The Player Loyalty Fan Debate, Continued

Last week, fellow TSFJ writer Justin Tinsley wrote a great piece on the NBA's Player Loyalty Fan Debate. The premise of the article struck a chord with me because above all of the arguments that sports exist to facilitate, the debate of where your loyalties lie for players and teams is one that truly exists with yourself.

The article made me sit down and evaluate my own experience as an NBA fan. As a kid, my first exposure to the league was watching Shaq and Penny on the Orlando Magic. I was the biggest Shaq fan, as photo evidence shows. I also thought that team was going to dominate the league for the next decade. I didn't even get too upset when Nick Anderson missed those two free throws in Game 1 of the 1995 Finals against the Houston Rockets; didn't sweat it when they got swept. They would be back. It was like throwing darts at a board, they would get enough shots at hitting the bullseye.

Of course, Jordan returned and Shaq left for Los Angeles. And as a fan, I packed my bags and went with him. When Shaq finally won a championship with the Lakers, I was happy for him, not the franchise. And in the years since, Kobe's become the player that I've had the same affection for.

It's interesting to compare the rooting for players (as they're moving from team to team) versus team debate, if only because in the end -- especially with the game of basketball -- sports is such an individual-driven entertainment product. I realized this when I was flipping through the latest issue of SLAM Magazine that came in my mail. I'm reading about Kyrie Irving, Andre Drummond and Kevin Durant. I'm taking an interest in them and how they'll progress as individuals, the team just becomes a construct within which they'll accomplish those goals and make those progressions.

It's similar to how we all develop a fondness for players in college and about to enter the draft. The appeal of the unknown, of talent that may be realized at the highest level, is a huge draw for most of us. Even before these players find a team, we're fans of Andrew Wiggins, of Jabari Parker, irrespective of which struggling NBA franchise ends up with them.

The individual versus team argument extends beyond just the players too. There are people who are particularly fond of coaches. Phil Jackson is a good example. No one needed to be either a Bulls fan or a Lakers fan to appreciate how Jackson was able to lend a (huge, for those who appreciated him as a coach; not so huge, if you thought he lucked into the best players in the world) helping hand in guiding talented teams to their ultimate goal of multiple championships. Consider Gregg Popovich, a generally beloved figure in most basketball circles. If he were to leave the Spurs and take on another challenge, I'd happily support him and whichever team would have the honor of hiring him.

General managers are mentioned in the same breath. For Sam Presti, or Daryl Morey, the teams only serve as a canvas for which they can perform their work. I appreciate their basketball smarts without having any vested interest in the teams that employ them.

The truth is, there are fans who will read what I've just written and disagree, or argue that it is their devotion to those particular teams that make them appreciate these individuals. That the appreciation of players, coaches and even management is just a by-product of their loyalty to a team.

And that is entirely fine too. On a macro level, I've always viewed sports as an entertainment vehicle, a product which makes fans like myself as consumers, and like any other avenue of entertainment, consuming means that we're allowed to make a choice. The ability to make that choice precludes us from being forced to have to root for a particular team, and if not, then root for a particular player. In fact, those do not have to be mutually exclusive choices. It's okay to have teams you care about, and players too; and those players don't always have to be on the teams you are cheering for.

So if Miami solves the Indiana problem they have on their hands, and goes on to win the title this year; just remember that there are fans that are cheering for LeBron and there are fans that have been cheering for the Heat franchise since Ron Rothstein, Rony Seikaly, Kevin Edwards and Grant Long.

We all root for players for our own reasons, some may be more personal, others may be just a matter of choice and preference, but for all of those choices, the only explanations we need to make are to ourselves.

The bandwagon fan does exist, they're everywhere, but just because some of us root for players, and not stick to a particular team, it doesn't make that person a bandwagon fan with no loyalty or values to a particular player or team. They're just making choices in a game that's driven by the individuals playing it.

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