On Sports Promiscuity

Like Cassius Clay, I grew up in Louisville, KY. At five, six, seven years old, I fell asleep listening to Louie Dampier and Dan Issel of the ABA Kentucky Colonels kicking ass.

Then a move to Talmadge, OH, close to LeBron’s hometown of Akron. My game was similar to his so NE Ohioans took to calling me LeRon. In fourth, fifth grade I fell asleep listening to the tail end of Lenny Wilkens’ NBA career with the Cavs.

Then SoCal where I patterned my game after Magic Johnson* and in 1986 bought a scalped ticket to the sixth game of the NBA finals in which my Los Angeles Lakers finally beat the dreaded Celtics.

Conventional wisdom is stick with your home team, but conventional wisdom is wrong. Like gender and race, “home” is a fluid concept. We move, life changes, the only reason to stick with your childhood teams is nostalgia.

If you think the Cav’s amazing come from behind, not NBA orchestrated, championship unleashed millions of lifelong long-suffering fans, wait until the Cubbies playoff run this fall. Nearly everyone you know will claim to be a long-suffering Cubs fan and we’ll be subjected to endless profiles of truly ancient people who’ve been waiting since pre-history for the Cubs to win it all.

Apart from LeBron, none of the Cavs are from NE Ohio. Odds are few or none of the players on your favorite, hometown team that you’ve always been loyal to are from the hometown.

Felony arrest records are another reason why fan promiscuity makes way more sense than unconditional love and loyalty. After Kobe’s infamous visit to Colorado, I began losing that loving feeling for the Lakers.

Then my Sonics were sold by that Starbucks son of a bitch, the ultimate wake up call. If teams can disappear based upon the vagaries of capitalism, you’d be pretty stupid to pledge blind fidelity to any one of them.

Despite my NE Ohio street cred, I dug the Warrior vibe the last few years. I was finding the bandwagon pretty damn comfortable. Love the long ball, the team chemistry, the high tech ownership, Curry’s daughter. So when the college senior watched the game with me for Father’s Day, and asked who I wanted to win, I told her, “Really, I don’t know, I’ll be happy for either team.”

Forty plus years later, after watching the upset and emotional outpouring, I’m definitely a Cavs fan tonight. By October, that may very well change.

 

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* One LA evening, the Gal Pal and I were standing in line at a Century City movie theatre when Magic got in line behind us. “Oh man, Magic Johnson sighting!” I said. Looking around hopelessly, “Where?!” “Ah, the only 6’9″ brother.”

LeBron James > Michael Jordan

We kid ourselves when we think we know public figures—whether actors, politicians, or professional athletes. Hell, our next-door neighbors seem like the nicest people possible, but I have no idea what goes on in the privacy of their home. All of us have inner lives and see into the mirror dimly. Despite this, we can make tentative judgements about pro athletes in the media spotlight based upon what they say and do outside of competition.

For the life of me, I do not understand the American sport fan who makes judgements about athletes based entirely on statistics and championship titles. Forget whether an athlete treats people well, obeys the law, inspires fans, and uses their fame and fortune to help others also succeed. Character is irrelevant. Championship rings trump social consciousness.

This is odd. In real life we gravitate towards specific co-workers, friends, and family based upon holistic judgments about their personal attributes—are they kind, generous, positive, self-effacing, humorous, caring? But in sports, job competence trumps everything. That’s why, to the American sports fan, LeBron James isn’t even close to as good as Jordan—two NBA championships versus six.

In the game of life, LJ has MJ beat already. By miles. Many sports analysts are not taking LJ’s letter on face value*. Their cynicism makes them suspicious of his motives for taking his talents to Northeast Ohio. I’m prone to cynicism, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt—he likes living in NE Ohio, feels a sense of obligation to the people and place that cheered for him before he was famous, and wants to inspire Cleveland third graders to also defy the odds of what society expects from them**.

And Jordan? He quit basketball to “spend more time with his family.” Immediately afterwards he signed a contract to play minor league baseball in a different state. What does he stand for besides basketball excellence? Gambling. Hanes underwear. Unbridled ego. Tennis shoes. Cash money.

Granted, I was a third grader in Northeast Ohio, so I might be biased, but LJ’s letter was so beautifully written I might ask my writing students to analyze it this fall. Then, for extra credit, he stuck it to Ann Coulter by acknowledging the World Cup final was a much more important athletic competition than any NBA championship series.

Call me naive if you must, but I’m down with LJ. And it’s important to note he’s not the only basketball superstar whose excellence is even more evident off the court. In sports, as in life, we should make holistic judgments. Magic and Durant (zero titles) also have Jordan beat by miles. There are lots of others.

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* I find this economist’s perspective interesting.

** I suspect there’s one other reason, that I haven’t heard a single person mention, why LeBron chose Cleveland. His wife wanted to return home.