HEY, PHILLY KID, WHO YOU ROOTIN’ FOR?

PHILADELPHIA — I land at the airport. I make a phone call. A local sports talk show has asked to speak to me. I brace myself.

“Our next guest is a writer in Detroit,” the host says. “But he’s a Philly kid! Hey, Mitch! How can you not be rooting for your hometown?”

So it begins. This happens every few years, like a lunar eclipse. The two cities of my life — the one I grew up in, the one I live in — align on an axis, their sports teams clash, and the battle begins.

“Didn’t you watch the 76ers as a kid?” the host asks.

Yes, I say.

“Didn’t you like them?”

Yes, I say

“So where’s your loyalty?”

Where’s my loyalty? That is always the question. When it comes to sports, it doesn’t matter how far you roam, you are expected back in the hometown fold as sure as you are expected at the family reunion. Never mind that I never voted in Philly, never paid taxes, never owned a home in Philly.

Never mind. Once born, always marked. It’s as if I were Tarzan, raised by beasts in the forests of Motown, but expected to return to my people in the City of Brotherly Love. Brotherly? You know? Your home? Amongst your brothers?

“C’mon,” the host says, “who you rootin’ for?”

A wide divide

This would be so much easier if sports were not so critical in each of these towns. Had I been raised in Malibu, for example, no one would care if I adopted the Pistons, Red Wings or Lions.

“Rock on, dude,” they would say, “we’re surfin’.”

Alas. I was not raised in Malibu. I come from the land of soft pretzels, Rocky and the Delfonics. I live in the land of coney dogs, Eminem and the Temptations.

The 76ers are playing the Pistons in the NBA playoffs. The questions have returned.

“Which is the better sports town?” the host asks.

Oh, I knew this was coming. Which is the better sports town? How can you pick? Detroit is rabid. Philly is rabid. Detroit devours its sports section. Philly devours its sports section. Detroit throws parades when its teams win. Philly throws snowballs when its team loses. Which is better? How can you pick?

“You must have favorite players,” the host says.

Sure, I have favorite players. I have the favorite players of my youth, the ones I watched and admired and dreamed about on the playgrounds, and I have the favorite players of my adulthood, the ones I’ve interviewed and grown friendly with and shared a laugh with on a plane or in a hotel.

How do you pick? Why must you pick?

“Who you rootin’ for?” the host asks.

Diehards are born that way

What is it about where you grow up? I have met people who haven’t lived in Detroit in 40 years. They are still wearing Lions jerseys or Tigers caps. I have met people who couldn’t stand the traffic in Philly or the weather in Philly. But they still ask about the trades the teams make. They still scour their local newspaper for box scores and transactions.

Is it some kind of blood ritual? Do they get you in the maternity ward and put your little hand on a Bible and make you swear allegiance to the football, baseball, basketball and hockey teams?

“Just tell us this,” the host says, “who do you think is gonna win?”

Oh, sure. Give me that question. We all know what it means. You pick a team to win, you want that team to win. Or else you pick a team to lose because you’re a typical pessimistic fan — which means, of course, that you really want the team to win.

Homer or traitor? Bookbinder’s or the Whitney? Kate Smith or Anita Baker? Pistons or 76ers?

“Who you rootin’ for?” the host asks.

Who am I rootin’ for? I am a writer. Here is what I’m rootin’ for. A good story. That’s what I’m rootin’ for.

“Selfish jerk,” says Philly.

“Selfish jerk,” says Detroit.

Hey, wait a minute. . . .

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com.

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