I have two favourite metaphors to describe the experience of sport. The first is Gary Smith’s description of experiencing a sporting event being “like pulling a blanket over your head when you’re a kid.”
The second is from Ray Allen, the Boston Celtics shooting guard:
“There’s a point at which you almost try to get a player to believe he’s gotta be remembered and that he’s gotta do more and more so people will remember him. But really, all we can do is what we’ve done. People are going to decide who they want to remember and who they don’t. I think everyone – every fan, every player – has his own little closet of history, and he puts whatever he wants in it. Maybe it’s the Red Sox, maybe it’s the Patriots, maybe it’s us. Maybe it’s Eddie House, maybe it’s me. We have no say-so in that, it’s not our closet.”
ESPN journalist Chris Jones, who quoted Allen in his piece ‘The Things We Forget’, commented: “The man knows his metaphors. A closet is a personal, intimate thing, cluttered and cleared out every now and then in a lifelong cycle that leaves only the stuff we could never part with – just like the space in our brain where we park our memories.”
While Smith’s blanket metatphor is so very perfect for describing the experience of a sports fan during a contest, Allen’s closet beautifully describes the ongoing collective sports history that sports fans retain in their heads over time.
To add to Jones’ explanation as to why the metaphor is so apt, one only has to consider moments that one witnesses that provide insight into people’s closets.
- On the train home from Melbourne to Geelong last week, a woman alighted at Lara. She was wearing a low-backed singlet-top which revealed a tattoo between her shoulder blades. It read “Collingwood Premiers, 2010. 16.12.108”. While initially, one could but laugh at this lifelong celebration of the premiership – and wonder what she will do if they go on to repeat next year – it made so beautifully clear the way that some moments, like some objects, make their way into our closet and we know they will never leave, forever conjuring the beautiful lifelong memories associated with them.
- The demise of Tiger Woods –who would have thought 12 months ago that the first documentary on Tiger to be broadcast in Australia would be screened on SBS at 10:00pm on a Friday night, as it was last week? – immediately altered many fans’ perspectives regarding his achievements. Some reacted as if they had been betrayed by Woods, and thus immediately and permanently re-arranged their closet, almost as if they were burning the items left by a now ex-partner. Others have hung onto him, keeping him in the closet perhaps in the hope that circumstances change once again in the future, and the memories are re-kindled. And others gleefully keep him forever, happily ignoring his faults and cherishing the memories in the forefront of their closet.
- Living in Geelong, every year we have the privilege of looking at the entries to a competition in one of the local throwaway papers in which primary school students are asked to send in their drawings of their favourite Geelong Cat. It’s a privilege because the editors of the paper can always find 15 or so different players represented in the drawings. It always reminds me of the beauty of finding one’s “favourite” player as a kid – someone who may or may not be as brilliant as Ablett, but who will always be associated with the simplistic wonder and awe we hold during childhood, and which will only grow in sentiment whenever the items in that corner of the closet are visited as time passes.
- Three seasons ago now, Mrs EPO and I attended an NHL game in Ottawa between the Senators and the Islanders. 1230 games are played in every NHL season, and yet for those people like us who only attend one, it is that game – a a game which in the grand scheme of the league is trivial and entirely unmemorable – which remains in our closet forever. Every aspect of the contest, from the transport to the game to the conversations of those around us, earn the lifelong status in the closet, with sentimental value never to be lost. Most of those who were present that night, including most players who would have played a few hundred games since, probably can’t remember anything about the experience or the game itself, but for us it’s a priceless memory – like one of those items in the closet that will never have any lasting value to anyone other than us.
There’s only one way in which Allen doesn’t quite have the metaphor perfected. He argues that sportspeople “have no say-so” in what people retain in their closets. Most often, of course, he’s right. But one could argue that he misses a quite salient aspect of his otherwise excellent concept.
For it’s the understanding of this metaphor that separates the great sports people – that is, the great people who happen to be sportspeople – from the rest. The great sports people understand that hanging around to sign the extra autograph, handing a piece of memorabilia to a kid, smiling and thanking a small but devoted crowd, or showing up to a charity event is often a gesture that will ensure they remain in a closet forever.
And they’ll remain there, in people’s cherished closet of memories, for all the right reasons.