It’s June 29, 2018 and I find myself at a crossroads in my basketball fandom. I fully admit to being a bandwagon fan of the Cleveland Cavaliers. I’ve come to sports in a variety of non-traditional ways over the years, but there has always been some kind of emotional reason for the teams I’ve chose to follow and root for. I get that this isn’t usually the kind of thing you read here, so feel free to move along. If not, though, hit that jump!
With football, I started my journey to fandom by playing a then-old copy of Madden on my 360 in college. When you play, you need to choose a team, of course. I grew up in Toledo where the closest options were the Lions and the Browns. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for those teams, but, come on, I wanted to actually win some games! I went with the Steelers because I have two good friends who liked that squad who didn’t know each other and it just seemed like a good way to go.
I should say here that, even though I went to a few Lions games as a kid, I didn’t grow up in the kind of household where sports were much of a thing. During my grade school years I developed a love for Notre Dame that become the closest thing to a sports fandom for a while, but even that was more about that institutions gilded history.
Also, my dad loves football and he gives me a bit of a hard time for developing my love of the game after I, essentially, moved out of the house, but he never pushed me to watch the sport. He’s also a realist and not one to put himself through unwanted mental anguish, so he’s not the kind of person you find in New York and many other markets who will live and die by a team that is terrible (it’s not hard to figure out who I’m talking about here, right?).
The funny thing is that I still came to like the Steelers through the love of fans. I like when my friends are happy and this team made them happy, so I hoped it would make me feel the same way. And, frankly, the timing could not have been better as this was the early 2000s and the Steelers had just drafted a QB by the name of Ben Roethlisberger who took them to the Super Bowl in just his second season! I was along for that ride and fully invested in the team. Still am. I look forward to the fall because the edge of the heat comes off outside, I can wear hoodies again and I get to watch the Steelers and the Fighting Irish play on the grid iron!
The more I got into football, the more I wanted to know and learn. While working for a magazine called Wizard, I found myself up in the mornings with the house to myself as my wife had already left for her job. To get myself going, I’d flip around channels, sometimes watching music videos on Fuse or MTV. Then, one day I stumbled onto a show called Mike & Mike that would be my number one guide to sports until it went off the air last year. My schedule eventually change,d making me the early riser, but I soon discovered and subscribed to the Best Of podcast which continued to keep me in the loop.
The more I learned, the more I liked football and discovered that I could watch a good game, even if my favorite team wasn’t involved. There’s an artistry to sports that can be overlooked and is, to me, as impressive as the skills involved. However, the more invested I got, the more I wanted. But alas, the football season only lasts for so long. The show also kept me up to speed on a lot of other sports that I wasn’t nearly as invested in. I tried getting into the Nets when they moved to Brooklyn, but that didn’t work out so well.
Not long after that, I found myself completely lucking again. This would have been around 2014 and I found the perfect entry into the world of basketball: LeBron James. Of course I knew about The King. I think just about everyone in this country must know about the guy who jumped to the NBA right out of college, struggled to get it done in Cleveland and then went to Miami to learn how to be a champion. I distinctly remember my grandmother, Cleveland born and bred, being super pissed at him for the whole Decision debacle where he announced his move to South Beach.
So this is where it gets a little morbid, but that’s life. Grandma died while LeBron was still in Miami. Then in 2014 he announced his return to the city that I feel a great connection to (Mom’s from there and I visited quite a bit growing up). It felt serendipitous, though it made me mad that she couldn’t have seen his return and the sports triumphs that have followed for the Land. Grandma wasn’t what I would call a huge sports fan, but there’s a thing that happens when you’ve lived your whole life in a town with all these franchises who have been great at one time or another, but not consistently. There’s a lot of rise and fall and hope and despair that gets to you no matter your interest level. She kept up on the news and kept up, she even bought me a tiny piece of Jacob’s Field when it was being built! She loved that city and its sports teams.
After hearing so much about what LeBron planned to do leading up to his decision to return to Cleveland on Mike & Mike, I felt even more invested. The NBA off season is incredible with the number of moves that can be made, especially in this era where the number one target on everyone’s hit list is the Golden State Warriors who just keep getting better (much to my chagrin). When LeBron headed back to the Cleve, I went right along with him and hopped right on the band wagon.
That first post season was incredible. Even with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love hurt, James put the rest of that squad on his back and carried them through to the Finals against the Warriors who were also a scrappy upstart team at the time. That season, I became a huge fan of role players like Matthew Dellavedova and Timofey Mozgov. The following year, they won the damn title against the Warriors — thanks in great part to Draymond Green’s bad reputation, but I’ll take it — and I could not believe it. Grandma would have been ecstatic.
Anyone who pays attention to the sport knows what’s happened since then. They’ve gotten to the Finals against the Warriors and lost. Twice. Kyrie wanted out and headed to what turned out to be a really good Celtics team even with him injured (again). Kevin Love has never looked like the All-Star I’m told he was, but is still damn good and often under fire for reasons I can’t quite figure out.
However, the worst part about this team, especially this past year, was how damn in-their-heads they seemed. LeBron crushed it in every conceivable way out there, but these guys needed to be in the right headspace to win. That just can’t happen. Maybe certain players should have gotten more minutes so they would have been more battle ready by the time the playoffs came around. Maybe J.R. Smith needs to pay the slightest bit of attention. Maybe they never should have let Matthew Dellavedova get away. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. Ultimately, none of them really matter anymore because every little thing has lead to today, the day that LeBron will decide whether to stick with the Cavs or opt out of his contract and look elsewhere. The general consensus is that he wants to be a Laker, but only after they move a lot of pieces around.
So this leaves me with a quandary. Who do I root for if he leaves? I’m not such a dyed in the wool Cavs fan that I’ll ride or die with them. That’s just not how my head works. I’ve got enough negativity swirling around my head, I can’t force myself to watch something that I know will be bad. In fact, I didn’t even watch some of this year’s Finals games for that very reason. It’s torture and I might have a lot of issues, but mental self flagellation ain’t one of them! As it is, my Cavs fandom will be up in the air, especially because I’m far from convinced that the team, as it is, has the emotional fortitude to survive James’ departure. Then again, getting out from under his shadow could be exactly what they need! But, will it be good enough to compete with growing talents in the East like the Celtics?! See, quandaries!
But do I keep watching LeBron if he leaves? I think the answer will be a resounding yes. I mean, that guy’s just so GOOD! Even when Irving left for the Celtics, I still loved watching Kyrie play. The same goes for the Warriors, who are incredible, even though I hate them a little. I’m also a sucker for a storied franchise. The Lakers have never been good during my stints of watching basketball (I got sucked in during the Jordan era because, you guessed it, a good friend of mine was a huge b-ball fan), but I’m not opposed to seeing them come back and become something great again. But, I don’t think I’d be able to become a Lakers FAN, you know?
The other problem with this scenario is that I live in the New York area, so my ability to really scout around for other teams to dig into is somewhat limited because, as I alluded to before, the basketball teams around here are, well, terrible (for now). Still, thanks to ESPN and TNT, there should be plenty of opportunities to watch other teams. I will say that I liked the squad the Celtics put together and can you imagine how good they’d be with everyone healthy? I’m also super curious to see what happens in Detroit with Dwane Casey in charge. And frankly, if LeBron does exit the East, the division could be considered a lot more wide open.
Ultimately, I’m in a wait-and-see position. Today we’ll find out what James plans to do about his contract, but beyond that, who knows? I hope he stays and think that might be the best way to go to get another championship, but it’s all a gamble these days, especially with a team that was so wildly inconsistent and amorphous all season. Maybe they just need a full season to get it together, or maybe they won’t even get that chance. We’ll find out the first part of all this sometime today!
Literally as I was done reading through this post and about to hit “Publish” my phone told me that James decided to become a free agent. I’m disappointed, but also curious to see where the rest of this ride takes us.