Liberating My Fandom: A Wonderful Season Of Trash-Talking, Mockery, And Show-Offs

Lebron James

Photo: Reuters

This post originally appeared on Negative Dunkalectics.Throughout the season, I’ve been wanting to write something about “liberated fandom” and “negative cosmopolitanism“: specifically something about how this season’s been so wonderful to follow precisely because the top Eastern Conference teams all seem to loathe one another and that their rivalries have given rise to an (recently, at least) unparalleled degree of trash-talking, attempts to show one another up, mockery, and so on.

If liberated fandom is in some sense about relinquishing attachments to a particular city’s team in favour of appreciating the styles and talents of individual players, this season’s been even better because I’ve got a strong if strange attachment to a particular team: the Miami Heat.

For me, Paul Pierce has been this season’s emblematic figure: a great ham actor ever since Pierce was carried off in a wheelchair during Game 1 of the 2008 NBA Finals only to return minutes later in a spectacle that I’ll admit I was captivated by (I hate the Lakers, by the way), this season Pierce has stepped up his game with needling tweets about “taking his talents to Memphis!” following the Celtics’s second victory over the Heat and his famous bow in Madison Square Garden after he hit a game winner back in December

But it’s not just Pierce. Magic coach Stan Van Gundy has offered some choice words about the silliness of the Heat’s summer title-celebration-like introduction of LeBron James and Chris Bosh. Amare Stoudemire recently mocked Chris Bosh for reportedly crying in the locker room following another tough loss. And if and when the Heat start beating their rivals routinely, I fully expect (and hope!) that they’ll step up the trash talking, too. If and when they ever win the title I hope to see Wade, James, Bosh, and Joel Anthony holding onto the Championship Trophy while sharing a hot tub with Luther Campbell. I think Luther Campbell’s probably a horrible person, by the way, but I’d appreciate the spectacle and would love to see the Heat embrace the villain role they’ve ceded to Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.

I think it’s common wisdom that the NBA’s the most cosmopolitan of major pro sports in the United States. NBA franchises are placed in major cities; NBA League Pass now makes it possible to watch nearly any game from anywhere on an iPhone; NBA fans are supposed to be the most left-liberal of any league’s fans; the NBA blogosphere has somehow solicited a profusion of extremely overeducated writers who write wonderful cultural-studies-type analyses of the league or who use advanced statistical modelling to break down games (e.g. Free Darko, Go Yago!, Hoopism). In a sense, Oklahoma City’s recent acquisition of the Thunder stands as a signal that even though it’s located in the middle of the midwest, Oklahoma City absolutely is hooked into the global economy… in a way that Tulsa may not be.

The contrast here with the NFL’s pretty stark: the NFL is apparently a centre-right league; NFL teams are in places like Charlotte, Jacksonville, Nashville, Tampa, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh; NFL broadcasts are available on exclusively on media that are slowly being creatively destroyed; football itself is a piece of Fordist/Taylorist propaganda — an industrial sport compared with the shifting and flexible work style emblematized in the NBA. Along with Major League Soccer, the NBA’s the ultimate “creative class” sport.

And for lack of a better word, what Buzz Bissinger and others don’t get when they proclaim gleefully that the NBA’s less popular than the NFL is that the difference between the leagues’ fans is probably mostly one of “class,” or (maybe even better), one of “mobility.” NBA League Pass, then, would be the technical embodiment of “liberated fandom” and “liberated fandom” the outlook that comes with the ability to watch a 10:30pm EST Kings-Clippers game in which you’ve got absolutely no rooting interest online, from thousands of miles away on an iPad.

Here a distinction between two kinds “cosmopolitanism” or “world-citizenship” might help: namely, a distinction between “positive cosmopolitanism” and “negative cosmopolitanism.” To be a cosmopolitan is to be a citizen of the world and not (just) a citizen of any particular place. This also entails that, on one hand, a cosmopolitan can have attachments both to a particular place and to other places in the world or, on the other hand, a cosmopolitan can have attachments to the world that cancel, trump, or supervene attachments to any particular place.

The former’s “positive cosmopolitanism,” an accumulation of attachments; the latter’s “negative cosmopolitanism,” a cancelation of one attachment by another attachment, perhaps codified best in Diogenes the Cynic’s famous line about how he was a “citizen of the world” and explicitly NOT a citizen of Athens. In the negative or cynical sense, cosmopolitanism means having no obligations or attachments to a particular city.

Or team. In NBA fan terms, it means having no rooting interest in a particular team and instead having a rooting interest in the league as a whole and/or individual players: a fandom liberated from attachment to team. “Liberated fandom.” While I don’t think we should reject this outlook — it makes watching the 10:30pm Wolves-Clippers games on League Pass a lot more fun — I do think that the primary reason I’ve enjoyed this season so much is that I root for this year’s most fascinating team, the Heat.

And yet it’s a weird attachment. My family moved to south Florida exactly when the Heat franchise began play and I moved away 10 years later through a procession of different places. Like everybody else there, I’m a south Floridian in a weird virtual sense that’s incommensurate with the sense in which members of the ‘Burgh Diaspora will always be Pittsburghers. I left south Florida probably never to return and yet have still followed the Heat perpetually since then such that in 2006 during my doctoral program at a midwestern land-grant school, I was both enthusiastic and utterly alone in my Heat fandom.

I noticed an incredibly stark contrast between this and Steelers fandom during the few months I recently spent living in Pittsburgh: on a layover in the Atlanta airport one Sunday last fall, I was amazed to see an airport bar that had become an ad hoc Steelers bar, filled with eternal-Pittsburghers waiting for flights to their homes across the country; on Super Bowl Sunday, I was amazed again to see that almost every single person in Pittsburgh — from bankers and nurses to self-identified feminist crust punks — wore Steelers garb. In a way, the Super Bowl Sunday spectacle helped me realise that I’d never really belong there (although much of that might be that my lifelong habit of moving around has made me experience “belonging” in a pretty vexed way.)

The “feminists-rooting-for-the-Steelers!” thing really bothered me, given the fact that Ben Roethlisberger’s effectively the face of the team. The only way I could think to explain it (although not to excuse it) was that Pittsburghers’ attachment to the city and the team was so deep and intense that the stupid actions of a single player would never shake their rooting interests.

Contrast that with me: now’s the time that I confess that I’ve periodically sworn to stop rooting for the Heat and to switch my affiliation to the Knicks. I’m only-a-little ashamed to report that I once wrote an email to Bill Simmons’s mailbag asking if I could switch teams if Dwyane Wade left in free agency… an email I anticipate will be published and answered if Simmons writes a column complaining about how terrible Heat fans are during the playoffs. During the Heat’s recent losing streak, I’ve repeatedly sworn that if I have to watch LeBron James take just one more terrible shot during the last play of the game, I’m gonna quit following them and start rooting for the Knicks. I realise that this either makes me a bad fan or makes me the perfect south Florida team fan, but I don’t care. I’ve even taken to simply listening to the games on ESPN Radio, simply in order not to have to watch LeBron.

Even if I do somehow manage to liberate myself from them, the Heat are still by far the most interesting team in the league, as evidenced by the repeated attention any minor thing that happens to them garners from the sportswriter class. Sunday’s crying-in-the-locker room thing makes me like them even more, especially since I’ve decided that Chris Bosh is the most fascinating (or puzzling) member of the Heat’s big three.

LeBron James is a known quantity: an extremely talented player who never undertakes to improve his skills and apparently lacks introspection altogether. Dwyane Wade I’ve followed ever since he single-handedly destroyed a great Kentucky team in the Elite Eight in 2003. But Chris Bosh is an enigma.

He’s probably the most integral member of the team. He’s repeatedly mocked for being “soft.” He may actually have a higher ceiling than James or Wade, if in fact LeBron and Dwyane are not going to improve anymore as players. He seems to be reflective and have a sense of humour about himself (as in those Youtube videos he made to campaign for the All Star team a few years back) and therefore might also have the most capacity to grow as a player. And he’s apparently wept twice after big games recently and spiked the ball down in a fit of anger after the Heat blew a 24 point lead to Orlando.

He’s my favourite player in the league right now. Even if I did quit following the Heat, I’d probably still have to watch just for Chris Bosh because his entire complex persona almost inspires me to write a novel about him. Even though he consistently shoots 1-for-18 and grabs just two rebounds in every big game.

(Click here to read more Negative Dunkalectics!)

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