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Sports Tribes
Karl Taro Greenfeld
July 11, 2005
FOR THE ELITE FEW whom this magazine tends to cover, the American athletic experience is one of teams (Tigers or Phillies) or individual competition (Tiger and Phil). Yet for most of us beyond college age, strictly organized play is a thing of the past, and sport becomes something tribal. We go down to the park for pickup games of soccer, basketball or in-line hockey, or over to the racquetball courts, and very quickly become acquainted with a crew of regulars. Depending on how the sides are chosen, today's teammate will be tomorrow's opponent. But we are still part of the same tribe.
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July 11, 2005

Sports Tribes

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FOR THE ELITE FEW whom this magazine tends to cover, the American athletic experience is one of teams (Tigers or Phillies) or individual competition (Tiger and Phil). Yet for most of us beyond college age, strictly organized play is a thing of the past, and sport becomes something tribal. We go down to the park for pickup games of soccer, basketball or in-line hockey, or over to the racquetball courts, and very quickly become acquainted with a crew of regulars. Depending on how the sides are chosen, today's teammate will be tomorrow's opponent. But we are still part of the same tribe.

Tribes adhere to different rules than teams, which tend to ration playing time based on performance. Tribes reward locals, who often can get a spot on the court or in the set lineup, while a newcomer, even one with superior skills, might be denied. For tribes spring from geography: one specific park, one lefthanded jetty break, one boxing gym. And each spot has its own rules and code of behavior. At my pickup soccer games in lower Manhattan's Roosevelt Park there is no out-of-bounds on the east side of the field, but a path constitutes the west side boundary. Just across town in Tompkins Square Park, where I used to play on a concrete pitch, the wrought-iron fence on the north is out, while similar fences to the south are in play. (Pedestrians are in play at both pitches.) A newcomer at either of these tribal spots would have no way of knowing the boundaries. It would take watching quite a few games to figure them out.

Sometimes the appeal of the tribe is that it is a band of brothers, or sisters, existing outside the rules--or at the fringes--of mainstream society. "We help each other," says boxing trainer Willie Rush, 63, of the regular tribe at Philadelphia's Front Street Gym. "We're like family. We're all here 'cause we got nowhere else to train."

There is about this ganging together a whiff of the initiatory thrill of the outlaw experience, perhaps the last such sniff many of us will get. Think of the contrast between a tribal hero, say Tony Alva of Dogtown fame, and a team sports hero from the same era, such as Roger Staubach. Right there lies the difference between the tribe and the team. ( Brett Favre, whose connection with Packers fans has made him a tribal leader in Green Bay, may be one of the few athletes to be the hero of both a tribe and a professional team.)

Many of today's teams-- AC Milan, the New York Knickerbockers, the Chicago Bears--started out as tribes that, over the years, were professionalized into teams. Of course, even today some pro teams have tribal attributes: The Boston Red Sox come to mind for their suffering, which became a defining tribal attribute connecting millions of fans with the players and with each other. One might even argue that tribalism (familiarity, shared values, an outlaw edge) can sometimes make good teams great.

Over the last few months Sports Illustrated's photographers have tracked down tribes of basketball players, women football players, boxers, surfers and others. Think of these 15 pages as the great gathering of American sports tribes. Each of these tribes is as emblematic of the richness of the sporting experience as any Super Bowl winner. --Karl Taro Greenfeld

STREET BALL page 94

SOFTBALL page 96

FOOTBALL page 100

BOXING page 102

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