I've gotten into basketball again in the last couple of years, mostly thanks to a lot of great sports journalism on Grantland and elsewhere that captured my imagination. The problem is, the last time I was a huge NBA fan, Michael Jordan was the king of the world and Charles Barkley was not TNT comic relief, but a terrifying rebounding force that once took on Godzilla and told you to SHUT UP AND JAM.
My favorite team back then was the Orland Magic. They were new, had a cool brand, and were an exciting title contender. Shaquille O'Neal was the obvious hero of the team, but as I was the slightly counter cultural kid that always liked the secondary hero, I marked for Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway. It helped that he had kid friendly commercials: a hilarious puppet voiced by Chris Rock, dubbed Li'l Penny, sold his shoes and made him a constant All-Star Game presence even when he didn't deserve it. (The flip side of that is that now the guy behind the puppet is more famous that Penny Hardaway ever was.)
These days, all my heroes are gone (except for Grant Hill, what the hell?) and while the new cast of characters is great, I don't know how to pick a favorite team. Back in the day, teams had a long term identity and the way contracts worked allowed for a static cast of characters. Today, I don't know how to pick a team when they can be irrevocably changed every year. In today's NBA, picking a favorite team feels like having loyalty to a logo and a mascot; ultimately superfluous characteristics. I like players, not teams.
I've been told that it's not about repping a team, but a city. It's about hometown civic pride. While I love Los Angeles, I can't translate that into love for the Lakers. What does a recent transplant like Dwight Howard have to do with my love of LA culture? What does Steve Nash know about planning your life around freeway routes? Then there are old habits. Laker hating, even when I try and fight it, is something tucked into every corner of my mind. I came into basketball with the Showtime roster of Van Exel/Ceballos/Campbell. My entire family loved them, from my old grandmother to my young cousins, and so I decided to root against them. It made games more fun when there was competition in the living room.
But liking "a lot of teams" feels like an incomplete basketball fandom experience. I want to pick a main team, some bandwagon to jump on and stay on, but there are always nagging reasons that won't let me commit. Simply put, I am bad at being a team sports fan. My choices are thusly:
1. The Oklahoma City Thunder
Like my original love for the Orlando Magic, this is driven simply by being in a likable, marketable spot. They are title contenders with a great, young team and the best crowd in all of basketball. They are brand new, barely unwrapped, and one of the more exciting teams to watch in the west. Their cast of characters was a thrill last year, even as they lost the NBA Finals, and they would have been a shoe-in for favorite this year until I was reminded of the fragility of it all when they traded 3rd pillar James Harden. Nothing beard can stay, ponyboy. It turns out the team is just as good without Harden, but it still irks me that anyone can be tossed aside, loyalty be damned. Kevin Durant is one of my favorite players, and I don't want to root for, like, Nick Collison if he gets lured away to some big market in 2016.
2. The Houston Rockets
Because I am blood-bound to root for the concept of Jeremy Lin, it is compelling to bandwagon on the Houston Rockets. With the addition of the bearded and similarly-burned James Harden, the giant rebounding savant Omer Asik, and the underpaid hero Chandler Parsons, they are an exciting team to watch. They're also one that, currently, barely rose above a .500 record. But that's okay, right? Team loyalty isn't about the Ws and I don't want to be a fairweather fan. But man, they also have some of the worst logos and uniforms in all of sport right now. Those baggy, lanky-ass jerseys makes even the coolest players look like clowns. I keep expecting the Harlem Globetrotters to come in and pants Carlos Delfino or something.
3. The Los Angeles Lakers
Why not, right? It's what I'm supposed to do, by nature of being an Angeleno, right? I've spent enough time away from basketball that people would be none the wiser if I started waving the purple & gold. The downside here is that my anti-Laker history has been so entrenched that my skin starts to burn when I even think about liking them. It is made harder by the fact that they are the NBA's Yankees. They are never the underdogs, always the dobermans of the NBA, and that is never fun to root for. Even when they're losing, they just seem like villains that were over confident and finally getting their due. For over 30 years they've been on an endless gravy train of good players, never really completely dipping out of the playoff picture, and on some level that seems unfair. Their recent acquisition of Nash & Howard and almost-acquisition of Phil "The Greatest Coach of All Time" Jackson reeked of spoiled rich kid syndrome. Like bratty children, when two Lamborghinis aren't enough, they ask for a fresh one and often get it.
4. The Los Angeles Clippers
This is the typical recourse for LA fans that got no love for the Lakers. It's the best time ever to be a Clipper fan now that they're fielding a team that is actually good. I find Blake Griffin to be genuinly likeable and entertaining while Chris Paul is like a totemic point guard that future PGs will channel after they discover a magical artifact in a lost temple. But because the Clippers are finally good, the stigma of being a Clippers fan is that you're a bandwagon jumper. In my case it would be true, yeah, but I don't want to paint it on my chest, you know?
5. The Brooklyn Nets
At least in terms of style and brand, they are for my money the coolest team in the NBA thanks in no small part to the influence of minority owner Jay-Z. The modernity of their design, the stark black & white colors, and the dark wooden parquetry of their home court makes for a great, crisp look. If team loyalty to is just loyalty to a logo, I might as well pick the one I like the most, right? The flip side of this is that they don't seem to know what to do with their enormous financial backing, losing high risk bets on disappointing players like Deron Williams. And they fired Avery Johnson! Like they couldn't wait a year to get their shit together.
6. The Orlando Magic
If I wish to take this team loyalty thing seriously, I ought to go back to the team I loved as a child. That way, I can say I've been a Magic fan for 20 years. The problem is, the team is awful right now with no one I think is cool outside of Comptonite Aaron Afflalo, and likely no hope for the next couple years. It also seems like such a weird concept. The city of Orlando is no great town, and the appeal of the Magic brand lost its luster when I stopped being 12. Now it's a name that looks goofy on a t-shirt with sparkly basketball logos.
7. The Phoenix Suns
This team sucks right now, yeah, but they're not Washington Wizards-suck, they're rebuilding-suck. It's a seed in the ground that might someday bear fruit, and wouldn't that be a fun ride to take? This idea is also so far out of left field for me that it doesn't make any sense. Like, I have more affection for this latte next to me than I do for the entire history of Phoenix basketball.
1400 words of thinking out loud, and yet, nothing is clear. I wonder if, perhaps, it's just going to be a matter of moving to a new town and being compelled by proximity to align myself with their team. It's a long way to go just to align myself, but dammit, I want a t-shirt with a sports logo on it.