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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Softer Sports Fan

Moscow has done strange things to me as a sports fan, and as I finish packing for the great thrust west, it has dawned on me that I am no longer a hot-blooded zealot.


Sure, I am a dyed-in-the-wool Spartak soccer supporter -- I even managed to learn some of the chants, thanks to my wife's enthusiastic cousin. And it has been a thrill to watch the CSKA Russian Penguins bloom into a real pro hockey team, with glossy tickets, between-periods antics and snappy uniforms.


What about the teams back home, though? It's been so long since I've watched college basketball or Monday Night Football. Continents and oceans have shielded me from Nike ads and debates about which is greater, the annual earnings of Shaquille O'Neal or the GNP of Costa Rica. I still love sports, more than ever in fact, but Moscow has had a calming effect on my typical hysteria. Somehow I became soft.


The word fan is short for fanatic, and that once described me perfectly. I was superstitious, loud and fiercely loyal. While watching games I could not contain curses and lewd gestures when things went badly, or cheers of joy at the well-timed touchdown, strikeout or three-pointer. Friends and family were embarrassed by my behavior. I have wept at the end of basketball games, bit holes in t-shirts during baseball games, and more than once tried to hex the Miami Dolphins by burning football cards.


Not anymore.


Reading hand-me-down issues of Sports Illustrated on cold Moscow nights, I gobbled up articles on everything from baseball to kick-boxing. Although I used to despise the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, I now find them interesting, and would gladly read features on Todd Zeile and Ozzie Smith -- just because it's baseball in a city on the Mississippi River, and life without the Cards would be awful.


And the dreaded football Dolphins are fine in my book now; I even like Don Shula, Dan Marino and the whole idea of football in south Florida. The sport would be worse without them.


This is all Moscow's fault, and there are a few explanations for this.


First of all, in Moscow it is quite clear that there are more important things in the world than sports, although my wife's cousin might disagree. In some parts of the United States, including my mind when I lived there, sports define life: Imagine Indiana without basketball, or Kentucky without thoroughbred racing, or Texas without football. But when bullets fly at Ostankino, when families' lifetime savings dissolve because of inflation, who cares that Bobby Bonilla is batting .270 for the Mets or that Bobby Knight is disappointed in Damon Bailey? Besides, there are better things to do with your time here than fret about your school's chances in the Orange Bowl. Learn the language. Read Bulgakov. Write letters to faraway friends.


Every day is such a challenge around here -- from getting the laundry done to remembering the genitive plural ending of rubashka -- that sports would just be too much to handle.


Deprivation, however, is the main reason I have become a softer sports fan. I've gone to a few events here, such as hockey contests in echoing, empty arenas, exhibition cricket tests at Luzhniki and basketball games on Red Square. I went to the final of the Kremlin Cup tennis tournament last year and, even though the Olympic Arena was sold out, the fans were timid and quiet. Granted, it's hard to get too excited about Marc Rosset and Bernd Karbacher, but some noise would have been nice.


And pipe down, you Europeans. I have gone to several soccer matches here, including one memorable meeting between Russia and Luxembourg at Luzhniki where the pitch was covered with snow and the game was played with an orange ball. The grandstands of the hulking stadium were deserted. Spartak is my team, and to a certain extent, the most popular sport in the world has indeed seduced me. Sometimes I actually do wonder whether J--rgen Klinsmann will be good enough to catapult Tottenham Hotspur to the top of the English Premier League.


Famine, though. The fact is, I'll do just about anything to watch an American sporting event, and teams, players and stadiums I once disdained now please me to no end.


On winter Sunday mornings, I -- and other Moscow basketball fans, Russian or otherwise -- wake up early to catch the weekly NBA highlight show, plus the edited second half of Detroit-Cleveland or some such game. For sheer lack of any other options, you sit, riveted, watching the Pistons and the Cavs.


Even though I have historically been repulsed by football's Cowboys and Bills, I stayed up until 6 A.M. last Jan. 30 to watch them square off in Super Bowl XXVIII. In the past, I would have chosen a team based on geography or personnel, rooted for it to the final gun, and despised the opponent. Guess what? This time I decided I liked both teams: I felt pity for Thurman Thomas and Buffalo and was seduced by Dallas' swaggering style.


The strangest thing is, even when teams that are dear to me lose, it is not so tragic anymore.


What happened when my belov?d Knicks lost to the Houston Rockets in the NBA championship this year? Not a thing. I said to a friend, "Good. Hakeem deserved to win, and besides, the Knicks play ugly." What happened when my belov?d Mets went 59-103 in 1993 -- a worse record than baseball's two expansion teams that year? No big deal. A hundred and three losses are more humorous than depressing. So thank you, Moscow. Because of you, I am no longer a sports fanatic, but a disciplined, appreciative devotee.


I give myself two weeks, maximum, before I start biting holes in shirts and cussing and weeping again.


Go Spartak.





Chris Klein, a reporter for The Moscow Times for two years, leaves the paper this week for New York.