By Robert Weintraub
DULUTH, Ga. -- Life has been pretty tough for Atlanta sports fans this week. The Braves lost a heartbreaker in L.A. The Falcons lost to the Jets on Monday Night Football to fall to an unthinkable 1-4, and then lost star receiver Julio Jones for the season. Georgia Tech lost to Miami, as always. Even Georgia, who bucks the local trend by pulling out one nail-biter after another, has lost seemingly half its players to injury.
But most damaging to the local psyche has been the blowout losses suffered by the Atlanta Dream to the Minnesota Lynx in the first two games of the best-of-five WNBA Finals.
Wait, why are you laughing?
Somewhere at a subatomic level, I knew Atlanta was in the Finals, but nothing about that fact cohered in my frontal lobe until my five-year-old daughter Phoebe got off her bicycle a few days ago on a local hoops court and picked up a ball. She didn't shoot it or anything, just hurled it at her little brother, but for a brief instant I envisioned her on the court, playing ball for real. A little Google-fu later, I was asking her if she wanted to go see a real basketball game.
Being five, and sensing a chance at staying up late with snacks to boot, she screamed "Yeaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!"
So there we were Thursday night on a daddy/daughter outing at the Gwinnett Center outside Atlanta. The game was played thirty minutes north (sixty during rush hour) of the Dream's usual digs, Philips Arena, because the Phil (no one actually calls it that) was booked by, ironically enough, Disney On Ice. It was only through the hard-earned wisdom of parenthood that I managed to refrain from mentioning this fact to Phoebe, lest she whine for a couple of hours about missing Mickey and Doc McStuffins on skates.
Amazingly, she had a better time at the basketball game.
Somewhat surprisingly, Pheebs immediately jumped on the side of the Lynx, not as a frontrunner or reflexive antipathy for the home side, either of which I would understand, but for a more basic reason -- she loves wildcats. "I want to run free and be a cat," she explained on our way in, as she ran free around the arena breezeway. A lynx is, of course, a wildcat, so it was natural that a little girl who can break down the minute differences between a serval and a caracal would start chanting "Let's Go, Wild-cats!" within a couple of minutes (my repeated attempts to push her over to "Let's Go Lynx!" were ignored).
She held firm, even as the PA announcer urged everyone to "Scream for the Dream."
"I don't want to 'Scream for the Dream'" she said, "because they are the home team, and everyone just wants them to win 'cause that's our home. But I only like my cats!" She sounded so much like the young me, growing up in New York, justifying why I refused partisanship for the local Giants and Jets, instead taking up the banner for "my cats," the Cincinnati Bengals, that I momentarily choked up.
The Gwinnett Center was about forty percent full, but the folks who showed up for the ridiculously late 8:30 tip (thanks, ESPN) were enthusiastic. Many shared Phoebe's rooting interest, thanks to the return home of Lynx star Maya Moore. The former UConn superstar grew up here and went to nearby Collins Hill High School, and actually won three state titles on this very floor. Much of the crowd is there for her, waving signs reading "WE LOVE MAYA" and t-shirts promising "Moore 2 Come."
The Dream, by contrast, don't have a name nearly as familiar from college hoops, like Brittney Griner, Diana Taurasi, or Candace Parker. Their best player is Angel McCoughtry, who may be tremendous but doesn't exactly move the needle round these parts.
Phoebe didn't care much about the individual players running the floor, but she followed the game far more closely than I expected. Fueled by a cup full of pigs 'n' blankets, she kept track of the score while I tested her math skills by asking her to figure out the Lynx lead (and they lead throughout). In this manner, I assuaged any guilt over keeping my five-year-old out until nearly midnight. I pointed out that the scoreboard was showing the action on video, but Phoebe retorted, "I don't want to watch the screen -- I want to watch the game!" My sports pride surged.
I must admit, I was expecting a female empowerment-palooza at a WNBA contest, but the game presentation was fairly straightforward. Indeed, when a series of questionable calls went against the home team, the crowd got surly. At one point, a momentary hush fell over the arena. A fan behind us boomed, "Hey ref -- you are terrible!!" and the whole place laughed.
Pheebs bounced excitedly on her seat much of the time, raised her hands over her head when three pointers went down, and lovingly repeated the lingo I passed along to her. Make fun of the WNBA all you like, but attending an event where your daughter can yell "Ball don't lie!" makes you an instant convert.
The game was replete with the usual time-killers during breaks in the action -- dance teams, t-shirt tossing, and a skills competition. After the latter, Phoebe yelled, "I should enter that next time!" I asked if she thought she could make a basket, now that she's been to a real live game.
"Yeah! ... Well, maybe. I think I could play on a little court, and practice. Then I'll be ready for a real game." She's not usually this practical, as she will prove when she downs an entire stadium-size bucket of popcorn in the car on the way home. But when it comes to hoops, my little bear, a mere two months into kindergarten, is suddenly sounding very grownup.
Maybe coming here wasn't such a good idea after all.
Meanwhile, Moore and the Lynx control the game throughout. Every time the Dream closes in, Moore, former LSU star Seimone Augustus, or the bulky (215 pounds) yet spry Janel McCarville make a play to blunt the home team's hopes. Late in the game, McCarville went schoolyard, dropping a dime between her legs to a trailer for a hoop and the harm. "She threw it between her legs!" Phoebe squealed. McCarville did an Arian Foster-like karate bow in celebration. Phoebe immediately adopted it as well. It might as well be me doing the Ickey Shuffle back in the day.
She somehow sensed, despite the cacophony in the arena, that I was feeling wistful. She leaned over and said, "If the team you want to win doesn't win, don't feel sad. They will one day."
I simply can't bring myself to explain the realities of sports fandom to my baby girl. I'm torn between wanting to stoke this nascent interest in ballgames and doing what a protective parent should, shielding her from the certain anguish that comes with choosing a team and sticking with it through thick and (mostly) thin.
As it happens, her team, the Lynx, knocked off the Dream 86-77 to sweep the series, winning their second title in three seasons. "I want to see the trophy," Phoebe insisted, even though the hour was getting late. I saw her carefully watch the Minnesota players jump for joy and hug each other madly. For the first time since she was born, I can feel myself wanting this for Phoebe in some capacity -- not becoming a professional player, obviously, but the camaraderie of a team, and the pride and feeling of achievement that comes with athletics.
With luck, she will look back upon last night's game and cherish the memory of the night she went to her first sporting event.
Just maybe, the fact that she went with her daddy will be part of that memory too.
Robert Weintraub is the author of the books The Victory Season and The House That Ruth Built. He writes regularly for the New York Times, ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, CJR, Slate and many others. Follow him on Twitter @robwein.