When LeBron James changes teams, you can almost feel the nation tip in the direction he goes as the media and a colossal number of fans change with him. Yet, those who make the change want to be clear, they’re not “bandwagon fans,” they’re “LeBron fans.”
What is this strange new entity, and how does it change the way we’ll cheer for teams and players in future generations? I ask the LeBron fans, “Who will be your favorite team when he retires?” Typically the answer is something like, “I don’t know, maybe Cleveland?” As though, the notion of a post-LeBron NBA had never occurred to them.
They’re mostly a younger crowd, who grew up in a different NBA world than I did.
As a fan since the late 70s, it’s hard for me to grasp this notion of swapping teams with players. But, in large part, that’s because the way the NBA is marketed and accessed today, as opposed to 30 or 40 years ago.
The first game I ever watched was Game 6 of the 1976-77 Eastern Conference Finals. It was the Philadelphia 76ers and the Houston Rockets. And this aeronautical acrobat of a man, Julius “Dr. J.” Erving scored 34 points in the most beautiful fashion, leading his team to the Finals. And I watched that game on tape delay. The Conference Finals … on tape delay!!!
It’s sad that he didn’t live in the age of GIFs because if he did, he’d have broken the Internet:
I lived in North Dakota, and pretty much the only games you ever saw were on tape delay. If I stayed up late, I could occasionally get one live—after the primetime shows were over. That lasted until my parents sent me to bed.
For a few years, I didn’t have a favorite team. I just watched what I could because I could. I was originally from Louisiana, just a few hours from Dallas, so when the city got the Mavericks, they became my favorite team. And then Roy Tarpley, for some reason, became my favorite player:
I’d check the paper to see if they won every morning. But sometimes the scores weren’t in yet when the paper went to print, so I’d have to get the scores off the radio, and wouldn’t be able to see the box score until the next day.
Six years later, I joined the Air Force. I remember the Mavericks got to the Western Conference Semifinals while I was in basic training. It was heart-wrenching missing it because I knew they were going to beat the Lakers. I was wrong. They lost in six.
I got stationed in San Antonio and so decided to follow the Spurs. It was the first time I could follow a local team. And with local markets getting sports stations, every team now had their own network to telecast every game.
The Spurs weren’t the Spurs yet. I know how hard that is to absorb these days, but they were really a bad team. They won 28 games in my first year there, 1986-87.
The next season, led by Alvin Robertson, they did much better and got to the playoffs, but that was about it. They were just horrible in 1988-89, winning 21 games. The only teams that were worse than them were the expansion teams: the Miami Heat and original Charlotte Hornets.
As an aside, one crazy thing happened while I was in San Antonio. It started a run where everywhere I lived that had a team, an MVP got selected in the draft. The Spurs got David Robinson in 1987. I transferred to Italy in his rookie season in Jan. 1989.
In Nov. 1990, I separated and moved to Minnesota. Just 90 minutes south of the cities in Rochester, I became a Timberwolves fan. Again, it was just easier to follow the local team. You could see all the games and easily access news on them. Yeah, I cheered for Christian Laettner:
After three years there I moved to Minneapolis to go to school at the University of Minnesota. My last year there was Kevin Garnett’s (MVP no. 2) rookie season.
From there I went to a small bible college in Anaheim. Because I was living half in Minnesota and half in SoCal, I retained the Wolves as my “favorite” team. The Lakers were pretty good and became my “second-favorite” team. They got the draft rights to this kid named Kobe Bryant while I was there, making him MVP no. 3.
But there was only one team in the NBA at that time worth mentioning, and they were in Chicago.
And, as luck would have it, I was offered a job there. I vividly remember sitting on the plane, thinking how awesome it was that I was finally going to cheer for a real contender. As I disembarked, though, it was weirdly quiet in the airport.
People were flocked around every TV screen in the terminal, watching as Phil Jackson announced his retirement. Too late! I’d already declared myself a Chicago Bulls fan:
The next 12 years were a blur of awful basketball, trades, motorcycle accidents, more trades, Baby Bulls blunders and all kinds of awfulness. Then we had the 2010-11 season where there was finally a team I could get excited about. Led by Derrick Rose (MVP no. 4), the Bulls led the NBA in wins and got to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Then Rose tore his ACL, and the rest is just more painful memories.
So here’s the bottom line: In 37 years of being a basketball fan, the best I’ve ever seen my favorite team do is get to the Conference Finals. I always stuck with the local team, because that’s what you do.
So how does one survive as a basketball fan like that? Because being a fan of a team and a fan of players from other teams aren’t mutually exclusive.
I’ve always enjoyed watching great players, whether it was the Showtime performances of Magic Johnson and the Lakers, the unbelievable passing of Larry Bird, the electric scoring of Zeke Thomas, the dominance of Shaquille O’Neal, the completeness of Hakeem Olajuwon, the quiet and civil dominance of the Admiral and Tim Duncan, or the uncivil ferociousness of Kobe Bryant, I’ve had the privilege of watching and cheering for greatness.
And, above all, that greatness ascends Michael Jeffrey Jordan, the greatest athlete I’ve ever seen in my life. And as much as you hear about him, it’s short of his true magnificence.
There’s a difference between being a fan of a team and a fan of a player:
I was visiting some friends in Chicago when Jordan hit “The Shot, Part II.” I need to remind you, I wasn’t a Bulls fan at the time. I had no dog in the fight. I was with a group of friends, some from Cleveland and some from Chicago—we’d all met in the middle as I was still living in Minnesota—just for a weekend get together.
The Cleveland fans were talking trash during the game, and I was just watching the whole time, thinking, “You don’t want to do that.” And when it happened, the Chicago guys were letting the Cleveland guys have it. The Cleveland guys were practically in tears.
And I thought, “You really didn’t want to do that.”
I loved watching Jordan play. Everyone he wasn’t killing did. But that didn’t give me trash-talk rights, so I kept quiet.
Most of us still keep in touch. 16 years later, in 2010, when the Cavs beat the Bulls and LeBron did his little jig that got under Joakim Noah’s skin, one of those Cleveland fans called up one of those Chicago fans and had his laugh. And it was justified:
He’d earned that laugh by sticking with a horrible Cleveland team through those 16 years. And if the Cavaliers win the title this year, he’ll have that moment where all the suffering and enduring will pay off.
But how do you compare the guy who chose to stick with the Cavs and sat through the record losing streak in the post-LeBron aftermath with the guy who spent the last four years cheering for the Miami Heat?
Today’s world makes it easy to just jump on a favorite player and cheer for him wherever he goes. With national telecasts almost every night of the week and League Pass, you can follow any team you want. With the Internet you can get instant news and access to any national or local coverage.
I get that it’s a totally different world than what I grew up in. There’s no longer the same advantage to cheering for your local team (with the exception of being able to attend home games). But it’s easy now to follow a team from elsewhere.
When I moved to Texas a few years ago, I abandoned my custom of switching to the local team and just kept cheering for the Bulls. (Although, switching to a Spurs fan (the closest team to me) would have been more rewarding.)
But with this new breed of fan we need a new set of fan rules. Those Cleveland fans had earned their repudiation when Jordan hit the shot. Then they earned the chance to gloat a decade and a half later. That’s what you get when you stick with a team through thick and thin.
But if you’re rooting for a player, not a team, you don’t get the rights that come with cheering for a team. It’s an insult to Cleveland fans who were there during the hardship for the LeBron fans to just saddle up next and act as though they’re same.
If you have no skin in the game, you don’t get trash talk rights, and if you’re hopping around to whomever the best player in the world is at the time, you have no skin in the game. Oh, sure, maybe you don’t see your guy win the title every year, but you never have to endure a 13-win season or try to get behind the scoring exploits of Dickey Simpkins.
I get cheering for a player. It’s easy. It’s fun. But you have no risk. You can say you’re just a fan of each player. But while it might look different on the inside, the bandwagon looks the same on the outside.
If you rode #TheWagon to #TheLand, more power to you. You have every right to cheer for your favorite player. If the Cavs win the title, celebrate.
But if you’re the fan of a player, it ends there. The rights to gloat only come with the risk of being gloated over.