I was a LeBron fan before most of you had heard of him. I was a Laker fan before a lot of you were born.
I’m still trying to figure out whether I’m a fan of Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James.
This ridiculous and possibly unique conundrum traces back to a couple of factors. One is personal: Born and raised in Southern California, I came of age as a sports fan just as the Showtime Lakers came together to play the best and most entertaining basketball of the NBA’s greatest decade. Like most SoCal kids of that era, I was obsessed with those squads. I had no reason to imagine I wouldn’t be a diehard Laker fan for life.
The other factor is (mostly) professional: In 1999, I brought my Laker fandom to SLAM, just in time to catch Shaq and Kobe at their dysfunctional, dominant peak. That early 2000 Laker dynasty was often silly and occasionally embarrassing, but as a forum-blue-blooded fan, I loved it regardless. But then the dynasty fizzled, and as I stayed at SLAM and saw first-hand how the NBA sausage gets made, it became harder and harder for me to root for a team — and for that team in particular. For a lot of reasons, I fell out of love with L.A.
In the midst of all that, I met this kid from Akron.
And this is where the personal meets the professional: Ever since the spring of 2001, when I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to write his first national magazine profile, I’ve been rooting for him. How could I not? I got to know his family and friends, and his coaches and teammates, and appreciate how much those two groups were intertwined. I liked the dude, and 17 years later, I still do.
It worked out nicely that I got over my childhood Laker obsession not long after LeBron joined the league. It wasn’t hard supporting the Cavs as they evolved from not very good to not quite good enough to win a championship, nor to resist the nostalgic pull of the Lakers, even as they hoisted those 15th and 16th banners in 2009 and 2010. My loyalty followed LeBron to Miami, if reluctantly at first, and I celebrated those two titles, but always hoped (and thought) he’d come back to Cleveland. I watched Game 7 two years ago with my son, who was only just coming into his own sports fandom. The timing was perfect for him to fall in love with a title-winning Cavs team, just as I’d done with the Lakers 36 years earlier.
Dear god, am I old.
But anyway, now this: Now the professional athlete I’ve allowed myself to most admire as an adult is going to the team I used to love as a kid, recruited by the guy who was my first true sports hero. And man, I don’t know what to think.
There’s some bigger point in all this, I suppose, about how even as places like Philly and Houston have made recent professional championships into shows of civic pride, the NBA increasingly tempts its fans into rooting for stars over teams. And so we’ve had a couple of days of jokes about all the long(ish)-time Cavs fans packing up for L.A., just as they did eight years earlier for South Beach. The actual Cleveland fans, the good people of Northeast Ohio for whom that 2016 championship was literally a life-long dream, they’ll keep rooting for the Cavs. And a lot of them — maybe even most of them — will still be rooting, if quietly, for LeBron.
I’m still not sure what I’ll do. I’m happy for him, happy that he’s making this move on his terms, for his reasons. I’m happy that some of those reasons, maybe even most of them, appear to go beyond basketball, let alone any questions of “legacy,” and that he’s clearly willing to risk failure, relatively speaking. LeBron’s never been on a truly bad team, even when — as he too often was last season — he’s been surrounded mostly by flotsam. The supporting cast being assembled in L.A. this week, temporary as its collective age and contract status imply it must (surely?) be, might not be any better, and given the ramped-up caliber of conference competition, the Lakers as constructed right this second might not be a 2019 playoff team.
Which is wild!
But LeBron’s there, by choice, and however the next four years and/or the rest of his career plays out, it’ll be largely determined by how he chose to draw it up. As a fan of his, I can only wish him the best — even if the vessel for his success is a team whose fandom I renounced years ago. It would be nice if this didn’t have to be so complicated. It would be cool if there was no reason to care about legacy, let alone laundry, where your favorite players are concerned.