Elephant In The Room: The NBA's Player Loyalty Fan Debate


Unwritten guidelines are present in basketball fandom. Is being a fan of a player over a team politically correct?

Maybe this shouldn't be exposed to the world, but perhaps it should. My grandfather - J.D. Marshall - was a flawed individual. He never won "Husband of the Year" for a variety of reasons prior to him and my grandmother divorcing in the '70s. J.D. never once denied any of his flaws to me, however, and I'm sure as the years passed by, he grew to resent the decisions of his past. Yet, I can say this. He was a damn great - exceptional, even - grandfather.

He taught me about life, his mistakes, his successes and how not to treat the people who'd ultimately give their lives to prolong yours. We also bonded over sports. In fact, that was our biggest commonality. He was a coaching legend in the CIAA, even being posthumously inducted into the conference's Hall of Fame in 2009. "In sports, remain loyal to what first opened your heart to the game." Grandpa never said these exact words, perhaps due to irony, but his lessons always validated such.

I've carried the aforementioned quote near my heart throughout the years. Growing up with my mother, becoming a fan of the Dallas Cowboys was expected. She attended summer camps with Tom Landry's daughter and had latched on to the team at some point in her youth. Regardless of who plays quarterback or wide receiver or linebacker for the Cowboys, my loyalty and my constantly rising blood pressure resides with the star on the helmet. And despite my personal quest to obtain every MLB game day fitted, the Atlanta Braves will always hold top rank because their Triple A affiliate - the then-Richmond Braves - were a 30-minute drive up I-95 North. In the NBA, however, the logic was always different.

Saturday night following the Knicks' season-ending loss to the Indiana Pacers, friend of the family D'Brickashaw Cadillac Lubriderm Jenkins-Smith (@DragonflyJonez) took to Twitter to voice his opinion on his squad and provide a brief backstory of how a kid from Virginia became associated with a basketball team from New York City. Without putting words in his mouth or running the risk of telling the story incorrectly, he credited the bulk of his influence to his father. His old man cultured him on the values of fandom, and supporting the name on the front of the jersey trumpeted the name on the back. Matt Whitener reflected the same sentiment when discussing his love for the San Francisco 49ers despite being the most famous St. Lunatic after Maya Angelou, Josephine Baker, Lou Brock, Miles Davis and Nelly.

And I get it. Trust me, I do, because in a sense we're all coming from the heart with lessons from men who all played invaluable roles in our own maturation processes. Having noted that, and without speaking for anyone else but myself, basketball has always been unique. I indoctrinated myself with player loyalty, but with an appreciation and humbleness for the importance of the NBA from a macro-perspective. In simpler terms, there's loyalty to a player, but a lifelong commitment to the game.

My first memories of the NBA involve Michael Jordan, Wheaties, unattainable (dope) sneakers, Gatorade and the VHS tape of Come Fly With Me. I wore wristbands like Mike, chewed gum like Mike and reenacted game-winning shots like Mike in my driveway. Hell, as crazy as it sounds, I wanted Michael Jordan to be my dad. Even later as an 11-year-old, there's the story of how I purposely gave myself the flu on the eve of a little league basketball game because of my obsession to replicate "the flu/hangover/bad pizza" game. Or the time I moved in the barber's chair when I was 8, forcing him to take a chunk of hair out of my head so he'd shave the rest of it off. The harsh reality of resembling a lightbulb more than the greatest basketball player ever was irrelevant. In my eyes, for that short period of time, I was Michael Jordan.

Jordan's god-like heroics (and later Scottie Pippen, Phil Jackson, Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton and others) helped enhance the love, so loyalty resided there. Over time, of course, researching the game and its history to develop my own appreciation obsession became the main objective. I love basketball. I eat, sleep, breathe and - when nature calls - shit basketball. Yet, as it relates to personal interests and "being a fan," player loyalty has always been my method of subjective appreciation.

It's why no personal spite resides with "Kobe fans" as opposed to "Laker fans" (at least in how they label themselves). Half of my high school rode Allen Iverson because he hailed from Virginia, not because they suddenly became Sixers fans. The rise of many newer Celtics fans came with the arrival of Kevin Garnett. And half of my friends in D.C. support the Thunder because Kevin Durant is from the city. Player loyalty happens. How an individual chooses to express this loyalty - either through beneficial, productive debate or unbearable and annoying one-sidedness - is a completely different issue.

Basketball, more than any other professional sport, has always been marketed as a player-friendly league. Teams win championships, but David Stern made the NBA a worldwide brand by pushing individuals like Magic, Bird, Michael, Barkley, Shaq, Kobe, LeBron and Durant. However, player loyalty has always come with its own set of rules.

Kobe fans claiming the other 11 titles before him is lame. In fact, claiming each of Kobe's five is outlawed if you were one of those people who hated him in the early to mid 2000's and only began sipping the kool-aid around 2008. Kevin Garnett fans claiming the dominance of Larry Bird, Bill Russell and Red Auerbach doesn't make much sense either. It's the reason why as a self-proclaimed LeBron fan, I never claimed to be a Cavs fan or even a Miami Heat fan now. Not because of hatred for those teams, but instead because I realize what I was there for. I'll never associate myself with Dwyane Wade and the Heat's gargantuan 2006 title run because I wasn't in the trenches like Earnest Christian was. I'll never claim to be a Bulls fan because my association came during the Jordan years, and doing so would be a slap in the face of people like Bryan Crawford.

I've been a fan of LeBron since fall 2001 when Nick Burd showed me an article in third period technology class at the old Matoaca High School. From draft day in 2003, to The Decision, to the 2011 Finals to last June, I've been there - a player-loyal fan for as long as I've been in love with the game of basketball. When LeBron's career comes to a close in what looks to be the year 2055, the love for the game will remain intact.

That's my view of professional basketball. For those who agree and/or understand, excellent. For those who don't and confuse it with "riding a bandwagon," that's fine, too. If it's wrong, then so be it. I'm a sinner who's probably going to sin again anyway.

I'm just following the lesson that's nearly as old as I am. Players come and go. Teams change every year. The game, though ... the game stays the same.

13 Replies to “Elephant In The Room: The NBA's Player Loyalty Fan Debate”

  1. This is definitely an interesting thing to me. See, I absolutely hate "bandwagon" fandom, if only because that's how I was raised. I was brought up to root for all the Philadelphia teams, and I have suffered through all the bullshit that being a Philadelphia fan entails, which is why I hated people who started rooted for Dallas (disgusting) in '90s or people who became Yankees fans during the Jeter era, when they never were before. I hate that stuff.

    But rooting for players and following them? That's completely different in my eyes. I kind of do the same thing … to an extent. Without a doubt, my loyalty always lies with the Eagles, Sixers, Phillies and Flyers, but I also follow and often root for certain players in every sport. And yes, it comes out the most in basketball, because of the immense affect individual players can have on the basketball court.

    Now, I'll never root for to a guy like KG or Durant to beat the Sixers, but I'll root for them individually and pull for a team like the Thunder (though not the Celtics) against virtually everyone else.

    As I alluded to in my tweet, your views here pretty much represent the mantra of the late, great, immortal FreeDarko and its Liberated Fandom credo. And if you can't relate to that on some level, even as a devout fan of teams from your hometown or whatever, then I think you're missing out a little as a fan.

    Good stuff.

    1. Definitely so. And as was said, I think the NBA is just a different league altogether because player movement is so frequent and it's been a league marketed by superstars.

      However, being a fan of a team is certainly the more commonly accepted form, which I completely understand.

  2. The gospel has been preached by Rev. Tinsley.

    I will say this to throw my two cents in. Being from Oklahoma and no real allegiance to pro teams, being a fan of Shawn Kemp and Reggie Miller made me fans of the Sonics/Pacers for a long time. Same with Thierry Henry in Arsenal or Eric Lindros with the Philly Flyers. Its a fine line that is there where someone can be a "bandwagon" fan vs. legitimately hopping on a team because of a singular player, and a team being able to capture one's heart.


  3. Let's say that someone is a fan of a player and by extension becomes a fan of said player's team. If the player leaves the team for whatever reason, should the fan's allegiance stay with that team or should it move to the player's new team?

    1. I think Ed and Tinsley are displaying both sides. Tins has followed LeBron and rooted for the Cavs and now the Heat because LeBron was/is there. So if Bron leaves, he'll root for whoever LeBron's new team is because he's really a LeBron fan, not a Cavs or Heat fan.

      As for Ed, he became a Flyers fan because of Eric Lindros, and now he still roots for the Flyers because they grew on him. So it's really all about personal preference and how you grow with your fandom, because being a fan is a personal thing.

      However … if you come from a city that is as provincial or defined by its sports teams like Philadelphia or Boston or wherever, you open yourself up to ridicule for not always supporting the home team.

      Again, that's part of what makes sports so fun. You can watch and follow and cheer in your own way. There's no "right" or "wrong" way to be a sports fan … even if I think the "bandwagon jumpers" are despicable. They still have every right to embarrass themselves that way, ha.

    2. I agree with Rev, and I also agree it can evolve. I know friends who became Colts fans in the early 2000s because of Peyton Manning, but they're still diehard fans of the organization to this day.

  4. I understand liking a player but how does that work for you? Do you in turn root for their team, or just for them to play well? I need to have a team to root for. For instance, I'm a Laker fan but I also root for Lebron, KD, and various others (Curry has become a new favorite). The thing is, when those guys play the Lakers, I hope they shoot 0-50. I love watching them play but something about doing it to my team that pisses me off. Everyone is different, though. I just love having a team to root for.

    1. Nahh, I understand that completely. For me, though, when my *favorite player* isn't playing, I really watch because I just love the game of basketball. When they do play, I obviously want the player to play well and for the team to win. The same way I'm sure you want Kobe to drop 35+ each time and the Lakers get a W. The only difference is, you grew up invested in the Lakers (and will probably be a fan long after Kobe leaves I'm presuming) as I grew up more so invested in a specific player. It doesn't make sense to a lot of people, and I'm ok with that lol.

      Like I said, basketball has always been different for me. I have teams i follow in every other sports.

  5. So what happens when your player is past it/retires... between 99 and 03? who did you root for Tins? Vince? or the Wizards MJ? or AI?
    To follow a player is great... I was/is a full-on Gary Payton fan but both your faves are THE BEST players in the game for their time..... so if you are watchin Wiggins now(which u are) will you still follow him in 11 years if he's a couple time all-star and/or well respected swingman or will you be a fan of whoever is next in Charge?
    Not disagreeing, just a thought

    1. Between 99 and 03, honestly, i Just watched the game and enjoyed it. I know that sounds like a cop out answer, but I swear that was the case. The fact the two players I've been huge fans of turned out to be two of the best players ever, those are just two of the highlights. I rode for people like Penny and Iverson and they have one Finals victory between them combined. I can type more, but it's like 1 in the morning and I'm seeing double lol. Hit me on Twitter and we can discuss it more if you'd like.

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