It’s 1997. I’m six. And two nights after Michael Jordan’s improbable “Flu Game,” I watch as Steve Kerr sinks the game-winning shot to give the Chicago Bulls their second-straight NBA title, the team’s fifth in seven years. The Bulls’ league dominance started before I was even born, but I feel a part of it nonetheless. I rush out of my house, streaking across the cul-de-sac to celebrate with my best friend at his house; but he’s already darted outside to find me. We jump and cheer in the street, appreciating for the first time the joy that sports can bring.
That friend and I had formed an almost magical connection a year prior, when we not only discovered that Michael Jordan was our favorite player, but also that our middle names combined to form—you guessed it—Michael Jordan. We idolized MJ: we watched every game we could catch, we binged Space Jam on repeat, and when we joined a YMCA league, we did our best to emulate him.
My reverence for Jordan would blossom into an adoration for the NBA and the game of basketball. My dad introduced me to VHS films about other NBA greats: Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Hakeem Olajuwon in particular. I studied tapes of the Houston Rockets’ back-to-back championships in ’94 and ’95, in awe of how they vanquished Charles Barkley and the Suns, Shaq and the Magic.
Soon I’d come to worship Kevin Garnett, especially for his ability to grab upwards of 20 rebounds in a single night and his snarky, irreverent attitude towards opposing coaches and players (and referees). I loved Garnett and the Timberwolves so fervently that I commissioned my mom, a high-school teacher, to lend the projector from her classroom so I could trace and paint the T-Wolves logo on my wall. (That painting is still in my childhood bedroom—a testament to a young boy’s obsession.)
In middle school, I started on my 7th- and 8th grade teams. A point guard, I wore a band on my elbow like Allen Iverson, and I practiced my shooting so I could hit threes like Ray Allen. In 2003, when LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade were drafted, I watched pre-season games on ESPN just to see the wunderkinder face each other. Weekday mornings were spent in front of the TV, devouring cereal and highlights from the previous night’s games. Posters and plaques of modern greats joined the Timberwolves homage, spreading over my bedroom walls like acne. My dad took me to a few Nuggets games (once when KG and the T-Wolves were in town), and near the end of the games we’d stealthily head for the good seats to get a better view of the players as they left the court.
My talent petered out in high school, and I eventually stopped playing save for pickup games at the park. But I still followed the NBA unfailingly. I warmed up to the home team as Melo collaborated with J.R. Smith, Nenê, Andre Miller, and eventually Allen Iverson and Chauncey Billups, to bring the Denver Nuggets as close to glory as they’d just about ever been. As social media caught fire near the end of my high-school tenure and the beginning of my college career, NBA players became my first follows on Twitter. I scrolled mindlessly through Ty Lawson’s mindless tweets, enthralled with this strangely personal view into a player’s life. In college, I splurged with friends and dates on trips to Denver to watch games from the nosebleeds.
Gradually, cynicism for and indifference to the league overcame me. There was LeBron’s prime time special, The Decision, during which he announced his departure from Cleveland to Miami. Sports journalists spent months breaking down, degrading and laughing at the display, and I couldn’t help but let some of the negativity seep into my subconscious. Disdain for a single act of arrogance morphed into disappointment in a league that had encouraged it.
Shortly thereafter, Carmelo Anthony left the Nuggets for the New York Knicks. Anthony had proven not to be the savior the Nuggets had hoped for; but his departure, along with the disbandment of the rest of the team I had grown to love, marked the end of any hope the Nuggets had for post-season greatness.
Around this same time I was also forced to stop denying the sheer absurdity of All-Star Weekend. For a long time I was the event’s last line of defense against critics like my dad, who could harp on and on about its pointlessness. It may be inconsequential, but All-Star Weekend is an opportunity to see the talents of the world’s best players on full display, I’d say. And then Blake Griffin went and dunked over a Kia, and the utter commercialism finally shocked me awake. This wasn’t MJ’s All-Star Weekend.
After college, I moved to Washington, D.C. CNN replaced ESPN on televisions in gyms and bars, and basketball fell behind football and baseball in my sports-viewing hierarchy. My roommate and I didn’t have cable, and we spent most of our free time getting to know our adult selves in the nation’s capital anyway. The NBA slowly became a thing I used to watch that no longer held much allure.
Two years ago, I moved from D.C. to St. Paul, Minnesota to live with my girlfriend (now my fiancé). I never imagined it would happen, but I finally lived in the state of the team immortalized on my childhood wall. And wouldn’t you believe it, Kevin Garnett had returned as well, back from winning a championship with the Boston Celtics (a feat he was never able to pull off with the Timberwolves). I was lucky enough to snag tickets to a game in his final season, at which point he was more of a coach and a mentor than a player. It was just the second time I’d seen KG play live.
(The T-Wolves also boast exciting young players worth paying attention to. Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine are a flashy trio with sky-high potential. Their talent hasn’t translated into many wins yet, but the right tweaks could make the Timberwolves at least as formidable as they were when Garnett reigned.)
Then came the 2015–2016 season. We all know the story: With Steph Curry at the helm, the Golden State Warriors marched through the regular season, winning a record 73 games, before trouncing opponents in the playoffs to meet the Cavaliers, reunited with LeBron James, in the Finals. Up 3–1 in the championship series, it looked all but inevitable that the Warriors would put an exclamation point on their historic season. And then, rising from the ashes, the Cavaliers won three straight games, completing the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history and winning the championship. Or, to put it another way: The Warriors blew a 3–1 lead.
In the madness of that regular season, my dad sent me a text message. He told me to watch as many games featuring Steph Curry and LeBron James as I could—that guys this talented didn’t come along too often, and especially not at the same time. A victim of the same cynicism to which I had succumbed, my dad sending such a reminder resonated. It sent me back in time, to afternoons watching Magic and Bird battle on fuzzy VHS tapes, and then going outside to mimic them in the driveway. I realized that the modernity of the sport didn’t make what James and Curry were doing any less impressive. They were playing the sport I had always loved better than almost anybody had ever done. That couldn’t be ignored.
I recently became a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters, and I was paired with a young man partially for our shared love of basketball. He’s a point guard on his middle-school team, and he talks about James, Curry, Durant, Westbrook and Harden the way I talked about Jordan and Pippen, Miller and Stockton. He doesn’t even remember The Decision (the first time I mentioned James playing for the Cavs when he was drafted, he said, “Oh yeah, I heard about that.”), but he knows LeBron James is one of the greatest of all time. He doesn’t have VHS tapes of the ’95 Houston Rockets, but he’s quick to pull up a YouTube video of nasty crossovers from last season. And when I recently took him to his first NBA game (Minnesota vs. Sacramento), he loved sneaking down to the lower level in the closing minutes to see the players up close as they exited for the locker room.
As I’ve grown more politically and socially aware, I’ve found that important issues have a way of transcending the border between “news” and “entertainment.” In 2014, after the death of Eric Garner, hip-hop artist Jay-Z and LeBron James underwent a covert operation to deliver shirts bearing the slogan “I can’t breath”—some of the last words Garner spoke while police refused to relinquish a chokehold—for NBA players to wear while they warmed up. Gregg Popovich, the coach of the San Antonio Spurs, has been a steady and outspoken critic of the myriad issues plaguing American society. He’s blasted the rhetoric of Donald Trump and has defended the rights of players like NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick to stand up (or kneel) for what they believe. This overlap of sports and politics has engaged people and started conversations where they might not otherwise have happened, and I am encouraged, watching it all unfold.
The 2017 NBA Playoffs are about to begin. This year I’m feeling nearly the same excitement I felt in middle school, when the perfect storm of a personal connection, explosively talented players, and dramatic storylines made watching basketball a favorite activity. Already this year, I’ve seen Russell Westbrook play at a historic level, setting records for triple-doubles. I’ve also watched as a bitter rivalry between Westbrook and former teammate Kevin Durant has played out on the court. I’ve followed the staggering success of the Warriors and the calm dominance of the Cavaliers. Even the Nuggets have another chance at making the playoffs—the drama’s all there.
Basketball will never be called “America’s pastime,” but it is mine. After taking some time off, I’ve been reminded of late why it consumed me for my formative years. The NBA is a never-ending story of perseverance, heartbreak, revenge, and love. It’s been foundational for me; and watching these players inspire another young man the way it inspired me is nothing short of thrilling.