she recapped the highlights for me just like...well, just like an actual fan. I wasn't sure how to react. I can imagine some husbands being upset by such a turn of events -- they like the barrier that sports provides between them and their wives and wouldn't want it toppled any more than they would want to join their wives' book group. But I had a different concern. I was afraid that if I asked what had happened, it might break the spell she was under.

Eventually she explained that her transformation came gradually, through repeated viewings of the superhuman exploits of 76er guard Allen Iverson. The greatest non-tall athlete of all time, he became a source of constant fascination for my 5-foot-1 wife -- who, it turns out, was a pretty good athlete as a kid (until reaching the age when, in her small town, the only sport open to girls was being a cheerleader for the boys' teams). The endless drama surrounding Iverson eventually led her to attachments to some of the other players. Whatever rules and strategy she didn't remember, she'd ask me about or go on the Internet. (I admit it's a turn-on when she talks to me.) Today Diane is a bona fide 76er fan. She comes to most of the games -- she knows to skip only the crummy teams -- and really appreciates the finer points of the sport. (I must admit, though, that I do sometimes miss the cheerleader sketches.) And when she leapt into my arms after Iverson made a buzzer beater to win a game this season, I swung her back and forth and found myself in a whole new kind of love.

I may have been genetically predisposed to marrying a latent sports fan. While I was growing up my mom was actually much more into sports than my dad was. Raised outside Pittsburgh, she always went with her father to see the Pirates and the Steelers. The last year of Grandpa's life, the Pirates were in the World Series and the final game was on a Sunday when we had tickets for the local community theater. So, while my father and I sat watching some guy from Harrisburg warble "Some Enchanted Evening" in his best French-waiter accent, my mother and my brother Jeff listened to the game, swapping the earpiece of a black transistor radio. I can still see the tears running down Mom's face when her beloved Pirates won it all.

I've had friends say they envy me because my wife has become a basketball fan. Their wives will barely let them surf over to the game to check the score during the commercials of Desperate Housewives. I tell them it's great but, like many things in marriage, more complicated than it looks.

I have known couples where the wife plays along with the husband's sports insanity so she won't feel left out. You can usually spot these couples because the wife is trying a little too hard and conveniently has all the same favorite teams and players as the husband. But Diane has her own take on the sport. For example, we roundly disagreed on whether the team should trade its fading point guard, and when they did, she became despondent. And, for the past two years, when our team got eliminated in the playoffs, she began rooting, rather vociferously, for a team I despise, the Detroit Pistons. During the series, she actually adopted their swagger. She was getting so Pistony I worried she would trash-talk me in bed.

So now I'm a guy who gets into sports arguments with his wife. Eventually I'm sure I'll win one.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, October 2005.