On Tuesday I was sitting in Longman Eagle, a bar/restaurant in Logan Square, Chicago, grabbing lunch after a couple job interviews. There were an alarming number of people drinking in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon, discussing all sorts of things. Work, school, Conan O’Brien, the Cuban prospect that the Cubs just drafted, Obama, etc. One thing not being discussed, and that I only heard mentioned when I (had to) ask a bartender to flip it on, was the NBA Finals.
Upon asking, someone on the other side of the bar, asked his friend, “Is somebody actually watching this?” Given, I got the impression this was more of a hockey than a basketball crowd, but it is the NBA Finals. Probably the second most celebrated title contest in American sports after the Superbowl.
Over the course of the two days during my quest for a livable income, it became clear that once Derrick Rose went out of the post-season with a potentially career-effecting knee injury, Chicago went out with him. I’m sure there was a glimmer of optimism they could make a run while still playing Philly, though even that was reserved for the elite, paint-you-face type optimists. Fans here have an emotional connection to the team, of course, but the connection to Rose overshadows it. Rose grew up here, was drafted by the Bulls and outside of a single college basketball season in Memphis, Tennessee; Chicago has always been home. Derrick Rose is Chicago just as much as Chicago identifies and adulates Derrick Rose.
Now, I say this with a degree of perspective. All of this behavior and fan-obsession is completely arbitrary, bat-shit insane, and borders on delusion. But it’s the foundation for what makes sports a successful business model, a competitive entity and an ingrained kernel of American culture. Generally speaking, we accept this. We accept that Chicago loses interest in the NBA because their team and player was rendered irrelevant to forces beyond their control. This is true in every respect, except for that of LeBron James and his departure from Cleveland.
I don’t bring this up to rain on anyone’s parade. The Decision is long in the past and unlike the city of Chicago, I fully plan on watching every last second of the NBA Finals. It also warrants mentioning that there were a number of fan reactions that exceeded what’s socially acceptable. But the majority of fans were simply disappointed their favorite/best player was leaving (Cleveland) or they thought Miami was stacking the deck against the team they root for (everyone else in the league); and for some reason we can’t accept that there will just be a healthy percentage of people in this country that will never like and/or be happy for LeBron James, and I can’t understand why this is so unfathomable.
Driving into Chicago I overheard Scott Van Pelt, Linda Cohn and Ryen Russillo (three ESPN perspectives I tend to enjoy) speculate about how many titles LeBron James would need to win for fans to forgive his past PR semi-miscalculations or for people to stop hating him, which completely misses the point. It pre-supposes that everyone who roots against LeBron, does so because he’s a bad basketball player or he chokes in the clutch, or something. People might give him grief for the latter, but that’s the result of resenting him in the first place, not the cause of the resentment.
Being a native Ohioan, I can tell you that the explanation for Ohioans is fairly simple: Cavs fans identified with the star, he was the face of the city and the homegrown talent, representing both the dying market and the franchise on an international level. I’m willing to bet the percentage of the population in Guangzhou who had even heard of Cleveland just about quintupled by the time LeBron was almost single-handedly upsetting the Detroit Pistons in the 2007 playoffs. Rightly or wrongly, there was an intrinsic connection between the prodigal son and the city who embraced him.
So imagine their devastation when it turned out that affection was one-sided. It always is in sports. It has to be. An a equivocal reaction is never expected from the fans. All that’s expected is you don’t take a giant dump all over their city on national television and there’s a degree of loyalty. Cleveland fans were going to resent him either way if he left (the loyalty part was breached), didn’t matter how he did, but the insult to injury and unprecedented nature of it, has led to an unprecedented reaction.
Now Miami apologists are asking everyone to be happy for the Heat, for overcoming adversity and somehow “beating the odds” despite having more talent than any other roster in the league (outside of possibly LA and Oklahoma City). My question is, forget Cavs fans, why would Bucks fans, or Blazers fans, or Rockets or Jazz fans, ever be happy for LeBron or this Miami team? They all want what Miami has, and what Miami has is virtually unattainable, particularly for any of the aforementioned markets (plus about 12 more). In the history of sports, when have fans rooted for an opponent’s success, particularly one who was so flippant, yet simultaneously boisterous about it? And that’s without having even one of the seven titles they promised.
Miami doesn’t have much left to prove. They’ve made two consecutive finals and my guess is they’ll eventually win a title. LeBron is one of the two best players in the league that has a short history of struggling in climactic moments. Some people are overly-critical of that aspect of his game, and unjustifiably denounce all his other accomplishments. Hell, I wasn’t even offended by the whole premature celebration and the “not 1, not 2, not 3” debacle, because that’s what it was. A celebration. My guess is all three of them were still drunk from the night before, as they should have been. And they got a bit carried away in pandering to their fans.
Just don’t expect everyone to like, or even appreciate the Miami Heat. There’s no right or wrong in rooting for them, the Cavs, the Thunder, the Raptors or any groups of young men that convene for the same championship cause. All fans pick their teams for primarily inconsequential reasons, usually proximity to upbringing. But once they do, they’re reasons for disliking a player or a team can seem just as arbitrary.
But that one-way emotional connection dictates all, particularly with a star as noteworthy as LeBron. If Jordan or Kobe had ever left Chicago or LA in such a high-profile manner, it would have created the same shit storm. This isn’t LeBron being persecuted, it’s a byproduct of superstardom. James decided to leave Cleveland which is well within his rights, in the process he humiliated his team and city of seven years on national television — a team and city that’s awfully similar to the majority of teams and cities in the NBA – and a career of fan resentment wasn’t all that far-fetched. That same connection checked Chicago out of the playoffs when Derrick Rose sustained his injury and it was perfectly understandable.