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Patrick Hruby

Get Off the Bus

Just say no to bandwagon sports fans

Anthony Johnson isn't a pusher, a tax collector or Michael Jackson. He has never written a parking ticket, never run for public office. A cheerful corrections officer from the District, he wouldn't dream of green-lighting "Gigli," let alone suffering a wardrobe malfunction during the Super Bowl halftime show.

Of course, that doesn't make him any less worthy of contempt.

Johnson's a swell guy. A swell guy who roots for the Los Angeles Lakers. And there's the rub. Though Johnson wasn't born in Los Angeles, has no ties to the city [a short Army stint doesn't count], isn't a blood relative of Devean George and can barely pick Slava Medvedenko out of a lineup including the Lakers power forward and the girls from "Charlie's Angels," he still pulls for the purple and gold.

In fact, Johnson is wearing a Kobe Bryant throwback jersey right now, cheering for basketball's answer to the Mongol Horde as they squash the Washington Wizards at MCI Center.

"We love the Lakers," says Johnson, sitting with his wife, Kim. "But we do pull for the Wiz. It all depends on who they're playing."

Look around: The Johnsons have lots of company. On this recent Saturday afternoon, the arena teems with depravity: Kobe-loving carpetbaggers, Shaq-adoring arrivistes, all of them united by their undying loyalty to that guy who's married to Vanessa Williams. Whatever his name is, anyway.

"We got Kobe, Shaq, Rick Fox," Kim says. "Who else we got?"

"Gary Payton," Anthony answers.

"Oh yeah," she says.

Don't know these particular Summer Soldiers? You know the type. They're the feckless lemmings clad in LeBron James' high school replica jerseys. The shifty scalawags who have always - always - rooted for the Florida Marlins. The rudderless reprobates with a Washington Redskins flag on the front porch [post-Gibbs II] and a Tampa Bay Bucs sweatshirt in the laundry hamper [until the next Goodwill pickup].

In short, they are bandwagon sports fans - fair-weather front-runners who support a team for no good reason, save the fact that said team is, well, good. From Hillary Clinton in a New York Yankees cap to NBC's Hessian army of alma-no-matter Notre Dame backers, they are legion. And like the Nazis and the Hilton sisters before them, they must be stopped. Before they destroy Western Civilization as we know it. Or vote Vince Carter to a fifth-consecutive All-Star team. Whichever comes first.

"They're turncoats," sneers Carol Stapleton, a District native clad in a Jerry Stackhouse jersey. "They'll be Wizards fans next week."

With the band

Time was, team loyalty was a quasi-mystical thing, a sacred covenant handed down from mothers to daughters, fathers to sons, forged during long afternoons at the ballpark and tempered by ceaseless scourging at the hands of the Yankees. Forsaking all others, the righteous sports fan rooted for his local teams and his alma mater, period; though he walked through the valley of the shadow of Los Angeles Clipperdom, he feared no evil, nor did he own a Chicago Bulls back-to-back-to-back NBA champions T-shirt.

"The term 'fan' comes from the root word 'fanatic,'" says Dr. Michael Sachs, a sports psychologist at Temple University. "The true fan is somebody who sticks with the team no matter how they're doing."

So much has changed. Slithering along the bottom rungs of the Great Chain of Sports Being - below the agents, above Mark Cuban - bandwagon fans have become a permanent fixture in the athletic firmament, commonplace as nationally televised Cavaliers games.

Unconvinced? Flip off that Sacramento Kings contest. Get up from your inflatable Dallas Cowboys couch. You'll find a Duke fan in every sports bar, a priced-to-move No.23 Bullets throwback jersey in every shopping mall. Front-running has even spawned its own set of subcategories, a lamentable Bandwagon of Brothers:

Stargazers: Ultracasual fans who have a better chance of winning an Oscar pool than an NFL pick 'em sheet. If they root for the New York Knicks, it's because 50 Cent was spotted in the front row; if they pull for the Yankees, it's because Sarah Jessica Parker wore a Bombers cap in US magazine; if they ever cheered for the New York Giants, it's because what's-his-face proposed to Angie Harmon on the "Tonight Show." Wasn't that just adorable?

Jersey Guys: Like fantasy sports junkies, these fans root for the name on the back of the jersey. This group includes Orlando Magic diehards who revere Tracy McGrady but can't name the team's coach [Johnny Davis] and Philadelphia Sixers stalwarts sporting Allen Iverson's signature shoe despite the team's sorry record [24-36]. Add anyone wearing a Michael Vick or Carmelo Anthony jersey, plus the 15,000-or-so Clevelanders who regularly show up at Gund Arena.

"I love exciting players who bring something special to the game," says Monta McAdory, a Lakers fan who grew up in Baltimore. "That's Kobe. If Kobe went to the Grizzlies, I'd be a Memphis fan."

Sunshine Patriots: Fans who elbow their way to the front of the bus when a local team is doing well, only to leap headfirst out the window when things go bad. Think the otherwise-absentee Marlins fans who filled Pro Player Stadium during last year's playoffs, or the surge of visible Redskins paraphernalia following Joe Gibbs' return. Sunshine Patriots have their hearts in the right place. But as Darth Vader once put it, their lack of faith is ... disturbing [cue Force choke].

Party Apparatchiks: Fans who pledged their fealty to a bandwagon team before they were old enough to know right from wrong. This substrata includes impressionable '70s kids who still root for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Gen Y Bulls fans and yours truly, who briefly supported the New York Mets after their 1986 title [in retrospect, thank goodness for Bill Buckner; otherwise, I would have unwittingly enlisted in the masochistic Red Sox Nation]. Like a kindly East German commissar, apparatchiks are good citizens within a corrupt and dehumanizing system, loyal but misguided.

'Dog Groomers: Fans who instinctively and reflexively pull for the underdog, usually after the fact. These are the people who cheer loudest for the Gonzagas of March Madness - and have the same scrappy, heartwarming little schools falling to North Carolina in round 2 of their office pool. 'Zags all the way! Believe!

Fans Scorned: Former fans of the Arizona Cardinals, Wizards and every other mismanaged outfit that has been so bad for so long that these one-time loyalists left to buy a carton of milk ... and never came back. The fan scorned is like the happy wife who walks in on her husband and the baby sitter, plus two of her high school cheerleading friends. While some look for a quick 'n' dirty rebound relationship with a nouveau-riche unit like the St. Louis Rams, most seek out long-term stability, siding with traditional powers like the Yankees. As is the case with Vader, fans scorned have embraced the Dark Side but carry a glimmer of good in them. Will they ultimately toss Boss Steinbrenner into a reactor trench? Probably not.

Grand Wagoneers: Shamelessly opportunistic fans who switch teams at the drop of a Ohio State 2002 National Champions hat. In one breath, they say they don't care who wins the Super Bowl and are merely rooting for a "good game"; in the next, they're ordering their commemorative New England Patriots mini-football. Grand Wagoneers date like Colin Farrell and are masters of the board game "Risk." They always have been at war with Eurasia.

All aboard

No matter the type, bandwagon fans have at least two things in common:

1] A sincere and deeply held belief that Derek Jeter is the greatest Yankee of all time, with the possible exception of Alex Rodriguez;

2] A crushing lack of self-regard.

"There's the old slogan: we won, but they lost," says Tim Delaney, a sociology professor at the State University of New York at Oswego who has studied bandwagon fans. "When a team wins, everyone wants to identify with them."

Front-running offers a fruit basket of tangible psychological benefits - group identity, an enhanced sense of worth, something to talk about at the office besides the Washington Capitals' ongoing firesale.

Moreover, bandwagon jumping has never been easier. National networks televise glamour squads like the Dallas Mavericks and Cowboys at every opportunity. Leagues build their entire marketing campaigns around superstars and super teams.

Even athletes are getting in on the act: Payton and Karl Malone took massive offseason paycuts to sign with the Lakers, while Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne gave up salary to join the already loaded Colorado Avalanche.

"It's a lot more satisfying to be a Cowboys fan than it is to be a Cardinals football fan," says Donald H. Smith, a sociology professor at Old Dominion University. "You can go down to the mall, buy a hat for the winning team and you're one of them."

In a larger sense, ours is a bandwagon society. Our irrational exuberance helped bolster the likes of Our discount bins overflow with monochromatic, Regis-inspired shirt-tie combos.

Collectively, we purchased 10-plus million copies of Hootie and the Blowfish's "Cracked Rear View" - then coldly turned our backs on the aptly titled follow-up flop, "Fairweather Johnson."

"You see it in business, in pop culture," Delaney says. "Look at Howard Dean. At the beginning of the Democratic primary, it seemed like he was the front-runner. Then he did that 'yee-hah,' and everybody distanced themselves from him. Kobe Bryant hasn't had his day in court yet. But the sponsors have already dropped him."

While front-running may be innate, the practice is hardly benign. In the film "Red Dawn," Patrick Swayze greets an occupying Soviet Army with Molotov cocktails and a battle cry of "Wolverines!"; in real life, Kings backers probably would welcome the Russkies with vodka tonics, then cheer for Drago in "Rocky IV."

The point? Bandwagon fans cannot be trusted. Not in sickness. Not in health. Not when Maryland is on the NCAA tournament bubble and facing an important home game against Clemson. Dilettantes to the last, they bail out on the mediocre teams that most need their support. Or end up working for John Kerry after managing Dean's campaign.

Worse still, front-runners cheat themselves. When a team triumphs, the true fan's joy is inversely proportional to previous anguish; a Final Four loss made Maryland's subsequent national title all the sweeter.

By contrast, bandwagon fans are like pollen-addled hummingbirds - always flitting to the next flower, forever searching for the next unfulfilling high.

"I don't root for any local teams," Anthony Johnson confesses. "My football team is [the Dallas] Cowboys. My hoops team is North Carolina. I don't like too many teams
where I have to suffer."

Bandwagon boogie

Back at MCI Center, the suffering is decidedly one-sided. Forget home-court advantage: When the Wizards step to the free throw line, they face a smattering of gold-colored, McDonald's-sponsored ThunderStix reading, "GO LAKERS."

"Enjoy it now!" yells Walter Wiggins, 51, from Capitol Heights. "You won't see Kobe next year! He'll be in jail! He'll be in Memphis!"

A Wizards fan for 35 years, Wiggins has been, well, wigging out all afternoon. Not that it's doing much good.

Just below the midcourt club level seats, two fans unfurl a full-size Lakers flag. After O'Neal slams home a fourth-quarter alley-oop from Bryant, the crowd lets loose the loudest cheer of the day - a hooting, hollering, high-fiving eruption, straight from the bowels of Mount St. Fairweather.

Above the Los Angeles bench, a chubby fan in a Jerry West throwback rises from his seat. Still clutching a cell phone, he shimmies in the aisles, every wiggle a jiggle of front-running glee.

"It's horrible," Wiggins says, shaking his head. "It's like going to the Redskins games and seeing Dallas Cowboys fans."

Wiggins pauses, eyes gleaming with hope.

"If the Wizards start winning," he adds, "maybe people will cheer for them."

If that happens, it won't be out of character. After all, true fans dance with the one they brought. Bandwagon fans just want to boogie.

Article originally appeared in The Washington Times