Cheers rise from Pappy’s, as drunken fans celebrate another Warriors bucket during the second game of the NBA Finals.
Five seconds later on the game stream I’m watching just a block away, Steph Curry drains another three. And I seethe. Not just because no matter how legal the stream, lag is still unavoidable. But because I’m not a Warriors fan — I’m rooting for LeBron James.
Before you judge — though it’s probably too late — I’ve rooted for LeBron since I first engaged with the sport of basketball during the 2004-05 NBA season. After moving to the Los Angeles area when I was four years old in 2000, I knew nearly nothing about the American sport that excited so many of my peers. I was just a Persian boy born in Germany. “What, Derek Fisher? Anyone want to talk about Michael Schumacher,” young me probably asked between tetherball games. Needless to say, the silence was deafening.
But somehow — probably aided by unprejudiced elementary schoolers — I got by. It was with the video game NBA Live 2005, however, that I discovered the player that ultimately came to define my fandom of basketball, elevating me from bullshitter to active member of sports conversations to eventually, bonafide sports addict.
After the game’s random select option gave me the Cavaliers, I discovered LeBron. I had no idea who he was at the time, and I even specifically remember taking most of my shots with Jeff McInnis.
I eventually found that Cavaliers team on TV.
This was when LeBron was just the young, athletic, future face of the NBA — not the polarizing superstar who eventually became the subject of this Kanye West line: “Went from most hated to the champion god flow/ I guess that’s a feeling only me and LeBron know.”
LeBron spurred my imagination like only a talking sponge had before. He dunked over and around people. He got from one end of the court to the other faster than seemed humanly possible. LeBron was such a brilliant passer and talented scorer that he received scrutiny for over-sharing the ball at the end of close games. He’s so good that he got — and still gets — criticized for making the right basketball play instead of just shooting.
In a time when hatred seems to be in vogue — whether it be in relation to politicians, musicians or athletes — that was just the start of a series of inordinate hostility toward LeBron. Every aspect of his life and game, from his jersey number to his lack of rings to his hairline, has been a regular source for contempt, ridicule and tacky online jokes.
Defending LeBron through this shitstorm of disdain only made my fandom grow stronger. I stopped being a Cavalier fan. I rooted for LeBron and for the wave of hatred to end. I grew angry at his teammates for holding him back. He averaged 38.5 points, over eight rebounds and eight assists per game in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, but the rest of his Cavs floundered, leading to a loss and even more blame for the 24 year old who already had the world on his shoulders.
When he finally went to Miami in his indefensibly awkward and cocky TV special, my fandom followed him. And when he returned to Cleveland, so did my undying support. But doing this hasn’t in any way granted me the luxuries that bandwagon fans are afforded. I don’t just root for winners. I’ve experienced the same spectrum of ups and downs fans face when they root for a single team — mine are just centered on a single player.
I screamed as LeBron scored 29 of his team’s last 30 points to beat the juggernaut No. 1-seed Pistons and then I sat through four straight terrible Finals games in 2007. I’ve watched him struggle with no reliable jumper, develop an efficient one and then somehow lose it again.
I cried in 2011 when LeBron failed in the Finals. I cried even more in 2012 when he finally won. I can’t even think about the 2013 Finals without sitting down. I resigned myself to defeat in 2014 when the Spurs put on a beautiful display of passing to dismantle the Heat, and again in 2015 when LeBron put the Cavs on his back but was simply outgunned by the white-hot Warriors. I was in Berkeley when Golden State won, as fans crowded Telegraph. Each honking car seemed to mock my loyalty.
And this year, I’m preparing myself for more heartbreak Monday night. The Warriors will almost definitely win, pushing LeBron’s Finals record to 2-5. This will surely lead to more attacks, especially from those happy to ignore the context of those losses. People are so eager to criticize LeBron that his six straight Finals appearances — along with his teammate James Jones, the most since the Bill Russell Celtics era — are essentially disregarded. So is the fact that nearly no other player could have even made it to the Finals with some of those teams.
But as easy as it would be to leave LeBron and stop fighting the overwhelming tide of hatred and root for the local Warriors, I’ll be back. Waiting for my stream to catch up and for disparaging fans to catch up with it.