TThere have been two huge changes in my life as a sports fan in the past dozen years.
One, I donít watch basketball anymore. As I write this in February, Iíve yet to watch five minutes of an NBA or college game this season. Whatís more, I donít miss it and have no plans to start now.
Two, mixed-martial-arts and the UFC have become the sporting events I look most forward to outside of college football. Nothing more consistently delivers me excitement, anticipation and joy as a fan than does a night of the UFC.
My estrangement from basketball is particularly stunning. It would be hard to overestimate my one time love for the game.
I grew up in Milwaukee in the 1980s. This was the heyday for the Bucks with Sidney Moncrief, Paul Pressey, Terry Cummings and Don Nelson. The Packers were a laughingstock, the University of Wisconsin athletic department was a joke, Marquette was an also-ran, I wasnít a baseball guy and the Bucks were one of the top teams in the league every year.
I had Bucks wallpaper in my room. I listened to games on the radio. I played basketball. The NBA was my #1 sport.
When I went to college, I made sure to travel to Atlanta once a year for a Bucks game. I played fantasy basketball. I flew to Milwaukee special to see the Bucksí first home playoff game in over a decade against Indiana.
There was a year when I watched playoff basketball every night it was on. Every single night for a month.
I grew up and became a sports fan during the Golden Era of pro basketball. Magic, Bird, Kareem and Dr. J were descending, but still important, and Michael, Barkley, Clyde and Dominique were ascending.
Nothing delivered more excitement, competition, athletic brilliance or personalities than the NBA of the mid to late 80s and early 90s. I took pride in being ďan NBA guy.Ē
The downfalls in popularity of the NBA and college basketball in the mid to late 90s both nationally in general, and in my case in particular, are tied.
As more great players left college basketball early or skipped it all together for the NBA the college product went into the toilet. Likewise, instead of mature, polished and recognizable players coming into the league from the colleges, the NBA was inundated with flashy, raw, punk, 18-year-old kids who had no idea how to play the game aside from what they learned on the playground.
College basketball lost an entire generation, or two, of its top players. From Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Jermaine OíNeal to LeBron James and Dwight Howard, the best of the best scholastic players bypassed college. Of those who went, many, like Stephon Marbury, Carmello Anthony or Kevin Durant stayed only a year.
This is to say nothing of the scores of top flight high school players who skipped college for pro fantasies, never caught on, and are lost to history. Who remembers the name Ronnie Fields today?
I can promise you the popularity of college football wouldnít be where it is today if Reggie Bush, Eddie George, Peyton Manning, Peter Warrick and 100 other guys like them had never played, instead going directly to the NFL.
The Patrick Ewings, Shaquille OíNeals, and Kenny Andersons who made college basketball such a dynamic and high quality product were no longer there and the game became dominated by second tier athletes and coaches. Yawn.
With a gradual, but steady degradation of the product, as a consumer, why would you, or I, continue to watch?
In the NBA, the Dream Team generation passed the torch to a new breed of Allen Iverson inspired talent which seemed less interested in winning championships than securing extravagant contracts and living life like modern day pirates.
I fought this for a long time.
I tried. I really did.
I came back each basketball season with renewed vigor, an open mind, a belief that things would get better, but they never did. I even tried forcing myself to watch games. That lasted two weeks.
As I transitioned from a college existence where I could watch sports every night to a working existence where I couldnít, even though I followed sports for a living, the early season, then the regular season, then the stretch drive for the playoffs or the conference tournaments and finally the Playoffs and March Madness were all dropped by me as a sports fan and I arrived where I am today.
Basketball has no more presence in my life than does hockey.
No small contributing factor to this for myself, and I believe most other sports fans, is the explosion in popularity of football and the ability through the sports media boom to follow both the NFL and college football year round.
If youíre a football fan, who needs basketball when you have the NFL Combine and Draft in the winter and spring? Recruiting is being covered more legitimately every year. The Super Bowl is now played in February, the BCS title game stretches almost into mid January, spring football practice for college lasts from February in some places to May in others. The long, dark, cold months that used to be the exclusive domain of basketball are now filled with football.
A growing obsession with football is part of it, but my abandonment of basketball still comes back to the product. The once great product is now garbage.
Which brings me to MMA and the UFC.
Outside of college football, no product makes me feel more as a sports fan today than the UFC.
Thatís all Iím looking for, make me feel something.
Make me feel pressure. Make me feel hate. Make me feel intensity. Make me feel desperation.
I get that every time I watch a UFC fight.
Aside from college football, the most I felt all year as a sports fan in 2007 was watching Chuck Liddell-Rampage Jackson.
I felt rivalry. I felt redemption. I felt passion. The fight only lasted 70 seconds, but it was brilliant. I was on the edge of my seat. I watched the weigh in. I describe it as all the excitement and energy of college football with none of the anxiety.
The UFC delivered for me again this weekend: Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir.
A former headline professional wrestler with a legitimate amateur background, a superstar, a 265-pound freak of nature who looks like a movie monster taking on a former UFC champion.
Iím a hermit. I like being alone. I like going to sleep early and staying at home.
The mark of a great sporting event to me is how far out of my way will I go to watch it. For UFC pay-per-view events I regularly go to smoke filled bars, which I hate, to spend two hours around dopey ďsports-barĒ guys, which I hate, to stay up to 12:30 AM, which I hate, because I HAVE to see the UFC.
I plan my life around college football in the fall because it means that much to me. More and more, Iím planning around the UFC. You want to know how much you enjoy a sport, ask yourself how much youíre willing to adjust your life to watch it. Iím making more and more adjustments for the UFC.
And again, Lesnar-Mir lasted 90 seconds and I didnít feel cheated or used in the least little bit. The five minute lead-up, the walk to the ring and every 90 seconds of that fight were pure joy for me as a sports fan.
I canít wait to do it again.
The UFC delivers. Every single time.
Great athletes, great personalities, great action, what I used to get from basketball, I now get from MMA.
Thereís one sporting event Iím looking forward to this spring and itís not the Final Four, its Anderson Silva vs. Mark Henderson.
I can promise you Iíll again be at that smoky bar I hate with all those drunk guys I hate staying up late which I hate. Itís a month away and Iím making plans.
Bye-bye basketball. Maybe thereíll come a time when our paths cross again. I wouldnít trade our years together for anything and I cherish the memories fondly, but you just donít make it anymore. You let me down and Iím moving on.