This post is dedicated to LeBron James, Peyton Manning, and Bill Simmons.
When I first started watching sports Lawrence Taylor was redefining the shape and size of linebackers in the NFL, opposing players were blaming their twisted and broken ankles on the teflon like coating that Barry Sanders was either born with or was applying prior to each game, Nolan Ryan was doing things to Father Time that are illegal in most countries, Jerry Rice and Joe Montana (and Steve Young) were turning the NFL into an air show, and Michael Jordan was being, well, Michael Jordan.
During that time I chose my favorite teams by choosing favorite players. I rooted for the Rangers because that’s where Nolan Ryan happened to pitch (I probably own well over 200 Nolan Ryan baseball cards), I rooted for the Lions because that’s where Barry Sanders was altering the physical laws of the universe. At the same time I rooted for the Giants because in my head it was OK to have two favorite teams if one was chosen for an offensive player and the other for a defensive player; even when they played against each other I could root for both teams, not caring who won as long as both players had a big game.
It wasn’t until later in life that I realized I care more about individual players and their talents than I do about the team aspect of sports. This was easy to overlook because I only knew Nolan Ryan as a Ranger, and Sanders never wore anything other than blue and silver and Taylor never put on anything other than blue and white. There was a stability in the players and where they played that made this observation impossible to make. But two things happened over the past couple of years that changed all that.
I’ve been a Colts fan since moving away from Indiana in 1992. This originally happened not because of a player but because of my connection to the city itself. However, I didn’t become a huge fan until Peyton Manning was drafted, in fact had he not come to the team I probably would have stopped caring about the Colts a long time ago. This also means that for the longest time I’ve rooted against The Patriots (and to a lesser degree The Saints), but when the Colts tanked last season and Manning sat out it was incredibly easy for me to start cheering for Tom Brady. I needed my fix of greatness and he was the closest approximation to Manning I could find, so if Manning wasn’t winning the Super Bowl his worthy rival was the only other option in my mind.
Then the Colts didn’t re-sign Manning and now he’s a Denver Bronco, a team I’ve never really had any interest in, but guess which games I’ll be watching next season? I suspect the only time I’ll see the Colts play next season is when they take the field against Denver. This transition is easy and natural for me. Am I a fair weather fan? I don’t think so. I just don’t value a team, a sort of ethereal entity that morphs from year to year, that often has no qualms over dropping or trading players that have been with them for many years, and that often lacks a consistent feel from year to year. Instead I love players, I love talent, I love to watch the best players win. I hated it when the Arizona Cardinals made to to the Super Bowl in 2009. I hated it when the Dallas Mavericks won the NBA title in 2011. And in my mind the biggest travesty in sports history isn’t The Decision but the fact that Emmit Smith holds the all time rushing record instead of Barry Sanders, an infinitely better player (in so many ways).
Which brings me to LeBron. I love to watch LeBron play and the rest of the world should too. I didn’t pay close attention to basketball prior to LeBron, his drafting converted me into a regular NBA observer. So I rooted for Cleveland while he was there and now I root for Miami. When people analyze the current state of the NBA all I hear about is how no one plays basketball the right way anymore, everyone is tired of the me-first mentality of the Kobe Bryants and Allen Iversons. And then God delivered to us a near perfect basketball player. He can score, he hustles on both ends of the floor, he’s willing to get in the paint and capture rebounds, he makes the right passes, always looking to make his team better, and he’s naturally gifted and extremely talented (and from all appearances hard working, not wasting his talents like some other naturally gifted players). His problem of course is that he doesn’t play the Meta-game the “right” way (which I’m surprised so many people care about). He wasn’t willing to let fate determine where he spent his career, he wasn’t going to be Barry Sanders playing on what would be the league’s worst team had he not been on it. He wasn’t going to wait for his team to one day decide he wasn’t right for them anymore and trade him (it’s just business after all, and who is going to go out in protest the evil Celtics when they don't re-sign KG or Ray Allen next year?). Sure, The Decision was a mistake, but the underlying reasoning wasn’t. And now the world hates LeBron and unfortunately for those that hate him they’re missing out on getting to watch and appreciate one of the greatest players to ever play the actual game of basketball the way we claim to want the greats to play it. I feel bad for the haters and what they're missing.
And finally, why mention Bill Simmons in the beginning? Two reasons: one I’m reading his Book of Basketball right now and he says if he gets super rich from the book he’s buying a black convertible M6, which is exactly what I would do if I were rich, so I feel like we reside in the same mental space somehow, and secondly the book sort of helped me see how I interact with sports, which is nearly 180 degrees opposite of Simmons. He is the ultimate team guy. Right now he’s very likely rooting against LeBron not just because of The Decision but because he’s playing the ever changing entity known as the Celtics. A team Simmons loved as a child and that he loves now even though the only thing those two teams share is a location and the color of their jerseys. Perhaps when LeBron moved to Miami Simmons made the usual complaint about how a real player wouldn’t switch teams, they’d muscle it out in whatever situation they found themselves in. Jordan never moved, Magic never moved, Bird never moved. Even Kobe never moved. He likely has written articles about how you can’t just throw a team of good players together and win championships (like maybe his most recent article praising the Spurs), you can’t just throw money at the game. And yet he probably cheered last year when the over achieving and over spending Mavericks beat Miami, and when his Big Four take the court tonight1 against Miami’s Big Three he’ll miss the irony of his complaint against LeBron (I actually believe he’s too smart to miss the irony). He’ll forget that KG and Ray-Ray won the first year on that team, the one year they weren’t doing it the right way, not because sports has anything to do with logic but because these games are really played out in our hearts, and I’m sure his bleeds green.2
So that is one reason why I feel like an unconventional sports fan--I root for players instead of teams. The second reason is also 180 degrees different from Simmons: I rarely actually watch sporting events. However, I can tell you at any time during the year exactly what the standings are in basketball and football, who the leading passer and rusher are every week, who is on track to win the scoring title. I can tell you who was the last person (both women and men) to win a major event in tennis. I can tell you the last time Tiger Woods won a tournament. Maybe this mostly indirect interaction with sports is the cause of how I view them generally, even the root of why I like players more than teams. And I’ll likely be stuck in this position, not fully understanding team lovers, until the Internet does a better job of delivering real-time games since television hasn’t been a consistent part of my life for sixteen years now.
1. Last night really, but I wrote this when "tonight" made sense, but didn't have time to edit and post it.
2. Also, in all likelihood I wouldn’t have written this post at all if not for Bill Simmon’s chapter on Wilt Chamberlain vs Bill Russell (which convinced me LeBron is playing the game correctly, even if not the Meta-game) and Grantland (which generally makes me want to write more about sports).