I had to squeeze my way through the crowd amassed near the front entrance of the Applebee’s, slipping past the harried hostess and toward the bar which, thankfully, had a handful of empty seats. I chose a chair positioned in front of an empty 22-ounce beer glass and a signed receipt. The bartender cleared the detritus and asked me what I wanted. After procuring a 22-ounce Fat Tire and a menu, I let the bartender know why I was at a bar in Brookings, South Dakota by myself on a Friday night.
“Could you turn one of these televisions to ESPN?” I said, motioning to the two televisions closest to me.
The bartender obliged, flipping the smaller of the two screens from the MAC Championship football game between Northern Illinois and Kent State on ESPN2 (who the heck would want to watch that? No one here cares about either one of those teams, I thought) to ESPN. Now, I had a half-hour to have dinner and call my wife until I could watch my beloved Syracuse Orange basketball team take on Arkansas. Like me, Syracuse was on the road.
South Dakota is the 40th state I’ve visited and, in at least a third of them, I’ve found myself at a bar or a restaurant watching one of my favorite teams. Most of those instances were like Friday’s, where I wanted to have dinner and a beer or two while watching the game. Nebraska Omaha basketball is what brought me to South Dakota; I would call their game at South Dakota State the following night and the Applebee’s was across the parking lot from our hotel. In 2004, I was in Naperville, Illinois to call early-season Division III basketball when the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers engaged in their infamous brawl that spilled into the stands. However, I never saw the melee live because I was focused on the sole television showing Syracuse pick up a key non-conference win over Memphis at Madison Square Garden. I was on pins and needles at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport one afternoon in 2007, where I watched the New York Giants lose a nip-and-tuck game to the Dallas Cowboys.
There is something comforting about watching one of my favorite teams far from my home base. My 2 ½-year-old daughter can probably relate; she brings her favorite blanket with her whenever she travels far from home. Seeing one of my teams on television while I’m on the road is like having my own favorite blanket in my possession. Most of the time, I’m the only one with a rooting interest, which is preferable to being in enemy territory. In 2009, I was at a bar in downtown Hartford, Connecticut when Syracuse beat Connecticut in six overtimes. Fortunately, the Connecticut fans weren’t too hostile when they noticed I wasn’t cheering for their team and we were all in awe as the game dragged on without a resolution. I was once at a bar in Kalamazoo, Michigan for a Giants-New England Patriots tilt when I spotted a guy in a Tom Brady jersey a few seats away. We didn’t acknowledge each other the entire game, but we tried to outdo each other with our cheers. Only after the Giants lost did we turn to each other and briefly discuss the game.
I think the bartender saw my subdued fist pump when Syracuse scored their first basket in Arkansas. Because, after that, he asked me who I was rooting for. My fist pumps continued as Syracuse continued to efficiently carve through the Arkansas press, leading to several easy baskets. I leaned back in my chair when James Southerland, Syracuse’s best shooter from long range, unleashed a three pointer from about 24 feet, not sure if it was a good shot. However, Southerland’s jumper found the bottom of the net, leading to my most emphatic fist pump of the evening. Southerland’s shooting exhibition continued, as he connected on seven three pointers in the first half. Each three seemed to be deeper than the next and the last one led to both a quiet cheer as well as a fist pump. Arkansas went on a run late in the half, trimming Syracuse’s 15-point lead to five at the intermission as I ordered my second Fat Tire.
After a bathroom break, I was back in my seat in time to see Southerland nail two more deep three pointers in the opening minutes of the second half; each three was preceded by a lean back and followed by an emphatic fist pump. I let out a “Yes!” when Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams stole the ball and took it in for a layup. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see people giggling at the table to my right, but I was unconcerned. I’m happy that my team was playing well and I didn’t care if all of Brookings knew it (It certainly seemed like all of Brookings was at that Applebee’s. There were people crowded around the hostess podium all evening). Syracuse stretched their lead to 15 points once more, never trailing in the second half in a nine-point win. I paid my bill during the last television timeout, finishing my third beer as Syracuse was putting the finishing touches on their victory at the free-throw line. Of course, watching your team win is always better than watching them lose but this is even truer when you go out of your way to watch them miles from your – and their – home.
Tonight, I’ll be out of my comfort zone again, because I’ll be in Madison, Wisconsin when the Giants take the field in an important divisional game against the Washington Redskins. Since it’s a Monday Night Football game, I doubt I’ll have to coax a bartender to turn a television to it, but there’s a good chance I’ll be the only person in Madison rooting for the Giants. But, that’s okay. Especially if the Giants win.Follow @raford3