An Interview with Tom McAllister
Is there any joy to be found in following a team that is historically bad?
As I’ve gotten older, I have gotten much, much better at enjoying individual games on their own merits, at investing less in the outcome and much more in the aesthetic joy of watching someone like LeBron James slice through an entire defense and then fling a perfect no-look pass to a wide-open shooter in the corner.
It took me a long time, and lots of embarrassing tantrums, to get to this point. And, of course, winning is always more fun.
But even a terrible team provides these moments of transcendent athleticism, of just perfect coordination between skill and intent, where these players do shit that should be impossible. I mean, there is no way Joel Embiid should be able to run the full court and dunk on somebody the way he does. There is no way.
HOWEVER, I do feel like I need to take some issue with the question, which I take to refer to the Sixers. The Sixers have been very bad for most of my life, but they’re also the home of some of the most iconic players in NBA history! Allen Iverson changed the whole culture of the game. Dr. J changed it before that. Embiid and Simmons are about to do it again. On my death bed, let me watch Iverson stepping over Tyronn Lue on a loop and I will die a happy man.
Is there any hope for the Sixers in the future?
Ben Simmons is so much better than most reasonable people expected him to be this year. Every game, there’s some new stat about how he’s the first player since [Pau Gasol/Jason Kidd/Hakeem/Shaq] to achieve some statistical feat. Joel Embiid has been dominant despite being obviously out of shape and also turning the ball over every third time he touches it. The Sixers are nothing but hope. It’s been a miserable couple decades, but they are fun and young and (assuming good health) have two of the top-20 players in the Eastern Conference right now.
Who is your favorite basketball player right now?
LeBron is (still!) amazing, Giannis is an alien from a planet where everyone plays basketball minutes after they’re born. Westbrook plays with the intensity of a middle linebacker. They’re all incredible, But I have to go with Embiid. If he can stay healthy (if, if, if), then he’s one of the most uniquely talented stars of my lifetime. And he’s so charismatic and young and funny! He’s the best. Watching his highlights has been one of the few good and pure things for me in 2017.
Also, I’m really going to miss Manu Ginobili when he’s retired.
A Season To Remember
After a number of moves and technological upgrades over the past fifteen years, I now own only one VHS tape. It’s on my bookshelf next to every issue of Barrelhouse, the lit mag where I’m the nonfiction editor. Sometimes, when my toddler nieces and nephews visit the house, I move it to a higher shelf so they won’t accidentally destroy it. I don’t own a VCR anymore, and still, I’ve been holding on to A Season to Remember, the NFL Films-produced video yearbook for the 1992 Philadelphia Eagles, for 25 years.
I was ten years old in 1992, the perfect age to develop an irrational, one-sided, and deeply personal connection to an entertainer. When you turn ten, the first thing you do is become dangerously obsessed with a famous entity that doesn’t reciprocate your love. Other kids my age were obsessing over Nintendo or Boyz II Men or Will Smith or their first crush, but for me it was the Eagles. I tied my whole identity and sense of self-worth to the fortunes of that football team. What you choose to latch onto is circumstantial—my brother and my dad loved football, and also Philly has a pathological connection to its sports teams—but it dictates the course of your life in many ways. You pick new friends based on your obsession. You build your daily life around it. What you read, what you wear, what you buy, and what you dream about: it’s the product of some weird moment when a switch in your brain flipped and you said: Okay, this is the thing I love.
* * *
Like all NFL Films videos, the cinematography is dramatic, the music intense, and the narration is hilariously self-important. “For the Philadelphia Eagles, 1992 was more than a football season,” the narrator says to start A Season to Remember. “It will forever stand to the legacy left by Jerome Brown… in many ways, the 1992 season proved to be as glorious as any in recent memory.” For an unathletic and painfully shy kid like me, this level of grandiosity was incredibly appealing. My own life wasn’t momentous or memorable, but the Eagles were. The NFL Films videos are propaganda, sure, but they’re very good propaganda. They do an excellent job of convincing you that the football game is so much more than a football game. The scoreboard isn’t about who won or lost; it’s about the literal meaning of life.
* * *
The 1992 video was not the first such video I’d seen, but it was the most important. The year I turned 10 was the first time I was able to really concentrate on a full football game and understand what was happening. Past highlight videos, for me, had been a random assortment of sports things, but this one had a narrative. It had compelling characters who I loved beyond all reason. All summer long, I watched it by myself. I watched it when I woke up, and I watched before bed. I watched enough times that even now, when I look it up on YouTube, I have the script memorized. I remember the exact words Merrill Reese yells when Fred Barnett scores a touchdown in the playoffs. I am ready to leap out of my seat as I anticipate Seth Joyner’s one-handed interception versus the Vikings. I still feel visceral anger when I see Emmitt Smith’s face before their Monday Night Football game against the Cowboys. Against the Cardinals, the Eagles defense, which was one of the best of all time, stages a seven play goal-line stand. The narrator describes the defense as, “more grit than glitter, more spit than polish.” The soundtrack is symphonic, as if scored by John Williams.
When I played football with my friends, I repeated the phrases from the movie, tried to replicate the exact plays I’d seen: Joyner’s interception, Heath Sherman’s stumbling touchdown run against the Redskins, Vai Sikahema boxing the hell out of the goalpost. I was young and I did not matter and the Eagles were good and they did matter.
* * *
Now, as with many of my friends, my relationship with the NFL, and football in general, is conflicted. The brain injuries, the NCAA’s exploitation of talented young men, the grifting of the public for stadiums and other corporate amenities. The obscene celebrations of militarism that are still somehow too liberal for the president. The endless replay challenges and frequently boring games. Some Sundays, watching football has felt like a chore left to me by my younger self. Many of these problems existed in 1992 also (Eagles safety Andre Waters would commit suicide years later, one of the first known victims of CTE), but I didn’t know about them. They wouldn’t have mattered to me even if I did. That team exists outside of time and politics, and is some other, simpler thing.
* * *
You know what really stands out re-watching the video? Randall Cunningham is so good. He’s one of the most uniquely gifted athletes I’ve ever seen. He’d returned from a catastrophic leg injury that year, and, like many people in the city, I wore a hat that said “I’ll Be Back… Scrambling.” One day, a year or two later, I was walking home from my bus stop and two older kids stopped me to ask about the hat. Before I could answer, one stole the hat and the other shoved me. They sprinted down the street while I chased them. For some reason, they stopped and threw the hat in the gutter. Losing my hat in the gutter is not a metaphor for anything. I just thought it was interesting.
* * *
Until I sat down to write this piece, I hadn’t watched the video in many years. There’s no point in keeping it now that I can find several versions of it on YouTube, but the bulkiness of the video and the battered case seem somehow more meaningful than a hyperlink. I’m not a sentimental person in general, but that video connects me to some version of myself that won’t ever exist again. The version of me that could hear a narrator describe a game as, “A dynamic duel on a dark December day” and, rather than cynically laughing at it, feel the weight of those words settling into my chest. The version of me that first channeled anger and fear and love into football until I learned how to safely have an emotional life outside of sports. The version of me that believed, more deeply than in any other thing, that 1992 was, “A year forged by a very special sense of purpose,” that ended in great triumph.
I’m a little bit afraid of that person, who spent the next decade descending into a sports mania that alienated a lot of people. I’m a little bit wistful for that person, too, because he believed earnestly in something, despite all evidence, and I doubt I’ll ever recapture that. Mostly, I miss seeing Seth Joyner and William Thomas crushing people in the open field and feeling an uncomplicated joy and love for this group of men who would all, in one way or another, let me down someday.