May 18, 2007

When Goliath plays David: “We Believe” suffers from misuse

Although the Golden State Warriors just made their rather unceremonious exit from the NBA Playoffs, their underdog heroics and upset of the 67-win Dallas Mavericks won’t be easily forgotten.

For the third time in NBA history, an eight-seed beat a one-seed, as Baron Davis took over the series and fellow guard Stephen Jackson bullied questionable league MVP Dirk Nowitski. But the most important participant wasn’t Davis, or Jackson, or even Coach Don Nelson—instead, it was the Oakland fans who created the most intense atmosphere the NBA has seen in years.

The Warriors faithful spirited their team to earn the last spot in the playoffs, provided the momentum for their squad to take Game one in Dallas, and then willed their lineup to a home sweep. The rabid fans rallied behind chants of “We Believe,” a variation of Tug McGraw’s underdog axiom, “You Gotta Believe!”

But after vanquishing the mighty Mavs, Golden State got blown out by an aruguably less talented Jazz team, even dropping a game in Oakland. It was the same players and the same coach, so only one thing had changed: the fans. A week ago the Warriors faithful breathed new life into the “Believe” mantra, but now it’s even more of a cliché.

While certainly fans cried “You Gotta Believe!” before 1973, it wasn’t until Tug McGraw and the Mets canvassed New York City with the phrase that it became so popular in sports. After staggering through the first half of the season in dead last, in July, McGraw screamed the slogan after a pep talk by Mets Chairman M. Donald Grant.

Most witnesses believe that the good-humored relief pitcher was parodying Grant when he yelled, “He’s right! He’s right! Just believe! You gotta believe!” but nonetheless, it became the war cry of the Amazins. Banners with the saying popped up everywhere, with perhaps the most famous one held up by two nuns at Shea in September.

As the Mets heated up, the NL East buckled, and the Mets excitingly won the NL Pennant with only 82 victories – the lowest winning percentage by a pennant winner in history. The scrappy team made it to the World Series, seemingly completely through the willpower of their supporters.

Since then however, countless squads have attempted to bond and triumph behind some adaptation of the phrase. But the proliferation of Tug’s catchphrase has led to its triteness as fair-weather fans—or even worse, marketers—clasp onto it whenever their team makes the postseason. One need not look any further than Chicago to see the abuse of the motto.

The most blatant misuse came in 2005 during the Championship run at the Cell with the combination of Tug McGraw and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” But the South Side Hitmen didn’t need their fans to believe; in fact, they managed pretty well without fans the whole season before the bandwagon started.

Betting on the White Sox to win the World Series was like betting on the Globetrotters to beat the Generals. With 99 wins, the club wasn’t an underdog. Chicago was a Goliath and its adoption of the “Believe” mantra was an insult to Davids everywhere. The only saving grace of the entire campaign was that they actually got Journey frontman Steve Perry to sing the newfound anthem with the players, which is likely a major reason the Sox went all the way.

The South Siders aren’t the only offenders, however. The Cubs had already tarnished the axiom two years prior. After winning their division and beating a strong Braves team in the NLDS, the Cubs looked primed to make the Fall Classic with homefield advantage and only the Wild Card Marlins in their way.

It wasn’t until the Cubs started fumbling that their fans started wielding “You’ve Got to Believe” signs. In Games 6 and 7 at Wrigley, with a 3-2 advantage in the series, the Wrigley “faithful” suddenly reverted back into lovable loser mode. Such a display of fickleness goes against everything that the saying stands for to begin with. As karma would have it, the Cubbies lost both games and haven’t done much since.

With abundant abuses of the original slogan like the ones in Chicago, it was refreshing to see the Warriors fans in Round 1 restore some of its life. Regrettably, even Oakland fell victim to “the bandwagon age” in sports with a dramatic turnaround at the Oracle Arena in Round 2. A drastic rise in ticket prices replaced the die-hards with celebrities and suburban families with children that probably had never heard of Golden State. “We Believe” was no longer a movement, it was a $14.99 t-shirt souvenir, and five games later, there was nothing left to believe in.

Some might maintain that the fans have little to no effect on the outcome of games and that the “Believe” concept is silly propaganda, but try explaining the 1973 Mets or the 2007 Warriors without it. There are still pro-sports fan bases out there that can single-handedly will their underdog teams to victory if given the opportunity. The Raiders, Indians, Knicks, and Oilers come to mind, as they continue to draw huge crowds despite their mediocrity. While some of these teams seem pretty far away from a championship, you never know… you just gotta believe.