November 19, 2004 is considered the worst day in Indiana Pacers’ history. It was on this day that Ron Artest was struck by a beer, Jamaal Tinsley brandished a dustpan as a weapon, and a young Jermaine O’Neal almost became the first person to nearly murder someone with a punch while falling backwards. Though footage of the Malice at the Palace is INCREDIBLE to rewatch, it caused a promising Pacers season to end with the death of an era for the franchise. However, this day also brought a positive; it was on this day that your humble writer was free to choose his own sports fandom destiny.
At the time of the brawl, I was only a basketball fan in the most casual sense. I had barely any time to watch the sport considering dedicated all my free time to committing every Peyton Manning statistic to memory. However, the season before the brawl, a young player had come straight out of high school into the pro’s; being called the next Michael Jordan at the ripe, youthful age of nineteen. I suppose I could’ve joined the other 13 Pacers fans at the time and booed Jamaal Tinsley, Marquis Daniels, Jeff Foster, O’Neal, and the ghost of Reggie all season, but instead, being a young, impressionable mind, I conceded to the sports hype machine and began watching LeBron James starting his second season in the league.
As time passed and James went from an astonishing player to watch to a legitimate force to be reckoned with in the league, my fandom grew. I started to memorize the stats of every shitty, replaceable teammate he had and lived and died by their playoff outings.
Watching the guy take a laughable Cavs team to the Finals in 2007 and then push the Celtic’s Big Three to 7 games in the playoffs the next season was a perfect snapshot of what makes being a sports fan so remarkable. The pure blackout joy of winning and the gut wrenching feeling of having to wake up for a week after a big loss is why we root for our favorite teams and athletes. It was after these early Cavs years that I decided I would grow up rooting for LeBron regardless of how his career played out.
Did it get insanely difficult to openly admit LeBron fandom after The Decision? Of course it did; The Decision was the least successful PR move since Abe Lincoln ended the Civil War and 5 days later, Andrew Johnson was president. Was it the worst thing ever to root for Dwayne Wade? Absolutely. It’s what I imagine Chargers’ fans feel rooting for Phillip Rivers every season. And watching LeBron play Dallas in 2011 like he had no arms or legs and then get steamrolled by San Antonio in 2014 were among some of the most brutal things I’ve endured as a sports fan.
On the flip side, weathering an astounding amount of shit from Pacers’ and Bulls’ fans for 4 straight years, only to see James break their teams every May became tradition. Watching him win a title against one of the greatest dynasties ever in one of the best Finals series ever in 2013 was a life changing experience. Even arguing about LeBron’s legacy with people that have only seen Michael Jordan play on SportsCenter highlights has been incredibly uplifting.
It’s crazy how much sports can be a metaphor for life. LeBron spent most of his time in Cleveland as the young upstart and did some growing in Miami. The guy weathered an unreal amount of criticism and succeeded despite of it all; it made me proud to root for him and even prouder to see him come back to Cleveland a much different player. You rarely recognize your own growth, but watching someone else grow helps contextualize it for you.
Seeing Peyton bend Chicago over for his ring in 2007 is my favorite sporting affair of all time; however, seeing LeBron back up his own melodramatic shit and take Cleveland to the Finals again is a close second. The realist in me says this is probably going to be a 5 game bloodbath and that Golden State exposes Cleveland for playing in the insanely weak Eastern Conference. The optimist in me says the Cavaliers being banged up throughout the playoffs has made them better and dig deeper than people think; Cavs grind it out one last time and win in 7. The fan in me is going to root my damn heart out regardless. And for that, here’s to the gloriously insane experience that is sports fandom.