The Psychology of Fandom and A Heat Fan’s Perspective on LeBron
Fandom. It’s what drives the sports industry, and on a more basic level, what drives humans as a whole. Whether you’re watching a movie, engaging in political conversations, or deciding what kind of cheese you’re going to put on your sandwich, fandom plays a huge role in how we perceive the world.
To be a fan of something, in its simplest form, is the ability to enjoy something relative to the other options at your disposal. The term is derived from the word fanatic, which is pretty much the best way to describe a person who is truly devoted to their favorite sports team and player.
In this era of social media and boundless media coverage, the ability for fans to become engaged with their favorite sports teams (or players as some people prefer) – and truly immerse themselves in it – I think has only helped create the most fanatical generation of sports fans the world has ever seen.
I’m not sure there’s a better example of it than all the people in Cleveland who were suspending themselves in mid-air just to get a better vantage point of the city’s first professional championship parade in over half a decade.
From memes, to fan blogs, to podcasts, to non-stop around the clock national coverage, fans have an unlimited fountain of stimulants to keep themselves engaged, and most importantly, entertained.
That’s what we’re all here for, isn’t it? To be entertained. As a kid growing up in Miami, I’ve always been very straight forward with my allegiances. I support all the professional sports teams in Miami, no matter how infuriating some of those teams can be. That’s the type of fan I am. It wasn’t built out of team success, or love of a certain player, I connected with those teams because they represented and played for my city, my home.
Growing up, I was a huge baseball fan, mostly due to the fact that it’s my father’s favorite sport. It’s his true love (other than my mother, of course), and it holds true till this very day. I can try to convince him that the Marlins aren’t worth supporting because the ownership group is a bunch of white collar criminals that swindled our beautiful city in order to build that deplorable billionaire, Jeffrey Loria, his dream stadium on our dime.
I can remind him that every time the team spends money on talent, they always blow it up at the first sign of trouble (or right after a championship) in order to save themselves money. My father doesn’t care. He’s a baseball fanatic at heart and the Marlins are his squad. For him, every season there’s hope and there’s always players for him to support.
My love for baseball waned for a variety of reasons. Partly due to the reasons I just listed regarding the Marlins’ ownership, but mostly because I realized there were two (really, three) sports that I found far more entertaining than baseball. Going to college in Boston for four years turned me into a huge hockey fan, especially when my university won the NCAA championship during my sophomore year. It’s rather interesting how much success can shape one’s fandom.
As I grew up, I began loving basketball more and more, and a lot of that had to do with the success of the local team, my Miami Heat. Pat Riley had come down from New York and had instantly turned the franchise into a relevant contender that every season had one goal in mind: Win and win big. That’s what every fan wants out of their sports teams, however, very few fan bases are that lucky.
Which brings me to the focus of this article, none other than the mercurial and undeniably polarizing LeBron James. The son of Akron spent the first seven years of his career playing for the hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. A city that had been over 45 years without a professional championship at the time of his arrival. He gave the city a renewed hope that they hadn’t felt since the Marlins ripped their hearts out in 1997, eliminating the Cleveland Indians in extra innings of Game 7 of the World Series.
— David Zavac (@DavidZavac) June 20, 2016
In 2010, after another disappointed playoff exit that fell short of the championship dream, LeBron made his “Decision” and informed the world he was taking his talents to Biscayne Boulevard (because they don’t play in South Beach) to go play for my Heat. I was thrilled, stunned, overjoyed. I read the news during a LSAT class and when I announced it to the room, everyone started clapping and cheering. It was surreal, something that I doubt I’ll ever experience again. It’s so rare that a once-in-a-generation player switches teams, let alone switches to YOUR TEAM.
Needless to say, the reaction in Cleveland was the exact opposite. The hometown hero had orchestrated a half hour special to announce that he was a traitor. Judas. Benedict Arnold. He stabbed the community in the back in the pursuit of a championship, mostly because he could feel his legacy being ruined by his lack of success. He joined one of his best friends, Dwyane Wade, and fellow all-star Chris Bosh in Miami and instantly formed the most hated team in American history. I don’t think there’s any debate on this.
The national narratives were spun and it was Miami against the world. It was Miami and LeBron against the world. Cavs fans burned their LeBron jerseys and vilified the hometown legend. How could they not? The community was starved for a champion to call their own, and before the city’s greatest legend could accomplish it, he left to find an easier route to that success.
LeBron found those championships, but he found them for Miami. South Florida embraced him so furiously for a couple of reasons: he helped lead the Heat into becoming an all-time great team, and LeBron had become so vilified nationally that the entire city became devoted to defending his honor. Heat fans trolled other fanbases with LelBrons, defended him when others criticized his play, his actions, his statements. Basically, in Miami, LeBron was one of us. I think it was the intensity of that relationship that blinded most Heat fans from the elephant in the room. He was always going back, we just thought it would be later.
— Purple Pelican? (@DatPurpleHornet) June 20, 2016
After the Spurs ruined the Heat’s chance for a three-peat (royalties to Riles) in embarrassing fashion, no one in Miami expected LeBron to leave. It was a setback, but four straight years of Finals appearances was too much success to abandon. So we thought. Reports began coming out before the 2014 free agency period that LeBron was only considering Miami AND CLEVELAND. It was just hot air, the national media needed those clicks and views, there was no way.
Then it happened. Lee Jenkins tweeted out his newest article “I’m Coming Home”. LeBron James decides to return to Cleveland in order to bring a championship to Northeast Ohio. I was stunned, flabbergasted, betrayed. I couldn’t believe it. Heat fans spent that month between being destroyed by the Spurs to the start of free agency mocking Cavaliers fans on Twitter and other social medias that actually believed LeBron was going back to home. Now we all looked dumb. It’s not just that he left our team, it’s that he blindsided us after we had invested so much time and energy supporting and defending the greatest player on the planet. “We taught him how to win”, “That clusterf**k of an organization will never build him a team to succeed”, “Judas!”.
Only this time, LeBron learned from the mistakes of “The Decision” and spun the national narrative where he became the hero. He was sacrificing guaranteed success in order to try and bring his hometown the championship they’ve craved for so long. That wasn’t necessarily the truth, but damn, it was a good story to sell. Miami’s burning love for LeBron turned into a darkened hate that was difficult to explain. We wanted him to fail in order to validate the organization that we cheer for, and on some level, to make him regret his decision. It became entertaining to see the Cavaliers struggle and squabble. #TeamPetty was born.
The reasons to resent him were obvious: The Heat weren’t an automatic contender anymore, he jerked Riley around during 2014’s free agency to the point that it sabotaged his entire plan, and he never thanked the city of Miami on the way out for his four years there. It was college. Just moved on like it was nothing. Heat fans found numerous ways to justify feeling the way they did. Honestly, we shouldn’t be blamed. The way fandom works, it was only natural to lash out and find other ways to entertain ourselves since success wasn’t guaranteed anymore.
After LeBron made the Finals in his first season back and they were taken down by the up and coming Golden State Warriors, Heat fans rejoiced at his failure. “He needed us!”, “God hates Cleveland!”, “Once a clown show, always a clown show!”. It was the greatest entertainment we could find in a season that saw our home team miss the playoffs due to a rash of injury problems, headlined by the loss of the team’s only max player, Chris Bosh, to blood clots in his lungs.
This season seemed like it was going to be a lot of the same. The Cavaliers (LeBron) fired David Blatt despite having the best record in the East “what a clown show!”. During some rough stretches in 2016, LeBron began sending cryptic tweets, began having visual spats with his teammates, his body language (and his jumper) seemed totally off. Suddenly, the #HeGone movement was born. We convinced ourselves LeBron was getting ready to make another exit. This. Was. Fun.
The playoffs began, and everything changed. The Cavaliers began dominating teams as LeBron turned on that extra gear, and this time, his teammates held up health wise around him. The Cavs go 12-2 en route to the Finals. It was okay, though, they were going to face the Warriors again it would be just like last year, Heat fans convinced themselves. Suddenly they were down 3-1 heading back to Golden State and it seemed they were doomed to the same fate as last year, but this time with all their players. Heat fans felt validated once again. This. Was. Even. MORE. Fun.
Then the incredible happened. The LeBron from Game 6 against Boston in 2012 appeared and wouldn’t go away. Kyrie Irving began playing the greatest basketball of his career. The Splash Brothers were playing horrific basketball and were completely losing their composure. Draymond Green couldn’t stop hitting people in the huevos and found himself suspended for a close out Game 5 at home. By the time Steph Curry was ejected in Game 6 after fouling out and hitting a fan with his mouth piece, I felt something weird happening. I wanted LeBron to win.
WHY AM I SEEING #HEATNATION ROOTING FOR LEBRON???
— #BeatTheCavs (@HeatTwittter) June 20, 2016
These Warriors, who I had really enjoyed following the past couple of seasons, did not deserve to win the way they were playing. LeBron was playing out of his mind, leading the entire series in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals. He was a one-man army, being driven by a starved city (and, apparently, by Pat Riley’s comments on his way out of Miami that he was making the biggest mistake of his career).
Game 7 came around, and I was still holding on to the last remnants of pettiness that I had within me. I wanted the Warriors to win, but it wasn’t because of LeBron. I didn’t want to see Dan Gilbert, someone who to me is almost on the same level as Jeffrey Loria, lifting that championship trophy. He didn’t deserve it. I’m not sure I’ve ever been more torn watching a sporting event in my life. Yet, once Kyrie hit that three, Curry tossed up a couple of awful shots, and suddenly the Cavaliers were rushing the court at the Oracle, I saw something that I honestly wasn’t expecting. LeBron completely broke down, in a fashion, he never did in Miami. The emotions were so raw and real that it trickled down to the rest of his team.
That’s when it all hit me. How could I actively root against and ridicule a man that came to my city and helped bring us 4 years of greatness, when all he wanted to do was go back home and win a title for his hometown WHILE HE STILL COULD? Given the type of fan that I am, if I were in his shoes, I would have done the same thing. Even to the point of sabotaging the Heat in 2014 free agency. The second he went back to Cleveland, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and the Heat were one of the biggest obstacles to his goal. Sabotage was tactically the only move to make.
Ultimately, I WAS the scorned ex. We had such great times together and I hated that it was over. It was over too soon. Life is full of disappointments and heartbreak, but there’s one truth that can’t be denied: Time heals all wounds. I never thought the day I would get over it would be the day that LeBron would bring a championship to Cleveland, a city I ultimately don’t care for. Life works in all kinds of mysterious ways.
For Heat fans, take solace in the fact that LeBron’s departure pushed Riley to find new ways to build his roster. Renewed focus on the D-League and finding gems like Tyler Johnson, focusing on long-term projects like Hassan Whiteside, and with a little bit of bad luck turned to good luck, acquiring young promising players in Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson. All good things come to an end, and luckily the Heat appear to be on their way to a whole new generation of good things.
I will always root against the Cavaliers, along with every basketball team across the court from the Heat, because that’s how I’m wired. It’s how I find the entertainment in it. My team against the world. The best part is that next season, it’ll be the same thing again except with a slightly different twist. Miami is coming for that championship, but the road isn’t through LeBron, it’s through Cleveland. I’m happy for LeBron. He’s found his peace and, frankly, he’s earned it. Next season, he won’t be the reason why I want the Heat to win the East, he’ll just be another guy in the way.