When you first hear the phrases “Miami Heat” and “Oklahoma City Thunder” do you think someone is talking about the weather?

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If you do, you would be wrong. As right as that might sound, you would be wrong: On Tuesday, June 12, 2012 the NBA Finals will feature the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder (formerly the Seattle SuperSonics) vying for the title.

Full Disclosure: I am a Boston Celtics fan so, since the Heat beat them to advance to the Finals, I am rooting for the Thunder (my enemy’s enemy is my friend). Coincidentally, last year I was also rooting against the Heat and for the Dallas Mavericks (due to my virtual acquaintanceship with Brian Cuban, brother of the team’s owner, Mark Cuban). Maybe I am just not a fan of “heat” in general?

Allegiances aside, as a teacher and writer the aspect to this match-up I find most fascinating is both team names are what is called a “collective noun.”

According to Grammar Girl, collective nouns — of which there are approximately 200 that take a singular or a plural verb — are “nouns that describe a group, such as ‘family,’ ‘orchestra,’ and ‘board.'” Another source further explains “collective nouns, a special class, name groups [things] composed of members [usually people].” Interestingly, Americans generally treat them as single units (e.g. “the faculty is meeting today”), but in England, they are considered plural (e.g. “Cambridge are winning the boat race.”).

According to another source: “the names of sports teams, on the other hand, are treated as plurals, regardless of the form of that name.” Therefore, you would write “the Boston Red Sox are the best baseball team in the world” and not “the Boston Red Sox is the best baseball team in the world” (another disclosure: I am a Red Sox fan). Likewise, when you refer to a team by the city in which it is located, you use the singular form of the noun (e.g. “New York is attempting to sign two assistant coaches Boston hopes to keep.”

Is there are a finite number of traditional plural nouns after which you can name a team? There seems to be a growing trend towards sports teams using names that are collective nouns. Teams from various U.S. professional sports leagues — Arena Football League (AFL), Major League Soccer (MLS), National Basketball Association (NBA), National Hockey League (NHL), Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) — and a few noteworthy college teams whose names are collective nouns include:

  • Atlanta Dream (WNBA)
  • Chicago Fire (MLS)
  • Chicago Rush (AFL)
  • Chicago Sky (WNBA)
  • Colorado Avalanche (NHL)
  • Columbus Crew (MLS)
  • Connecticut Sun (WNBA)
  • D.C. United (MLS)
  • Georgia Force (AFL)
  • Harvard Crimson
  • Houston Dynamo (MLS)
  • Indiana Fever (WNBA)
  • Kansas City Command (AFL)
  • Miami Heat (NBA)
  • Minnesota Wild (NHL)
  • Montreal Impact (MLS)
  • New England Revolution (MLS)
  • New Orleans VooDoo (AFL)
  • New York Liberty (WNBA)
  • Oklahoma City Thunder (NBA)
  • Orlando Magic (NBA)
  • Philadelphia Soul (AFL)
  • Phoenix Mercury (WNBA)
  • Pittsburg Power (AFL)
  • Seattle Storm (WNBA)
  • Spokane Shock (AFL)
  • Stanford Cardinal
  • Tampa Bay Lightning (NHL)
  • Tampa Bay Storm (AFL)
  • Tulsa Shock (WNBA)
  • Utah Blaze (AFL)
  • Utah Jazz (NBA)

I am not a grammar expert, despite my having earned a BA in English from UC Santa Barbara. However, having been writing since as far back as I can remember, I have a feel for “good” grammar. And, while collective nouns might be perfectly proper, they always sound awkward to me as team names.

From a branding perspective, these types of team names sound odd. I believe a team name simply sounds better as a standard plural noun. Maybe I am “old school” but then again, if you look at the preponderance of team names that are collective nouns they are frequently newer organizationserhaps.

Maybe I am the only one — or one of very few — who noticed this trend towards collective nouns in team names, but it nevertheless strikes me as something about which a discussion is at least relevant.

Speaking of Grammar: regardless of whether or not you are not a fan of either team in this year’s NBA Finals, consider watching the 2000 movie Company Man. According to Wikipedia, the plot of the film is as follows:

In the 1960s, Alan Quimp is a school teacher of English grammar and married with the very demanding woman Daisy Quimp. In order to avoid the constant mockery in Daisy’s family, Alan says that he is a secret CIA agent. Daisy tells everybody, the CIA acknowledges the lie, but due to a coincidence, Alan has just helped and hidden the professional Russian dancer Petrov who wanted to leave Russia. The CIA decides to hire Alan as an agent, to get the credits of bringing Petrov to USA, and immediately decides to send him to a very calm place, Cuba.

A humorous, grammar-laden scene from the film follows — enjoy:

So, in regards to (with regard to?) the information above, who (whom?) do you want to win the 2012 NBA Finals?

What’s your (un)lucky number?

roulette-13

Yesterday, while volunteering during my younger son Max’s visit to his school’s library, we found and read through a Boston Celtics book together. On the cover of the book was a picture of  the Celtics playing the Chicago Bulls. When Max, who loves basketball and is playing in a youth league, saw the picture, he exclaimed “that’s my team!”

He then added that he wears jersey number 13 (presently worn by Joakim Noah), to which I joked “unlucky 13?!” Being a week shy of 6, Max looked at me and said “what does that mean?”

I realized our cultural dislike (in some cases fear) of the number 13 — which, in Greek, is called triskaidekaphobia — is learned. But why does our culture dislike the number 13? Since today is “Friday the 13th,” another common fear (called paraskevidekatriaphobia in Greek), I wanted to briefly explore some of the origins for these irrational ideas. Below are some snippets of insights I collected:

According to the USA Today article, Three Friday the 13ths, 13 weeks apart, a rarity, “for many pagans, 13 is a lucky number, because it corresponds with the number of full moons each year.” Interesting, the same USA Today article adds, the following:

“The number 13 and Friday are recurring presences in mythological, spiritual and religious tradition. In Christianity, 13 people attended the Last Supper before Judas’ betrayal and Jesus’ death on a Friday. A Norse myth warns of dire consequences for dining in groups of 13. Friday the 13th was the date the medieval Knights Templar were imprisoned.”

 An About.com article, “Why Friday the 13th Is Unlucky,” offers these unique insights:

“…the number 13 may have been purposely vilified by the founders of patriarchal religions in the early days of western civilization because it represented femininity. Thirteen had been revered in prehistoric goddess-worshiping cultures, we are told, because it corresponded to the number of lunar (menstrual) cycles in a year (13 x 28 = 364 days).”

“Twelve gods were invited to a banquet at Valhalla. Loki, the Evil One, god of mischief, had been left off the guest list but crashed the party, bringing the total number of attendees to 13. True to character, Loki raised hell by inciting Hod, the blind god of winter, to attack Balder the Good, who was a favorite of the gods. Hod took a spear of mistletoe offered by Loki and obediently hurled it at Balder, killing him instantly. All Valhalla grieved.”

“As if to prove the point, the Bible tells us there were exactly 13 present at the Last Supper. One of the dinner guests — er, disciples — betrayed Jesus Christ, setting the stage for the Crucifixion.”

Michael Shermer  — Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine, Executive Director of the Skeptics Society, and columnist for Scientific American — examines the reasons “why people believe strange things” in his February 2006 TED Talk (presented below). You can also watch it on the TED website and follow along with an interactive transcript).

In his speech he addresses questions such as “Why do people see the Virgin Mary on cheese sandwiches” or “Why do people hear demonic lyrics in ‘Stairway to Heaven’?” It is for many of the reasons above that people look for logic — or at least deeper meaning — in places where there might really be none.

Consider the many other fears explained in the ABC News article, “Fear of Friday, the 13th (Paraskevidekatriaphobia) and Other Unpronounceable Phobias.” Often people invent explanations for things they don’t understand (or don’t want to confront). Just think about how the world functioned before the emergence of science!

For example, the current irrational obsession with all of the instances of “316” that presumably occurred when Tim Tebow lead the Denver Broncos to a playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers last weekend.

When it comes to Tim Tebow, many well-meaning and honestly inspired individuals nevertheless connect dots that don’t necessarily make sense connecting and draw conclusions that are entirely based on assumptions and anecdotal evidence. “Tebowmania” seemed to hit a crescendo following the hysteria when what appeared to be a “halo” formed over Mile High Stadium in Denver last Sunday after the team’s playoff win.

Interesting, whereas many jumped to conclusions that it was some kind of heavenly sign, one rationally minded reader of the article (who uses the name “Rotten Rodriguez”) explained it as follows:

“It wasn’t a halo. I was at the game. After Denver scores pyrotechni­cs are shot out of a cylinder in the south end zone. A smoke ring came off the cylinder then floated over the stadium for as long as it take a smoke ring to dissipate.”

Superstitions and strange rituals have been a part of sports since people began hitting balls with sticks.  For a good laugh read the ESPN article “Curses, superstitions and sports,” the Business Insider feature “The 30 Strangest Superstitions In Sports History,” and About.com’s piece “Why Do So Many Athletes, Have Superstitions and Rituals.”

friday-the-13th-dennis-skley
Photo Credit: “Friday the 13th” by Dennis Skley.

If you’re feeling academically minded, read the scholarly paper titled “An Exploratory Investigation of Superstition, Personal Control, Optimism and Pessimism in NCAA Division I Intercollegiate Student Athletes.

If only Tim Tebow wore the number 13 instead of 15, perhaps he could have provided additional inspiration for those who suffer from paraskevidekatriaphobia. That would be especially helpful this year since, as the USA Today article also points out, “for the first time since 1984, those three Friday the 13ths — Jan. 13, April 13 and July 13 — are exactly 13 weeks apart.”

So, if you suffer from paraskevidekatriaphobia, maybe you should start Tebowing — or consider the luck-related insights of Guy Kawasaki to whom I attributed the phrase “go luck yourself!”

Update: Despite the above exploration into the absurdity of superstition, I wore my “lucky” Wes Welker jersey when my favorite NFL team, the New England Patriots, hosted the Denver Broncos for the AFC Divisional Game on Saturday, January 14, 2012 and they won! The following week, on Sunday, January 22, they beat the Baltimore Ravens in dramatic fashion at the AFC Championship Game, sending the Patriots to Super Bowl XLVI — while, again, I wore my “lucky” Welker jersey. Unfortunately, the Patriots faced and — in an almost exact replay to Super Bowl XLII — lost, yet again, to the New York Giants on Sunday, February 5, 2012. And, in true ironic form, one of the many reasons the Patriots lost was because Welker dropped a badly thrown pass from Tom Brady — negating the Patriots attempt at a very possible come back win. How’s that for luck and superstition? I admire Welker, but clearly I will need to wear a new jersey next year!