sports blog by andy shenk

An Introduction To Obsession

In Musings on October 5, 2011 at 6:56 PM
Andy Shenk

I contribute to this blog because I love sports, but my love of sports would be inconsequential if I did not love to write. Glenn Stout, in the foreword to The Best American Sports Writing 2010, recalls how Boston Herald columnist, Tim Horgan, always admonished young sport writers to love writing first and sports second. For my part, I will harness words to describe my love for sports and how it has shaped my world and, perhaps, how it illuminates and sometimes shapes the world we all inhabit.

I graduated from Carleton College, a “highly-selective” liberal arts college in Northfield, Minnesota. Just 15 months after graduating I find myself back in Northfield, married, unemployed, and trying to figure out how to earn a living with the skills I’ve gained over the past 23 years. My landlord tells me, at age 32, that he’s also still trying to figure out what to do with his life. Kind of him to say, sure, but it doesn’t negate the fact that he’s a part owner of two gyms, skilled carpenter and handyman, homeowner, and close to gaining a teaching license. Me? I’m a college graduate with very limited work experience.

The one piece of advice I’ve heard that sticks with me is to look for employment that converges with my passions. Well, I’ve already admitted to two passions – writing and sports. Both have shaped my personal development and, I hope, will continue to play a significant role in my life. Two other obsessions, however, have been with for almost my entire life – Russia and religion. Spending six years of my childhood as a missionary in Russia laid a very solid foundation for that.

Of course, I speak in generalities. Do not expect me to devote this blog to an analysis of evangelical professional Russian athletes. I’d be happy to touch on them, if they do, in fact, exist. I am much more interested, however, in the intersections politics and religion make with sports. As a starting point I will examine sports fandom. Future posts will delve into Russia’s ethnic question and the impact of oligarch Suleiman Kerimov’s purchase of FC Anzhi, the economics of sports, emotional attachment, and more.

For now, let’s go to Springfield, Ohio and the now distant 1990’s.

There are many facets to experiencing sports. I begin with the first perspective I can remember…childhood obsession. Winter evenings were spent sprawled out on the floor, combing through the NBA boxscores and standings in the Springfield News-Sun. As only second-graders can, I fantasized about growing to be seven-feet tall and getting drafted number one by my team, the San Antonio Spurs. I collected basketball cards, compiled detailed charts of the total worth of each athlete’s cards according to Beckett, got up early on summer mornings to shoot baskets all day long in our backyard, and rehearsed over and over again draining the shot to win Game 7 of the NBA Finals for the San Antonio Spurs.

David Robinson, more than any other athlete, held mythological stature in my mind. I read his mini-biography at the library, which told of his intellect as a kid, unbelievable growth spurt in high school, and Christian faith. I could believe in David because, with one minor exception, he embodied everything that mattered in my world. Prior to his rookie season in the NBA, David attended Navy and served for two years in the military. As a little child I already knew that military service was anathema to my Anabaptist-tinted Christian faith. Well, I reasoned, no one’s perfect.

In every other way, he was a god. He was smart…I wanted to be smart like my Dad. He was a Christian…I knew that becoming a Christian was the best and most important decision a person can make. He was generous and active in the San Antonio community…sharing wealth and serving others were hallmarks of my upbringing. Best of all, he was athletically gifted beyond belief. A physical specimen in a league filled with that generation’s best athletes…I dreamed of being talented enough to dominate in the NBA.

What’s perhaps strangest is that I did not watch a single San Antonio Spurs game until the truncated ’99 season, when I was eleven years old. For as far back as I can remember I loved David Robinson, owned dozens of his basketball cards, read about him and followed the Spurs seasons. Yet, I never got to see a  game until fifth grade.

It really didn’t matter. Growing up in a house without a TV and far, far away from Texas, watching the Spurs play was simple fantasy. I swallowed this injustice at an early age, and for most of my life it has proved completely, irrevocably essential.

I lived in Northridge, a small suburb of Springfield, located in southwestern Ohio, until I was eight years old. Of course, I bled red for the Cincinnati Reds. Thanks to my older brother Nathan I also cheered for the Xavier University basketball team. But Cincinnati is a small sports town and because football was irrelevant to me as a child, only the Reds and Xavier basketball interested me. I began collecting favorite teams from each sport to fill out what Cincinnati lacked: San Antonio Spurs, Miami Dolphins (football meant so little to me that I chose the Dolphins while living in Ohio), Colorado Avalanche, Columbus Crew, Maryland University football, overseas soccer teams such as Tottenham Hotspur and Spartak Moscow. Each allegiance premeditated, each equally disconnected from its predecessor. Some have changed in recent years, but one constant remains – I live nowhere near any of my teams. Having left Ohio at eight, I lived in Russia for six years, then in Indiana, Minnesota, Wiscsonsin, and finally back to Minnesota.

Yes, I’ve had opportunities to watch these teams play. I attended multiple Spartak matches in Moscow and each morning scoured the Russian sports daily on the metro. Twice I’ve seen Xavier on the court in person.. Once I traveled to Orlando for the Champ Sports Bowl to watch my cousin suit up his final time for the Maryland Terrapins. When he graduated, my wife’s Wisconsin Badgers took the Terrapins’ spot in college football, and I’ve thrice been to Camp Randall. And nearly every year I still manage to see the Reds in action, though, more recently, in the gloomy confines of Miller Park. It’s been years since I was in Cincinnati.

Yet, over the years, my love for these teams has not lessened. What began with obsession over David Robinson and the Spurs as a boy has matured into love. When I was young I could not fathom not loving the Spurs, or the Reds, or Xavier. There was no adolescent angst, no college classes or relationships or other commitments to distract me. Most significantly, there was no one telling me to grow up and stop caring about whether a dozen men I’d never met would win a basketball game in a city thousands of miles from me. Sports mattered to me. Period. Somewhat shockingly to me, they still do. And so I call it love, now that I knowingly embrace obsession for something I could abandon.

When they play, I dream to be at the games. I crave the sensation of the fans’ solidarity seething through a city in anticipation of kick-off, tip-off, the first pitch. Instead, I’m left recreating that world in my mind as I watch the action. If that fails, I call up my brother in eastern Pennsylvania or troll for hours on Reds/Spurs/Xavier/Tottenham websites to feel connected to someone else who understands.

Contrary to the reaction  I get from many when I begin to show a bit of my sports obsession this love  is not passive, selfish, or even childish. If nurtured, it gives birth to unshakable faith. The ancient writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews declared, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” As fans we hunger for championships, for a win, even for a made free throw or strike three call. Each moment demands our commitment, while promising nothing. It is in believing and dreaming at every turn that our love and our faith are seen to be true. The passage in Hebrews continues, “For by [faith] the men of old gained approval.” And so do we, especially when the journey is arduous and many fall away.

One had only to see the Dallas Mavericks celebrate after winning the Finals in June to understand this. So overwrought by emotion at the end, Dirk Nowitzki had to leave the court to celebrate privately the elation of having overcome every doubt, every question, and every criticism he faced for twelve long years. My hatred of the Mavericks had melted each round of the playoffs as I reflected on a team that had given so much to the NBA and whose fans supported their team fanatically. Their final triumph was a great moment in sports, but even more so, an inspiration to me of faith in the unknown.

Not every believer can celebrate a championship, or a miraculous healing, or a steady job. Thousands of Cub fans have lived to a ripe old age and passed away without ever seeing the World Champion Chicago Cubs parade through downtown Chicago. In life, many dreams and hopes never materialize. But doubt and cynicism have never satisfied, either. Faith, however, inspires and bring meaning by forcing us to stay true to our athletic heroes, our families, our personal strengths and the other commitments we make.

Sports, in this sense, are a discipline. I am guilty so often of ignoring my team when hard times hit. Still, I strive to hold optimism in my palm always, and look for victories and success following every crushing loss. Learning to swallow the bitter taste of defeat without flinching or disconnecting…that is a quality I wish to exhibit in every area of life. Sports are teaching me to let go of anger and focus instead on what is to come. With the stakes so much smaller in sports than in life, it is an excellent place to learn.


Glenn Stout, The Best American Sports Writing 2010, ed. Glenn Stout and Peter Gammons, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

NASB, Hebrews 11:1-3.

  1. Good luck with what you do. And patience.

    Keep writing,

    Glenn Stout

  2. Thanks for the kind words. Your work with Best American Sports Writing is a treasure to readers and writers alike.

    Andy Shenk

  3. Does it count as staying faithful if I hope “my” team loses every game this season so that they can get Andrew Luck in the draft?

    Great post! You are an exceptionally skilled writer.

    • As a San Antonio Spurs fan (struck gold twice with the No.1 pick), I can’t really argue with fans who are hoping to draft Luck. All the same, I think it’s unfortunate that the system works that way in the NFL and NBA, in particular.

  4. Nice piece! The second paragraph made so much more sense when I realized this wasn’t Meeks.

  5. Thanks for a good read. I look forward to working with you. 🙂 And just in case anyone is interested, New Zealand is through to the semifinals in the Rugby World Cup!

    Jonny Shenk

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