Believing in sport

Sport is belief. In sport's importance, or just that your team will score next.

At nine years old, my aunt took me to Sunday School. The teacher said something, and I asked a question. It was all new to me; we had no religion in our home, and the stories seemed weird. I asked a follow-up question, then many others. Around the time I asked her how they found kangaroos for the ark, the teacher lost patience. She told me that while questions were important; I needed to have belief.

Since I've been obsessed with believers. It got to the point where I tried to make a documentary about it. The idea was to find true believers: Someone who believed in aliens, but hadn't seen one. Religious zealots. Racists who believed in their ethnic superiority over others.

And Sports fans.

It's why this line by Carl Reiner is one of my favourites in film.

The first meeting I had about the documentary was with a producer who wanted me to take sports out. It wasn’t that she didn't think fans believed; just that they didn’t believe strongly enough. She wasn't a sports fan; she hadn't sat beside me in the outer at the MCG while an entire crowd of Collingwood Football Club fans believed they could come back from four goals down because there was some kind of magic in the black and white polyester stripes. She hadn't been a young kid at the start of a season - filled with hope that she’d see her team win it all for the first time. She hadn't been at the racetrack when they rounded the final bend, and her horse freed from the rails, just them and an open track between her and victory.

I've lived these moments. My friend followed Richmond Football Club in the AFL. Every year in March, he'd be confident that this was the season where it all changed. This despite the fact the club had been an omnishambles of infighting, lousy administration and poor list management for the past two decades. But he'd read an article saying that they were getting things right in winning a practice match after resting their stars in the second half. And the latest top draft pick - one of so many - was the real deal. It was easy to find obvious flaws in his belief, but he couldn't see them. His belief in his woeful collection of 22 men always baffled me.

But the '03 Cricket World Cup final in South Africa - between Australia and India - would be my case study in sporting belief. I’d backpacked around the tournament - which meant I stayed in hotels in throughout South Africa with heaps of fans from all over the world. It was a masterclass in learning how other supporters saw the sport. It was the experience that would launch my career writing about global cricket.

On the day of the World Cup final, we walked through Jo'burg to Wanderers. Indian fans were everywhere. It seemed like all of them were prepared to stop me in the street to tell me that the Aussies were going down. They were aggressively sure of it. All my friends wondered how on earth it was possible for them to think like this. India were playing Australia, in a World Cup Final. Australia hadn't lost a world cup game since early in the previous campaign.

And yet these Indian fans believed India would win. They didn't care about Australia's record or the previous meetings of the two teams. This time, India was going to succeed.  They saw the future as pre-ordained; victory as a birthright.

They were wrong. But the belief of the Indian fans has stayed with me forever.

It's not that all sporting fans are like this: some go the other way. They think their team can never win, not now, not ever. They’re cursed. There's a dark, conspiratorial force out there - usually the league, umpires, an owner and the media -  scheming to defraud them of their happiness. Even if they win, the streak will end soon. Every victory brings them one step closer to their next defeat.

Even I’m a believer. In my career as a writer and analyst, it might seem odd. But even while scouring for facts, diving into sporting minutiae, as much as anything, because I want to know the future.

Will Bol Bol be a rotation player for the Denver Nuggets next year?

It looks like Mason Plumlee and Paul Milsapp could leave on free agency. That means that the Nuggets will need at least one, if not two of their gambles-  either Michael Porter Junior or Bol  - to come off. And I know this is unlikely, or actually as aa former GM of a sporting team, that something else will go wrong.

But here's the wild thing. Regardless of that, if someone I trust tells me that Porter and Bol are stars in the making, I'm all in. I just need more questions asked, I need to see the receipts, but then I'll still believe because that’s part of it. I want to. It’s an integral part of sports. Why else would we travel across the country on a smelly bus to the game? Why else would we buy the colours of the club? Why else would we watch when we're losing?

There has to be belief.

Sports are lots of things. They’re a substitute for war, a diversion, a substitute family, religion, society, community and something to bet on. But what holds many of these strands together is that we believe that sport matters and that our team's result is important. Taking the next step and believing that finally, this is the year, well, that's the simple part.

Having watched the tape for various religions, I struggle to believe in them.

But the Nuggets are just one good free agent away from winning it all. Believe.