In Defense of Following and Rooting for Players Instead of Teams

LeBron James, No. 23, of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Kyrie Irving, No. 11 , of the Boston Celtics shake hands after a Cavaliers 102-99 victory at Quicken Loans Arena on Oct. 17, 2017, in Cleveland. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
LeBron James, No. 23, of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Kyrie Irving, No. 11 , of the Boston Celtics shake hands after a Cavaliers 102-99 victory at Quicken Loans Arena on Oct. 17, 2017, in Cleveland. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

It didn’t take much convincing for me to agree with my dad’s plan—that it was in my best interest to leave Sterrett Classical Academy in the city and transfer to St. Bartholomew (a private Catholic school in the suburbs with a stellar academic and athletic reputation) and repeat the sixth grade when making the switch.


Because of how late in the year my birthday is (Dec. 30), I was always the youngest kid in each class. And as my dad explained to my mom and me, finally being with kids my own age would give me an advantage athletically and socially (this would prove to be true; although differences in age matter less and less the older you get, for an 11- or 12-year-old, a year is fucking huge).

Unfortunately, there was a catch. St. Barts’ colors were green and gold, which meant I wouldn’t be able to hoop in Jordans anymore because back then, Jordans only came in variations of the Chicago Bulls’ colors—black, white and red. And this was also back when matching your sneakers with your uniform was a priority, and most of my shorts, shirts and sweats reflected this color scheme. I dressed like I was a Bulls ball boy or Horace Grant’s nephew. So I secretly and silently lamented the prospect of retiring my very specific wardrobe for bitch-ass green-and-gold gear.

My Bulls standom began around the time I first started watching NBA basketball. I’d beg my parents to allow me to stay up when the Tuesday-night Bulls games happened to be on TBS, and I’d devour Street & Smith and Hoop Magazine and Basketball Digest and every other magazine with extensive Bulls- and NBA-related content. And when they finally broke past the Pistons, made it to the NBA Finals and won the championship, I was overjoyed that this team—my team, the team I’d supported since the dark Stan Albeck days—finally reached the pinnacle.

And then, three years later, when Michael Jordan was swinging (and missing) at breaking balls and the Scottie Pippen-led Bulls were still finals contenders, I didn’t give a shit about them—not because I’d become apathetic to the NBA but because I just wasn’t as interested in the Jordanless Bulls.

Similar things had happened in previous years, where my rooting interests for the Los Angeles Lakers and the Golden State Warriors (my next-favorite teams) slowly dissipated after Magic Johnson retired and Tim Hardaway was traded to the Miami Heat. But I assumed that my Bulls’ standom was real and would withstand the loss of Jordan. It did not. I was a fan of his first. The Bulls just happened to be a convenient and efficient Michael Jordan delivery system.

Since then, I’ve secretly embraced my brand of NBA fandom. When Allen Iverson and Vince Carter were the two guys I most enjoyed watching play, Iverson’s Sixers and Carter’s Raptors were the teams I pulled for. When LeBron James entered the league in 2003, the Cavs—the fucking Cavs—were all of a sudden appointment TV and remained that way until he left for Miami. And then, when the Cavs drafted my favorite college basketball player of all time, I became perhaps the only person in America who rooted for the Cavs and the Heat.


(Interestingly enough, you’d think that after LeBron came back to Cleveland, this would have simplified things for me with my two favorite players on the same team. But I actually prefer it now that Kyrie Irving is in Boston and they’re apart again. And I’ve discovered that I’m more of a Kyrie fan than a LeBron fan.)

Sometimes I feel as if I should feel bad about this—that being a mercenary cheats me out of the sports-fandom experience. That rooting for a team regardless of who happens to be playing for them isn’t just the best way to be a fan—it’s the most honorable and possesses the most integrity because fandom needs an appropriate amount of patience and suffering shoehorned into the experience for it to matter.


And to be fair, this is my experience with Pittsburgh-based sports teams. My favorite NFL team is the Steelers, my favorite MLB team the Pirates; I’ll only watch an NHL game if the Penguins are playing (and it’s the playoffs), and I root for the University of Pittsburgh.

But there’s no NBA presence in Pittsburgh. And while this would seem to be infuriating for a person whose favorite sport is basketball and who watches so much NBA League Pass that Comcast should be paying me, it’s been liberating. I’m not beholden to geography or laundry. I enjoy watching NBA basketball, and my rooting interests lie with the people who happen to give me the most enjoyment.


Does this mean I only root for players? No. I loved the Seven Seconds or Less Suns, Baron Davis’ Warriors, the current iteration of the Sixers and other teams I enjoyed watching despite the fact that none of the players on them would have been considered my favorites. Also, having favorite players instead of favorite teams doesn’t shield you from sports-related anxiety and suffering.

I think I was the only person outside of Cleveland and the Cavs’ own family members who watched them in those Kyrie and Alonzo Gee years, and being a fan of LeBron means that while my “favorite team” gets to the finals quite frequently, I’ve mourned finals losses more than I’ve celebrated victories. I know traditional team-first fans would consider what I’m doing bandwagon hopping and/or cheating. But that would only apply if I just rooted for the best teams each year.


(Also, for the record, fuck you and your archaic and self-righteous rules of fandom. No one gives a shit how long you “suffered” just because you happened to be born in a city with shitty ownership and your teams are always ass. You’re not a better person than I am. You’re just from Washington, D.C.)

Maybe things would have been different if St. Barts had red-and-black colors, too. Perhaps I would have been so used to rooting for one color scheme that it would have eventually bled into my fandom tendencies. I’m fortunate that it didn’t, though, because those post-LeBron Cavs are going to be a shit show, and I’m glad I’ll be able to ignore Cleveland again soon.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)


King Beauregard

Don’t forget that this is about the least important thing you could be devoting your loyalties to and feeling conflicted about. It’s all right to do so! Just keep its importance in perspective.

So, Wonder Woman is at the front door, Batgirl is at the back door. Where do you go first?