Zombies United

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Pirated feeds, Toyota commercials in Arabic, long distance calls to Dad. The challenges and joys of watching the NBA Finals and other American sports in India

It was about 10.40 on a mid-October morning in 2012 and my hometown Yankees had tied the game. They had appeared listless for all nine innings before roaring back. Then the cable went out and I nearly lost my mind.

I remember feeling invincible just before the TV hit the fritz. Spectator sports are asinine that way. You could be a shell of yourself, working on no sleep; and then, a D-list celebrity athlete like Yankees journeyman Raúl Ibañez does a thing with a smoothed out block of wood on the other side of the world, and suddenly you’re Zeus.

Everything went black for a beat. I waited. A message appeared on my screen: ‘Memory card error. Please call customer service. We apologize for any inconvenience.

If this type of thing had happened during a cricket match, the person responsible would have been hanged from the Bandra-Worli Sea Link. But I don’t think too many people in my neighbourhood gave a damn about baseball. I did, though, and losing a TV signal during a tied playoff game on no sleep was like waking up in the middle of the night to urinate and smashing your knee against the nightstand. At the back of your mind, you knew such a thing was possible. But it never becomes a matter of real concern until it actually happens and the white-hot pain subsumes your entire consciousness.

I flipped the remote handset against the floor loudly enough to send the cat shooting into another room, and started work on Plan B: find an illegal sports website that steals TV feeds from places of varying degrees of legitimacy throughout the world—and log on before anything else is lost.

To be clear, I usually avoid such criminal turns of behaviour. During the regular baseball season, there is no cause for such a Plan B. It is something I resort to only for regular season American football and some NBA basketball. But I leave nothing to chance for my favourite sport. I pay well over $100 a year for an internet subscription to watch Major League Baseball games. And because I gamble on the outcomes of individual players through fantasy sports, I sometimes flip through six or seven different games in one night. To an outsider, this might look like a chimpanzee learning how to watch TV for the first time, or some elaborate scientific test study for people with terminal ADHD. To me, however, my midnight baseball fix is as essential as clean water and fresh air, two things that—much like baseball—require a little extra effort to find in Mumbai suburbs.

Unfortunately, the baseball playoffs are not part of the subscription deal (blame restrictions of rights). So it was time to roll up my sleeves and dig into a website called First Row Sports. Ask American sports fans living abroad and they’ll know it. If they don’t know it, they’ll be eager to learn. We’re talking about the last refuge of the true sports junkie here—methadone for the heroin addict, homemade country liquor for the alcoholic, a rubber blow-up doll for the sex fiend.

A first encounter with the website feels only a shade classier than a glimpse of online amateur pornography. The anonymously-run site generates its money from a variety of self-help, pyramid scheme and weight-loss ads that crop up incessantly during a game. And the feeds themselves are stolen from every place you can imagine and from many others you can’t. China, the United States military, even Saudi Arabia—they’re all getting ripped off by First Row Sports. After all, nothing quite says ‘Take me out to the ballgame’ like a Toyota commercial in Arabic.

The links on the site usually stay posted throughout the game, but given the overall shadiness of this operation, nothing is ever a given. Occasionally, the rightful owner of the feed threatens a lawsuit and all the links shut down. Such was the case during Game One of the 2012 American League Championship Series between the Yankees and the Tigers. I got the game back for 30 whole seconds before some unseen hand pulled the plug. The last thing I saw before my screen turned into a spiralling black hole was Yankees’ captain Derek Jeter falling down onto the dirt like an old bag of potatoes. His ankle had given out during a routine play. Having given up on watching the game, I looked desperately for a radio signal online. Nothing. As a last resort, I called my father in the US over the phone. He dutifully gave me the play-by-play as he watched everything unravel.

The Yankees lost. Jeter was done for the series.

The Yankees didn’t win a single game that season. And depending on whether or not I had a writing deadline to meet, I either roused myself out of bed at five in the morning to watch those losses or just burned through the night on coffee after writing, and then slept it off in the afternoon. For the dedicated sports fan, losing is already an unspeakable horror. And here I am, risking my health, my sleep and my sanity only to be tortured night after night. Why?

I can’t help but reflect on such strange behaviour. It’s that time of year. We are deep in the throes of regular-season baseball, and if you’ve turned on Sony Six in the morning recently, you might have noticed that the NBA Finals are on too. As I write these words, Game 2 of the series is tied in the second quarter. The underdog San Antonio Spurs upset the Miami Heat on their home turf to steal Game 1, but there’s a lot of basketball left to play before this best-of-seven thing is over. And while I’m a New York Knicks fan, and don’t have a local team in the game, I’ve still given myself a rooting interest in the Spurs.

The motivation for picking the Spurs can be broken down into two unequal parts: 10 per cent of it has to do with liking the way their team goes about their business. But 90 per cent of it has to do with my unabashed hatred of Heat’s LeBron James, the league’s most celebrated star. As a Knicks fan, his smiling face makes me retch. There are other incentives to watch the series too. The love of live basketball, for example. But are these reason enough to abuse your body night after night?

I asked this question of my friend Brendan McCarthy, an American public relations professional who spent over a year in India for work. His answer was essentially ‘no’. He’s a passionate sports fan in general; he and I watched the 2011 Cricket World Cup together when we both lived in Delhi. But nothing obsesses him quite like American college football, specifically matches that involve his hometown team, the Florida Gators. McCarthy went to University of Florida, as did several members of his family. Such family ties ensure that college football rivalries are often fiercer than any other in America. Having spent years living on campus, your dedication to the college team is near total. One of Florida’s primary rivals is Georgia, a division rival separated by the state’s only border. The teams last squared off on 29 October 2011. Brendan was in India at the time. “I just knew I was going to do everything in my power to watch that game,” he recalls. With Florida safely in the lead, McCarthy moved frantically from one dodgy website to the other, losing the game’s pirated live feed every now and then. When all else failed, he resorted to a radio broadcast. “You have all these things that you do to make it foolproof and it’s still impossible,” he says. “You just have to keep trying to find a way to watch it.”

Stuck with the radio broadcast, he listened to the Florida Gators blow a two touchdown lead in the second half—on their way to a harrowing loss of 24-20. Stuck with the game on the slow moment-to-moment pace of radio relay, the loss felt like an agonisingly slow death.

McCarthy and I are not alone in these pursuits. My friend Neil Munshi, a journalist from Wisconsin, would never miss a date with his beloved Green Bay Packers while living in India. For this, he would sometimes stay awake until as late as 5 am on Sunday nights. You’d know that he’d been watching the game from the time stamp on his Facebook feed. After bragging about the dominance of his squad, he would catch an hour or two of sleep and grit out the workday.

Neil and I watched the 2012 Super Bowl together along with a British journalist named Henry Foy in Neil’s Colaba flat. By the end of the game, we were in a semi-conscious huddle, eating our McDonald’s breakfast delivery. We were by far McD’s first food order that day.

My father, an even bigger sports fan than me, was in the Navy during the Vietnam War era, stationed in the Philippines where he worked as a translator. As a kid, I used to ask him where he was during some of the big moments in New York sports history. Like when Joe Namath, the flashy New York Jets quarterback, led our hometown Jets to their only Super Bowl win, or when the ‘Miracle Mets’ of 1969 stormed to one of baseball’s most improbable World Series victories ever. In every case, he was stuck receiving news second and third hand from the few people on his base who were lucky enough to have an ear out for what was happening back home. Sometimes, he would wait weeks for newspaper clippings of box scores.

Today, nobody has to go without instant sports gratification. And while I’ve developed a taste for cricket, nothing beats watching the Yankees, Jets and Knicks. The only issue is that there is always a price to pay for pleasure. As I write this, LeBron James and the Heat have just finished dominating the Spurs at both ends of the court, and my sleep deprivation has opened the door for the first cold viruses of the 2013 monsoon season. That tie game in the second quarter evaporated in a flurry of LeBron James baskets. Now the two teams head to San Antonio, where the series will only increase in ferocity. The Heat are on the offensive after forfeiting their home court advantage. The Spurs will aim to defend the advantage they acquired in Game 1 against a team with LeBron James at the helm.

I had better buy another couple of Red Bull cans. This could be a long series.