Every October, my eyes scan shelves of magazines, darting past pictures of windbag politicians, orange body builders and cars with electric paint jobs. Evading the latest celebrity gossip, they finally settle on Rajon Rondo, point guard for the Boston Celtics. Perfect. Just what I’m looking for: this year’s pro basketball preview issue, chock full of news, analysis, team capsules, and the all-important fantasy rankings.
Back in 1980, a bunch of New Yorkers developed a league where fans could compete in the game they loved. Each participant “drafted” a team of actual professionals to form their own “fantasy” team. Over the course of a season, teams were allowed to swap players, drop under-performing ones, and pick up un-drafted players for a needed boost, just like real teams. The statistics of those players were tabulated over the course of a season and the team with the best overall statistical output was declared the winner. As time moved along, the community of the Internet made it easier to form leagues and modern software tabulated statistics in real time. The format expanded from baseball to football, basketball, even golf and NASCAR.
I remember my first experience with fantasy basketball. At ten years old with a voracious appetite for hoops, I somehow convinced my dad I was capable of piloting a team in his office league. Armed with a copy of Street & Smith’s annual NBA preview and a little guidance from Dad, I drafted a squad led by 7’1″ Hall of Famer David Robinson and “The Dunking Dutchman,” 7’4″ Rik Smits. I don’t remember anyone else on the team, but as a tall kid, I apparently valued height.
Back in those days, the league commissioner compiled the statistics using USA Today box scores and mailed weekly results out to the rest of the managers. Dad and I would scour the handwritten sheets looking for advantages and disadvantages and tried to sell each other on trades.
“How can I get more three-pointers?”
“So-and-so had a bunch of three-pointers before he got injured. Do you want him?”
“No way! He’s a stiff!”
Having a fantasy team made watching games on TV more fun as we followed the players on our squads. Dad gave his guys nicknames. Diminutive Denver point guard Michael Adams, 5’10” and all over the court, was “Waterbug.” Minnesota’s Micheal Williams, one of the best free-throw shooters in the league, was “Waterbug 2.” Dikembe Mutombo, the 7’2″ Congolese minister of defense, was a fixture on Dad’s Sylver Bullets team as he amassed huge amounts of rebounds and blocked shots. The affable center challenged the opposition to climb “Mount Mutombo” and turned away all but the most worthy with a blocked shot and a stern finger wag. We loved it.
And then there were the guys who didn’t work out. One year, I drafted Dallas rookie Cherokee Parks, a solid player in college, and deemed him a candidate to win the Rookie of the Year award. To be kind, Parks couldn’t live up to my level of hype, and to this day, whenever his name is mentioned, Dad laughs and says “Rookie of the Year!”
Years after the dissolution of the office league, Dad wound up interacting with some hoops fans on a message board and was asked to join an online league. One problem: our creaky home PC couldn’t handle the online draft. So Dad and I developed a strategy where he emailed me a list of his top players and I headed for the top floor of the MacPhaidin Library at Stonehill College to use their high-speed Internet connection and draft the team. After each round, I consulted Dad on my cell phone in the library’s stairwell.
A few years later I jumped on board and formed my own team, Mount Mutombo, of course. The Sylver Bullets played on, though in recent years Dad has come up with new names to make his team sound more ferocious and intimidating. My cousin Dan, who’d been involved in the office league years before, also created a squad. I remember Dan and I conducting one draft on our laptops at a Quincy, MA establishment, plates of chicken wings and mugs of beer emptied as we compiled our teams. Dad, by then into the 21st century technology-wise, trash talked our picks from his computer at home.
Not long after that, my cousin Jeremy joined the fray, at which point family members comprised four of the 12 spots in the league. Jeremy is the defending champion heading into 2013. My cousin Jim jumped into the fifth spot a few years back and has since led the league in trash talk and trade-related chatter at family gatherings.
We’ve seen the glory of championship seasons and the shame of finishing in the basement. There have been devastating injuries to star players, computer glitches, flare-ups between other managers, even one year when the prize money went missing. There’s always a healthy amount of trash talk. And every now and then, walking the streets of Boston, sitting on the train, or driving home from Tuesday night basketball, I’ll look at my watch and realize Dad and I have been talking on the phone for 45 minutes about the state of our fantasy league.
This morning, I’m slouched in my seat on the commuter train, dog-eared magazine in one hand, yellow highlighter in the other, coming up with a draft strategy that surely will result in one of those glorious championship seasons and family bragging rights. I’m not messing around. For something known as “fantasy,” this is serious business.