Being a fan of the NBA was much easier as a kid.
I remember sprawling out in front of the television and getting goosebumps listening to the Bulls’ starting lineup get announced. Like every other kid on the planet, I was a diehard Michael Jordan fan. I would head out to the hoop in front of my driveway and practice my hanging right-to-left hand layups and my turnaround baseline jumpers until I couldn’t see my own hand in front of my face. When I was lucky my dad and I would take turns “being Jordan”, firing up jumper after jumper while the rebounder was relegated to Scottie Pippen status. All I wanted to do, all I ever wanted to do, was be like Mike.
Jordan was more of a superhero than anything else, conquering villains like the aptly named “Bad Boys” of Detroit and the unbearable New York Knicks. He was the good guy, and it didn’t seem coincidental that he was almost always victorious. Life as a fan back then was easy, simple.
Just as my own life started to get confusing, with the whole growing up and the loss of innocence and whatnot, the NBA mirrored that for me. When Jordan retired there were multiple guys vying for hero status, some of them the same players I had just painted as villains. The NBA was all of the sudden very grey — gone were the days of black and white, of good and bad. When Jordan retired he left millions of fans disenfranchised in a way, all of us searching for a replacement for the man who simply could never be replaced.
While everyone looked for the next Jordan, a villain emerged in Kobe Bryant.
Suddenly I no longer needed a hero because I had found a villain. The fog had cleared — my heroes were anyone who could take out Kobe Bryant. Iverson stepping over Lue was one of the happiest moments of my life. Horry at the top of the key, one of the worst. All of that emotion, including the newly discovered love for the Clippers, came from rooting against one man. Without him, it wouldn’t have meant much of anything at all.
We demand loyalty out of our basketball heroes, however unreasonable that may be to ask in today’s game. So when LeBron James ripped out the hearts of an entire city on national television, he did more than just lose hundreds of thousands of supporters — he changed the entire landscape of the NBA. In a time where players give canned responses and rarely step out of their carefully crafted media personas, LeBron James willingly villified himself, and let everyone bare “witness” to it. We now know this: The NBA will never be grey as long as LeBron James is around.
Regardless of who ends up challenging LeBron, the league is in better shape for what happened this summer. Fans need to identify first and foremost, and the easier it is to differentiate who is on what side of the battle between good and evil, the better.
While LeBron sits on his self-appointed throne and holds court, egging the world on in the process, there’s a guy in Orlando who meets the nickname requirement waiting on the other side of the line for him. And another one in Oklahoma City. And you never know… that kid killing himself on the sand dunes, time and time again until he can’t feel his legs anymore? He may get his chance one day to be the hero too.
Only one thing is for certain — we’ll be watching.