There’s a decent chance you’ve never heard of St. John’s, Newfoundland. I need you to know that I know that, and it’s OK. You just need to understand a few things about it to understand me.
Only this piece isn’t about me, really. I am just a conduit. This piece is about love of team, surrendering yourself to something bigger, and taking the leap of faith even when you can’t see the bottom. After all, that’s what makes it a leap of faith.
Maybe it’s not that deep. This piece is about the Houston Rockets. It doesn’t need to be about anything else. There are very few things in this world I love more than the Houston Rockets.
Once I tell you about St. John’s, Newfoundland, you’ll appreciate how odd that is.
The Houston Rockets will never take off in hockey town…
St. John’s is known for grey, foggy days. It’s known for widespread unemployment and the self-deprecating sense of humor that spawns from it. It’s definitely not known for basketball.
My city has produced exactly one NBA prospect. Carl English. The sweet-shooting guard/wing played four seasons at the University of Hawaii before going undrafted in the 2003 NBA Draft. English’s parents died in a house fire that he survived with his two brothers at the age of five. He sought refuge from that trauma in a shoddily assembled basketball net on the side of the highway.
The Indiana Pacers didn’t care. Neither did the other 29 NBA teams. English enjoyed a lengthy professional career in Europe. He’s a legend in my hometown, but somehow, it always feels like he receives second billing.
After all, there are a lot of former NHL players from this place. This is a hockey town. The civil war between Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadians fans has raged for as long as I can remember. Nobody cares about the Houston Rockets.
Why do I care about the Houston Rockets? For that matter, why do I care about basketball?
I beg to differ
From a young age, I felt compelled to explore the world outside of this place. I quickly observed through media that my hometown was limited. Culturally, ethnically, and generally homogeneous.
There is a racial component here that I can’t simply ignore. I didn’t meet a black person until I was 13. I was drawn to black culture long before then. Of course, if you’re reading this as an American, there’s nothing novel about that. Little white boys across the nation mimic black culture without having to reckon with systemic, socioeconomic injustice. That’s old hat.
That wasn’t quite true in St. John’s. While my friends were mostly prepping for the endless stream of karaoke Wonderwall performances to come, I was trying to keep up with Busta Rhymes. More significantly here, I chose basketball over hockey.
Of course, I’m 35 now. I lived in Toronto for a decade (more on that later). I’ve met people of every race and religion several times over. I understand the problematic nature of fetishizing black culture. When I was 10, all I knew was that everything around me was the same, and I wanted something different.
Please excuse me, I’m rambling. There is a surprising amount to unpack in asking myself a simple question:
Why do I love the Houston Rockets?
Anything less would be…
The simple answer is, I found Charles Barkley hilarious in a Right Guard ad around 1995. That’s right: I was a Phoenix Suns fan for about a year. As many young people do (thinking of so many Christian Wood fans and where they’ll end up shortly) I rooted for the player, not the team. If the Rockets hadn’t traded for the Round Mound of Rebound, I’d be privy to the petty politics of Suns Twitter today instead.
Of course, that only answers the question of how I became a Rockets fan. The more difficult question is, why am I still a Rockets fan?
I genuinely believe it has cost me professional opportunities. When I interned at a local news station, I had to remove myself from several conversations revolving around hockey. I can name about a dozen players. In NHL history, that is.
It has generally kept me from participating in the collective effervescence that sports are meant to facilitate.
Most of my friends here eventually caught up to me (shout out to my best friend, who started on basketball with me) in recognizing the almost objective superiority of basketball over hockey as a game. Still, they are Raptors fans or Lakers fans without exception.
I ran into a Houston Rockets fan in St. John’s once. I went into a local pizza shop. The guy working was wearing a Rockets hat. A rough transcript:
“Oh my god”
“Are you a Rockets fan?”
“Dude. I love the Rockets. This never happens.”
“Cool. So what will it be?”
“Do you think Yao gets back healthy next year? We’re going to need him”
“Yeah. Probably. I guess. Looking for a slice?”
It’s burned into my memory with the flame of a thousand suns. I do not exaggerate to tell you it may have been the most purely disappointing moment of my life.
During the 10 or so years I lived in Toronto, Rockets fans were no easier to come by. Living in an NBA city and rooting for another NBA team is its own experience: surely there’s some kind of oddly specific German word for it. On countless occasions, NBA talk would cross a thin line into Raptors talk, leaving me to sheepishly admit that, of course, I can talk Raptors all day, or any other team, but actually…
I’m a Houston Rockets fan.
Why am I a Houston Rockets fan?
The Houston Rockets are all mine, in my world
Because I’m a Houston Rockets fan, god damnit!
At this point, it’s an existential stance. Plus, there is an added bonus in my fandom. It’s all mine.
Barring any professional opportunities or GoFundMe (shoutout to Paulo, I’m joking, I’m happy for you), I won’t be in Houston when the Rockets finally win a title in the lifetime of my fandom. There won’t be a parade in St. John’s. I’ll probably be at home with my girlfriend and our two cats. I imagine that I’ll scream in excitement, and then I’ll feel a bit uncomfortable. I’ll excuse myself from the room.
Then, I’ll go somewhere to be alone, and I will cry.
Nobody in my life will be able to completely understand what it means to me. I won’t be able to understand what it means to the other Chop Shop folks either. They’re mostly local Houstonians. They’ll share in a civic pride that I, as someone who has defined themselves in contrast to their hometown, will not understand either. I will be happy for them. Perhaps owing to human nature, I will be even happier for myself. I will be what I set out to be before I was old enough to understand what I was doing:
A Houston Rockets fan with something to celebrate, whether it makes sense or not.