Up to 108 days sans sports and feeling like the struggle is real...

Every sports fan of a certain age has gone through this rite of passage, yet it seems to be one we don't talk about very often:

The first time you didn't like a player on the hometown team.

When I was a kid, loyalty to the Boston laundry was unquestioned. Growing up in the 1980s and '90s, you barely remembered the names of the players on the other teams. So you grew up believing that the guy whose name you knew, that you watched all the time, was the best, even if he was merely Greg Harris or Jozef Stumpel.

Maybe it's different today, since highlights of every team in every league are so readily available. Maybe kids come of age faster, knowing the limitations of their hometown guys and being fans of the leagues at large, not just of the guys on the team their dad roots for.

Back then, sometime between the ages of 13 and 20, your eyes opened. Maybe it was when one of your favorite teams brought in a guy that you didn't like when he played elsewhere; maybe it was because someone was underachieving; maybe as a fan you just didn't like the cut of his jib.

At some point, there's a guy with a Boston jersey on that you simply don't like.

What a strange feeling that is.

You still want your team to do well, so you can't really root for this guy to fail. You'd just prefer that someone else play the hero, or that maybe this guy takes on a background role. Maybe you're sure that the team won't win when he's here, so you find yourself silently hoping for a trade.

There's a struggle that comes with this realization, especially the first time. It almost feels like the kid coming home from first-year college philosophy telling everyone "well actually" and feeling enlightened, but the internal dialogue is one of doubt.

How could I not like someone that plays for my team? Aren't I supposed to like all the Red Sox? All the Bruins? All the Patriots? All the Celtics? Am I still a real fan?

It's an evolution and yes, it's perfectly all right to love a team, root for it and not be totally sold on every single personnel move. You don't need to be a sheep to be a real fan.

Spending so much of this pandemic recalling our favorite things about sports, I started to wonder about the other side of that coin. What about the stuff you don't like?

Looking back, I have to admit that most of the players that made me scoff at the television were members of the Boston Celtics. The first one I really recall bugging me was Vin Baker in the 2002-03 season. I suppose it wasn't his fault. I got hooked on the Green in the spring of '02 when they nearly made the NBA Finals only to lose to the Nets.

Any changes to that team were going to bother me and it seemed like Baker was the replacement for the likes of Tony Delk and Erick Strickland. As a result, he drew my ire.

When a team is struggling, you find it's easier to pig pile on the players whose styles clash with your own. When the Celtics were rudderless in the middle of the 2000s, I took most of my frustration out on Raef LaFrentz and Wally Szczerbiak.

Matt Williams column: What about those athletes that you don't like?

Raef LaFrentz was not Matt Williams' favorite member of the Boston Celtics. (AP Photo/Bizuayehu Tesfaye) ORG XMIT: BX104

It's a strange thing to dislike someone shining for a winning team. I went through this with the Patriots and running back LeGarrette Blount. When he got himself cut from the Steelers to rejoin New England, it bugged me. I wasn't about to hope for the Pats to lose, but when he crashed into the end zone it was weird for yours truly.

I felt like, as Pats fans, if a running back on a different team did this, then scored touchdowns against us, we'd be incensed. It felt a little disingenuous to embrace it on the other side. Plus, I didn't think he was that good. Watching Jonas Gray, Stevan Ridley, Ben Jarvis Green-Ellis and others romp as lead rushers for winning Patriots teams made me think there were plenty of others who could tote the mail.

For most Patriots fans, the worst part of the Super Bowl LII loss to the Eagles was that Malcolm Butler didn't play. For me, it was seeing Blount (now with Philadelphia) rumble for 91 yards and a game changing early touchdown. Really? They can't stop this guy? That was hard to swallow.

There haven't been many Bruins I've disliked over the years. I remember as a middle schooler not being entirely in love with goalie "Lord" Byron Dafoe, but it was mild and his moved on pretty quickly. Jason Allison wasn't my favorite either, but again it wasn't any kind of significant grudge.

Sometimes you dislike a guy because he was part of a trade you hated. Take the Red Sox and Wily Mo Pena. Back in 2004, I was a big fan of fifth starter Bronson Arroyo. So when he was shipped to the Reds for Pena, I wasn't thrilled. The big slugger never really caught on in Red Sox Nation anyway, but I'd be lying if I said I gave him a fair shake as a fan.

That's all part of the ups-and-downs of being a fan; part of what keeps us coming back for more season after season. Whether it's intense admiration or a 'grin-and-bear-it' I hope we win even if this guy does well, an emotion gets produced.

In and of itself, that's the magic of sports: Love it, hate it or get stuck somewhere in the middle, it makes you feel something.


Matt Williams is sorry to the players he had a hard time rooting for. Let him know which Boston athletes didn't quite mesh with you at MWilliams@salemnews.com and on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN.


Assistant sports editor of The Salem News, blanketing the North Shore with the best coverage you'll find. Football fiend, track guru, seam-head, goaltending aficionado, history buff, stat geek. Allons-Y. #StrikeOutALS

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