We were paused somewhere on a catwalk halfway up the arch of the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia, clinging to the handrail 300 feet above the water, when our climb leader stopped to make small talk. When I told him where my wife and I lived, he noted it was a big sports market.
“Yeah, lots of college basketball,” I said. “College football. And an ice hockey team, an NHL team.”
“The Hurricanes!” he said. “Eric Staal, Jordan Staal, right?”
Turns out our climb leader, Albert Yin, is one of about 2,800 registered adult hockey players in Australia and a Philadelphia Flyers fan who keeps up with the NHL in general. At various points during our climb to the apex of the bridge and back down, we talked about Jeff Skinner’s health and Nathan Walker, the Washington Capitals’ Australian prospect from Sydney. It was a strange place to have such an unexpected conversation.
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Australia is often described as “sports-mad,” or “sport-mad,” to use their version of the term. Even during a period that is generally the offseason – rugby and Australian rules football, both winter sports, wrapped up at the end of September, the Ashes cricket series with England was still a month away and the summer soccer season was just getting started – horse racing, football roster moves and the search for a new national soccer coach to lead the “Socceroos” in the World Cup next summer filled the pages of the Australian newspapers.
While the passion is similar to the United States, the completely different portfolio of sports is jarring. There’s very little common ground, although in the early days of ESPN, Australian rules football was a programming staple. For American sports fans of a certain age who watched the network in its infancy, the double-gun salute of the referee to signify a goal, always in ceremonial close-up, remains a trans-Pacific touchstone. (Sadly, the officials have ditched their traditional white trench coats for more modern garb.)
Australian fans today get their fill of American sports, albeit at odd times, through their own ESPN channel. On a cloudy Tuesday morning in Bondi Beach, a lonely fan in a Vikings jersey sat in a restaurant watching Minnesota lose to the New York Giants on Monday night.
What was more interesting to a visitor from the Triangle was this market’s truly global reach. Discussing the Hurricanes playoff prospects while perched precariously upon a national icon was unexpected, but I knew I would end up discussing Michael Jordan and the Tar Heels with one of our hosts.
We stayed with close family friends at various points on our trip. Oliver, the oldest son, fell in love with Jordan while the family lived near us in Chicago for a year in the ’80s. They came back for Christmas in the ’90s, and a Bulls game at the old Chicago Stadium was the highlight of their trip.
The family’s true loyalty is to Collingwood, an Australian rules team in Melbourne, where the parents still live. Their homes are filled with team memorabilia, and both of Oliver’s children, 3 and 1, are registered as supporters. But Jordan has always been his unique passion, undiminished by the passing of time or Jordan’s fall from grace. (A copy of Michael Leahy’s excellent “When Nothing Else Matters,” about Jordan’s misadventures in Washington, occupied a prime position on the living-room bookshelf.)
While the depths of fandom do occasionally run deeper – a friend here named his son Jordan – they rarely stretch farther.
When we arrived at their home in Sydney, a UNC hat sat on his kitchen counter, halfway around the world from Chapel Hill. No matter how far you go, it’s tough to get away from sports in the Triangle.