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Sabres' wins boost fans' self-esteem

It was late Thursday morning when Kristy Taylor and Jennifer Leary walked out of the Sabres store in HSBC Arena, deeply BIRGing.

Taylor wore a Daniel Briere jersey. Leary had her "Sabres -- Scary Good" cap. They had just bought a Sabres T-shirt and souvenir pucks. The Buffalo women became fans a couple of years ago, part of a growing legion. The army is no accident.

Sociologists have an acronym for it: BIRG -- Bask In the Reflected Glow.

There is a lot of basking being done lately, as the Sabres march toward the Stanley Cup.

Each of us has an individual identity, based partly on what we do: preacher, accountant, carpenter, journalist. Each of us also has a group identity. The entity identified with is part of your self-image, and -- if the group is valued or successful -- it makes you feel more worthy.

All of which explains the explosion in sales of Sabres merchandise, the team's dominance of office conversation, its sold-out games and the fan hysteria. The team made it to the Stanley Cup semifinals last season. This year, it finished atop the NHL standings and Wednesday won the opener of its second-round playoff series.

The better the Sabres do, the more folks who flock to them, and the better they feel about themselves.

"It is human nature to identify with an exemplary individual or group, to enhance self-esteem and to model ourselves after," said Harvey Pines, a Canisius College psychology professor.

It is why grown men walk around in Sabres jerseys with a player's name on the back. It is why folks paint their faces Sabres blue and gold. It is why some folks turn the spare room into a Sabres shrine or emblazon the word "Sabres" on their front lawn. Connecting with a winner boosts the psyche and reupholsters the ego.

The Greeks created mythological heroes, human beings of extraordinary courage and strength. They had Hercules and Odysseus. We have Drury and Miller.

Fans get a good feeling when their team wins. But it is more than that.

"When people think about who they are," said Pines, "the group they are a part of becomes part of their psyche and how they think about themselves. If the group succeeds or is seen as valuable, it makes them [feel like] a more worthy individual."

The more successful the Sabres got, the more folks who became fans. It is no accident that the stands were sometimes only half-filled a few years ago, when the team was mediocre and bankrupt. You do not get much of a self-esteem boost in identifying with a loser.

"When a team is winning, it's OUR team," noted Pines, chuckling. "When it's losing, it's, 'THEY lost.' "

The phenomenon is not limited to sports. People take pride in self-identifying with a variety of groups, anything from Catholics to Americans to Beatles fans. But the connection is obvious with sports teams, which represent specific cities, play a lot of games and are heavily covered in the media.

The BIRGing instinct is perhaps stronger among folks in Buffalo than in more prosperous places. Points of pride can be hard to find when jobs are scarce, people are fleeing and the outside world best knows us for blizzards and blown Super Bowls. The desire -- no, the need -- to latch onto something superior, successful and widely admired is almost irresistible.

"[The Sabres] are something," said Pines, "that all of us can feel good about."

And if the Cup finally comes to Buffalo, it will be a psychic touchstone for years to come.

"Look around the globe at countries that are no longer world powers," said Pines. "Yet the monuments to past heroes and triumphs still stand."

Win the Cup, in other words, and we can BIRG forever.

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