Shaking Off the Underdog Mentality: Blindness, the Warriors, and Redemption

This is the first of a series of articles I am putting up - a kind of "where are they now? what are they thinking?" type of piece. I am still in touch with so many of my former students and I am in awe of where they have gone and what they have done. This thought piece by Diego Kusnir knocked me out. And not just because of the accomplishments of this young man from an immigrant family (he is a therapist in Oakland, having recently received his Psy.D in Clinical Psychology). More important is how deeply he has reflected on his blindness - something he seemed to be trying to deflect and ignore when he was my student in high school - and what sports and the Golden State Warriors means to this one fan. Diego writes:

Something happened when my vision got blurry as a kid. I went from just playing basketball to also, suddenly, being obsessed with sports radio, and specifically the Golden State Warriors.

I listened to every game. I obsessed over players like Latrell Sprewell, Chris Mullen, and Joe Smith. I listened to sports talk religiously, clock radio pressed against my ear, buried under my sheets so my parents wouldn't hear, insatiably hoping the radio hosts would mention the Warriors, even though back then the Warriors were such an embarrassment that absolutely no one wanted to talk about them.

Being a Warriors fan was a secret for all of us. We were the laughing stock of sports. But when I was alone at home, supposed to be doing homework, my fingers were always typing "warriors.com" into the web browser, like a compulsion. In grade school, I'd never talk about being blind, but I did love talking about the Warriors, nonstop, until my friends would tell me to shut up. The fact of the matter was the Warriors weren't cool. And the Warriors and I were a tangled mess.

When I would finally turn off the radio in the wee hours of the night and try to sleep, I loved imagining the Warriors defying all odds, persisting through setbacks and somehow one day winning the championship.

In 2016, the Warriors are the new Beatles. People salivate for Warriors. They are the go-to topic for small talk. But for me, that's like making small talk about Mozart, or even something deeper. Because even now, even though I've got the team I always wished for, it's uncomfortable to join that small talk.

The truth is that the small talk, for all its fun, always gives way to the more serious conversation--the talk I'm afraid no one signed up for. A conversation that often turns into an interrogation, in which I have to explain exactly how, when, and why my vision started to change, and what it's like. And how I cope. And that's not what I signed up for either.

When I lost my vision, I was scared and confused. And my parents were scrambling, first to figure out if I was lying, then to figure out what to do. In the face of that, as many low-vision folks do, I told myself and everyone else it wasn't a big deal, definitely not traumatic.

I never thought about my blindness; I would think about the Warriors though - a lot. And the constant stream of sports-related information was a perfect way to keep my mind from dwelling on my disability.

Today things have changed for all of us. The Warriors actually started to win and, in some ways, I have too. I went to school. I graduated. I have clients who I help every day. But it's still hard to shake the underdog mentality that I know so well. Still today, talking about the Warriors feels too close to talking about my vision, or some other humiliating shortcoming.

I'm more aware now of how tangled up my identity is with my fandom. When I recently walked for graduation, it was hard for me to embrace all the flashing cameras and admiring faces, just like it's still hard for me to embrace the hordes of people standing outside Oracle Arena every day. Walking through that applause was surreal, as if I, and my blindness, suddenly were cool.

I know I'm not where I want to be. I want to be able to talk freely. I want to be able to accept acclaim. I don't want to feel shame anymore. Maybe it's just hard to accept that we're winning; that we're not underdogs anymore.