I don’t know why I did it.
On Sunday, after the South Carolina Gamecocks men’s basketball team knocked off the Florida Gators to advance to its first ever Final Four, I slid out of my seat in the dimly lit bar and walked over to the table that had just finished whooping and hollering. Having achieved the element of surprise, I placed my hands on the shoulders of two men with their backs to me.
“Congrats on your win,” I said to the men, both of whom sported garnet and black paraphernalia.
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They looked up and smiled, and the bald one said, “Thanks. Say, there’s something wrong with your hat.”
“There wasn’t back in January,” I replied, defending my weathered, sweat-stained Clemson baseball cap and gently reminding the man of the Tigers’ Jan. 9 win over Alabama to claim college football’s national championship.
The man smiled.
There was some semblance of a handshake and hug. Then, I went on about my business.
When I returned to my seat, I told my wife and friends about the exchange and marveled at my quick wit. Now that I think about it, surely I could have come up with something better — at least I wasn’t profane. Still, in my mind at the time, a rare twofer: I got to throw a jab and be magnanimous.
And yet as I sat there, I realized I was coming to grips with the fact that I, a Clemson grad, was — dadgummit, I’ll say it — pulling for the Gamecocks (and might even continue to do so) and that I was ... OK with that.
I checked Facebook and found other Tiger alums who’d authored posts congratulating South Carolina.
At least I was not alone.
But I was confused.
Yes, I usually pull for Cinderella teams during March Madness and the NCAA Tournament, but Cinderella’s never been this ... complicated. I mean, South Carolina has even renamed the concept — because of the play of the Gamecocks’ Southeastern-Conference-player-of-the-year guard Sindarius Thornwell, we now have “Sinderella.”
Still, the No. 7 seed Gamecocks are all we have left, what with No.1 seed Gonzaga (South Carolina’s next opponent), blue-blood No.1 seed North Carolina and No. 3 seed Oregon rounding out the Final Four. (Yes, I realize wins by either Gonzaga or Oregon would make nice stories, just not Sin— , er, Cinderella ones.)
Still confused Monday morning, I reached out to two people for what amounted to, in essence, impromptu counseling sessions.
The first was Cody Havard, a sport and leisure management professor at the University of Memphis who’s conducted more than 20 studies on sports rivalries.
“From a Clemson fan’s perspective, it’s not the (Atlantic Coast Conference), it’s not someone you play (in basketball, in conference) on a regular basis and, also, it’s not football,” Havard said, explaining how some Tiger fans might rationalize pulling for the Gamecocks.
Furthermore, since Clemson won the lone regular-season basketball game over South Carolina in December, Tiger fans will be able to say they beat a Final Four or, potentially — and Good Lord, I can’t believe I’m about to broach this possibility — a national championship team.
It could also be an expression of “basking in reflected glory,” Havard said, explaining the concept that allows people to associate themselves with others’ success, thereby fueling their own self-esteem.
The Gamecocks’ run is good for the state, he said, and since the team isn’t traditionally a threat to Clemson’s basketball program, well ... it’s good for the state.
It’ll be interesting to see how Clemson fans respond if the Gamecocks lose. They might say “good run,” Havard said. Or they might say, “Good run, but if we were in that position, we would have finished the deal,” he said, explaining that would be “glory out of reflected failure.”
As our session ended, I self-diagnosed that I was doing no basking of any variety.
The second person I called was my dad, Don Livingston, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.
I called him in search of a deeper meaning — hope, even.
A November 2016 Gallup Poll shortly after the presidential election found a record 77 percent of Americans “perceived the nation as divided.” And yet, in the wake of their rival’s win, here were some Clemson folk throwing some love at the Gamecocks. So, I asked Dad: In this polarized climate, could there be a deeper meaning in this outpouring of support?
“No,” my dad said. “I don’t think we should read anything into it.”
He told me I should be rooting for South Carolina because of my Palmetto State roots.
“And it shows you can be a bigger man,” he said.
“Plus,” he continued, “your mother says you have a lot of family and friends who are Gamecock fans.”
Dad is a Carolina alum, twice over.
But he looks better in orange.
And regularly wears it, especially during the fall.
He’s always set a good example.