January 19, 2021

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The Year of the Cardboard Sports Fan

5 min read

Pedro the Dog

Pedro Pilon doesn’t know a Marlin from a Royal. He doesn’t like playing catch, despite being a dog. And as far as he’s concerned, socks (and sox) are best for chewing, whether white or red. But one of Pedro’s favorite activities is among a baseball fan’s most time-honored traditions: settling into the couch with a ballgame on and falling asleep.

Pedro, a beagle and pug mix, came to the United States from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, in 2017. In Brooklyn, Mary Pilon, a writer and friend—and sometime New Yorker contributor—adopted him. Mary quickly discovered that Pedro was skittish, and unnerved by quick movements or loud sounds. As far as sports on TV went, basketball was a little overstimulating. But baseball, with its reliable rhythms and long cadences, was perfect.

Pilon grew up a Mariners fan, in Eugene, Oregon. When she heard that the Mariners were selling cardboard cutouts—and that it cost a relatively affordable thirty bucks for the season—she went online and submitted a picture of Pedro. (A portion of the price went to support COVID-19 relief efforts.) Pedro’s picture was blown up to around triple life size—about three feet by two feet—printed on PVC board, and installed in Row 38, Section 104.

Pilon wasn’t the only person to pick a pet. Mandy Lincoln, who oversaw the project for the team, told me that the Mariners were startled when the first submission with a picture of a dog came in, but, by the end of the season, there were dogs galore. And a turtle. And a cheetah. And more than fifty local cats.

Barack Obama

Photograph by Kevin C. Cox / Getty

Granted, when he attended Game One of the N.B.A. Finals, Barack Obama was not made of cardboard. He was a video image displayed on a seventeen-foot tall L.E.D. screen, superimposed onto a seat in a section that included fourteen N.B.A. legends. To his left was Shaquille O’Neal; to his right, James Worthy. At one point, Shaq raised his hand and flashed a championship ring. It appeared to be roughly the size of Obama’s head.

When the N.B.A. announced that it would be playing the remainder of the 2020 season and post-season in a strictly controlled environment in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, there was no question of fan attendance. Games would be played on what was essentially a television soundstage. Even friends and family members of the players would only be cleared to enter the “bubble” several weeks after play began. But there were fans, of a 2020 sort.

The N.B.A., which is very proud of its up-to-date fan friendliness, decided to get fancy. Working with Microsoft Teams, the league used a feature called Together mode, which connects people in different places and puts them against a shared background. (And not just people, as they probably should have expected. “We didn’t think of all the pets,” Sara Zuckert, who led the group behind the effort, told me.) Fans were placed into ten groups, which were projected onto three L.E.D. boards surrounding the court. Seating arrangements were automated. Fans within each group could actually talk to one another—which is why those who tuned into the Finals saw Obama clearly, if oddly, giving a speech to Paul Pierce, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Clyde Drexler, and other Hall of Famers. His hands were stiffly punctuating his words, in a very familiar gesture.

He was, apparently, talking about the first-time election poll workers who were also in (virtual) attendance. (He later posted the speech on his Instagram page.) Obama’s well-known connection to basketball deepened in 2020. After a wildcat strike by the Milwaukee Bucks, in August, led the league to halt play, and an emotional meeting of all the players in the bubble appeared to put the season on the brink of cancellation, LeBron James, Chris Paul, and a small group of other players called up Obama and asked him for advice. His counsel was to use the moment as leverage, and to make a plan. Led by James, who had already begun an organization called More Than A Vote, focussed on voting rights, the players pushed the franchise owners to offer the stadiums that the teams owned as polling places.

At the time, there was something a little cautious-seeming about that decision, after the incredible jolt of the strike, especially considering the principled voices of some of the younger players—and the business activities and political relationships of some of the owners, which were at cross purposes with the players’ efforts. It seemed particularly constrained by comparison to the W.N.B.A., whose players helped propel Rafael Warnock into a run-off against Senator Kelly Loeffler, a fervid Trump supporter and part-owner of the Atlanta Dream. But, in the end, more than forty thousand people voted in the Atlanta Hawks’ State Farm Arena alone, and Biden won Georgia by twelve thousand five hundred votes. More Than A Vote also recruited over forty thousand poll workers. This was a year that roiled sports, but it was a year in which athletes reckoned with the world, too.


When Marvin Yonamine was seven years old, in 1971, his father left Wai’anae, a small town on the west coast of the Hawaiian island of Oahu, and went to Oregon State University, in Corvallis, to get his master’s degree. Marvin and his mother visited him that December. It was Yonamine’s first trip to the mainland United States, and his first time on an airplane. In Corvallis, he saw his first apple tree. He saw Christmas trees, Douglas firs, growing from the ground. He watched the Oregon State men’s basketball team defeat Weber State. To the Hawaiian kid, Corvallis was paradise.

When it was time for him to go to college, a decade later, Yonamine knew he “wanted to get off the rock for a few years,” and he knew where he wanted to go. At Oregon State, he met another Hawaiian student, who would become his wife. He also developed a passion for Oregon State football, though it didn’t love him back. The Beavers hadn’t finished a season with a winning record since 1970, more than a decade earlier. Yonamine promised friends that after the losing-record streak ended, he would wear an Oregon State shirt every day.

Louisa Thomas

2020-12-22 13:23:17

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