At the University of Southern California, we recently started a program called Spirituality and Sports that explores the spiritual dimensions of sports - from the mysticism of the "the zone" to the development of extraordinary human potential; from the transformative powers of organized sports to the ritual, pilgrimage, and community orientations that organized sports share with organized religions. Over the last year, USC's Spirituality and Sports program hosted discussions with Olympic athletes, sports stars, and Trojan legends in order to uncover the rich layers of meaning, purpose, and identity that sports imparts to its practitioners.
But the spiritual side of sports is not limited to its athletes. Sports fans are deeply invested in their teams and players, and sports fandom sometimes reflects the same elements of devotionalism and tribalism found in the world's religions. Sports fans annually take a journey with their teams, a pilgrimage of sorts, through the emotional peaks and valleys that comprise the sports season. Through this process, sports fans learn as much about themselves as they do about their teams.
For me, being a Los Angeles Clippers fan for over twenty years has taught me firsthand about the spiritual dimensions of faith and suffering, and has helped me better understand my own Hindu tradition. According to the Bhagavad Gita, a pan-Hindu theological text, we should act righteously in each moment and relinquish attachment to future rewards. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna counsels Arjuna on the battlefield and instructs him to act in the present moment without being attached to the fruits of his labor. In this context, Hinduism shares an Indian philosophical worldview with Buddhism that focuses on the process as opposed to the goal, the present as opposed to the past, and the journey as opposed to the destination.
The Clippers have long been derided as the paradigmatic bottom-feeding NBA team. Indeed, in a famous cover story, Sports Illustrated called them the worst franchise in sports history. But their perennially disappointing seasons are a powerful lesson in Hindu philosophy for Clippers fans. We have no championship banners, no MVPs, no retired jerseys - we don't even have our own arena. As Clippers fans, we've never been attached to the fruits of our fandom because we don't have any fruits to be attached to! Even our most triumphant moment in recent history (almost advancing to the Western Conference Finals during the 2005-06 season) is a memory forever tinged with confusion and despair (why was the ice-cold rookie Daniel Ewing inserted into the game to guard the red-hot veteran Raja Bell during the most critical possession in franchise history?). The unfortunate fact is that pretty early on in each Clippers season, goals are quickly discarded and the past isn't worth remembering. As Clippers fans, all we have is the process and the present moment, and this directly connects us to the ancient wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita.
Recently, Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson (the Zen Master) invoked Indian philosophy when asked about the "Clippers Curse." He astutely stated that the Clippers aren't cursed but rather they suffer from the negative karma accrued by their ownership and management. In Sanskrit, the word karma means "action," and as a philosophical term, karma refers to causality. Karma is cause and effect - a metaphysical caveat to Newton's third law of motion. Given that the Clippers have historically been managed from a business perspective instead of from a basketball perspective, the effect has been a financially profitable franchise with only a handful of winning seasons. So Phil Jackson was right - the Clippers have definitely been impacted by the karma of their ownership and management, as decades of bad decisions directly resulted in an apathetic and uninspired team culture.
Yet there is an infectious joy in being a Clippers fan and rooting for the ultimate underdog with unbridled optimism. For Clippers fans, every meaningful victory resembles a mystical experience, a transcendent and ecstatic moment of redemption. In my case, being a Clippers fan brought me into a kindred community of passionate and knowledgeable fans who are the antithesis of the bandwagon and fair-weathered variety (check out real Clippers fans here and here). Rooting for the Clippers taught me firsthand about the Indian philosophical doctrines of causality and non-attachment, and I now have a permanent mantra - "next season!" In all these ways, being a Clippers fan has made me a better Hindu.
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