Before every YMCA basketball game when I was 11, I would do three things. The first was to eat a bowl of spaghetti because I thought that was how carbohydrates worked. The second was to put on my unwashed black wristband just below my elbow like Kenyon Martin, the coolest collegiate basketball player at the time. The third, and most important thing I did, was to watch a video cassette my dad had gotten with his subscription to Sports Illustrated.
The video was called “NBA Legacy,” and had come out in 1995. It detailed the passing of the torch between several types of NBA players: the big point guard (Oscar Robertson to Magic Johnson to Penny Hardaway), the clutch shooter (Jerry West to Larry Bird to Reggie Miller), the gravity defying wingman (Connie Hawkins to Jordan to Grant Hill) and the dominant center (Bill Russell to Kareem Abdul-Jabarr to Hakeem Olajuwon to Shaquille O’Neal).
It was the greatest movie ever made to the kind of 11 year old that loves basketball and history in equal parts. Coincidently, this is also the same kind of person who has action figures on his desk as an adult.
It is my love for this movie, and action figures, that explains why I am headed into the most intriguing NBA season of all time with a bit of melancholy.
Most fans anticipate the upcoming season for many reasons, but primarily because of LeBron James decision to play in Miami. Most fans can’t wait to see LeBron paired with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, reeling off win after win. LeBron might even be a statistical revelation, and could average a triple double with these incredible sidekicks.
Equally, and maybe rightfully so, some fans can’t wait to boo LeBron for leaving his hometown team in the dust with an hour long television special. LeBron is a villain to be despised.
But I’m not mad that LeBron left Cleveland. That’s not why I have mixed feelings on this upcoming season, or find it necessary to reflect on a video tape I watched 10 years ago.
I hate that LeBron went to Miami specifically.
Granted, I would have loved to see him play in Cleveland, give a tortured fan base a championship, and be a world beater in the mode of Michael, Magic and Larry. But I also would’ve loved to see him don a Knicks uniform to bring the city that bleeds basketball back to life. I would’ve loved to have seen him sign with Chicago and try to outdo Jordan’s career with the help of Derrick Rose. I would’ve even been cool with some crazy sign and trade where he went to play for Portland, giving some loyal fans their first title shot since fate clubbed Bill Walton’s feet like he was James Caan in Misery.
But LeBron chose to go to the Heat, a team with a fairly unimportant history. Miami’s basketball franchise has been around a measly 20 years, and won a forgettable title that most fans outside of Miami remember as unfair. The jerseys in the rafters belong to Tim Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning and they invoke memories of a terrible era of ‘me first’ basketball (that LeBron and Wade had made many forget). The Heat have shown in losing seasons that for the most part they have a fair-weather fan base in a city where there are better things to do. Choosing to play in Miami is the basketball equivalent of listening to The Monkees instead of The Beatles...for the next nine years. Where LeBron chose to go doesn’t seem to mean anything to us in the greater scope of basketball history.
Fans of legacy are also disappointed in LeBron for not being the hypercompetitive freak that MJ was, with the idea being that Jordan would never go play with his biggest rival. It would ruin the chance to crush them. Bird and Magic never would’ve played together either. But LeBron and Wade will, which makes them not fit the narrative we have crafted about how basketball is.
And that’s the worst part; caring about legacy is almost completely exclusive to fans of basketball. I as a sports fan love the idea of the narrative in sports. I love that Bird and Magic were rivals even if that idea has been embellished. I love that the Boston Red Sox came back from being down 0-3 to vanquish the curse of the Bambino. I love that Kurt Warner was a grocery clerk before he was an MVP. I love watching highlights of the ‘Miracle on Ice.’
Stories make sports more interesting and more fun to think about. Stories make athletes special. This summer, LeBron ruined my narrative that he was a hometown hero. He was so great that he could almost singlehandedly bring a title to the beleaguered kingdom of Cleveland. The truth for us fans is that you don’t have to care about Magic Johnson to play like Magic Johnson.
Sadly, it makes complete sense for LeBron to become part of the Heat from his perspective. Why wouldn’t LeBron play in Miami with his friends and win a bunch of championships in perfect weather? Who can blame him?
After all, LeBron’s story is his. Not ours.