I love basketball. I really do. Its a fast paced high intensity sport, filled with some of the most intriguing personalities across all of sports (unlike the menagerie of automatons the NFL tries to throw at us). But this is a relatively new development in my life. Specifically, this change occurred once I moved to Kentucky and started school at UK (The Greatest Tradition in College Basketball). I think going to Kentucky (especially when I did) was a perfect storm for me falling in love with basketball, but specifically college basketball. When I chose to go to UK a huge factor in my decision was picking a school with a real college sports tradition where I could watch big time competition in a major college sport (for my purposes that meant basketball or football). This (among other factors) led me to Kentucky where I felt like I was hitting on both counts. Kentucky played in the SEC so I could see a cavalcade of national title contenders every year (even if they were the opponent rather than my team) but could also see my team pull an upset or two. But more importantly, in basketball I was going to go watch one of the historic powers in the sport at a time when they were about to begin a period of historic ascendancy.
“I know Derrick, I love Memphis too, but my true spiritual calling is in Lexington”
As such, it was easy for me to fall in love with the Kentucky Wildcats and their basketball team. I moved to a town where everything… EVERYTHING seems to revolve around the UK basketball team.
In Kentucky they don’t just get tattoos or hold longstanding basketball grudges for the love of their team
They don’t just rebrand regional icons such as Maker’s Mark Bourbon in worship of the basketball team
They don’t just camp out in front of Memorial Coliseum for the chance to watch a practice
No no… they take it further… they get glass eyes to express their fandom… its a big deal there.
So the love of basketball was always around me. From friends to teachers, to the guy bagging my groceries and the woman printing my license at the DMV. I was watching a team with more history than Chris Brown and Rihanna, and the success to match it. Plus I was in college where I wanted to get caught up and lost in my school’s sports culture.
But on top of that, the sport in which my school excelled, happens to have the greatest, most exciting, nauseating, emotional roller coaster of a postseason format ever created. I don’t think I need to expound on the veritable unicorn ride that is the XXXX (profanities censored by editor) Tournament but I can tell you its all the more exciting when you have a well defined rooting interest who happens to make a magical run through a field of Balrogs and Death Eaters.
Nope… still not as good as March Madness.
So in any event, I now love basketball. A sport which I had no real attachment to growing up, but which is now probably my favorite. But I love college basketball. I’ve never managed to truly get into NBA basketball outside of postseason play which is a shame because they have an excellent postseason of their own. The game is played at a higher level, and its depressing to think that all these players rolling in and out of the Kentucky doors are simply out of my life once they inevitably turn pro. Moreover, some of my favorite sports commentators (Bill Simmons, Ryen Russillo, Marc Stein) are enormous NBA fans who constantly keep me interested in the sport in spite of the fact that I never watch games.
Now, that isn’t to say I haven’t tried before. In truth, I have tried to become an NBA fan. Two times in particular come to mind where I made a concerted effort to dive in. You see, I’ve always loved paying attention to the league as a whole. Free agency transactions, trades, and playoff basketball are immensely interesting to me, but I never really had a team of my own. I think this is especially important if you truly want to get into a sport. You have to have a rooting interest, and my experience at Kentucky proved this to me. So if I am ever going to succeed as an NBA fan I need a team.
The first time I really decided the NBA was exciting and something that I needed to get in to was the 2004 NBA playoffs. I really had minimal exposure to the league before that. I was 14, a 7th grader, and learning on the fly while I watched this absolutely enthralling LA Lakers team absolutely annihilate people like the motherfucking juggernaut (bitch). [I know, I know, “Fuck you you bandwagon jumpin’ Laker loving deusch!” BUT WAIT!!! Theres more I promise!]
I’ve always been really partial to redemption stories and that Lakers team was full of them. Call me a bandwagon’ jumper for that season by all means because I was one, thats perfectly fine. But I was far from alone. Karl Malone and Gary Payton specifically, had jumped on the Lakers bandwagon and this is what drew me toward them. I had those storylines shoved down my throat by Sportcenter and was perfectly fine with that because I fell in love with these two guys. Karl Malone was one of the few players I knew of at the time (thanks to the Man Show) and I was all ready to root for a winner and watch the Mailman come home with a title. However, that was not to be.
Now here’s were things got tricky. I have always tended to play off my dad when it came to choosing sports teams, and he, for his part, supports the 4 Detroit teams [although he also practices sports polygamy more vigorously than Joseph Smith and Brigham Young combined]. And unfortunately for me, those 2004 Lakers who I fell in love with were dismantled by the Detroit Pistons. I found myself especially bitter about this. While I actually liked a few of the players on that Detroit team (Rasheed I thought was hilarious and incredibly fun to watch, and Chauncey, Ben Wallace, and Prince didn’t do anything to make me dislike them although I had an instant dislike for Rip Hamilton, curious because we share a first name which usually makes me like a guy BUT I DIGRESS) but I HATED Larry Brown. That guy was, is, and always will be an ass. (note: it doesn’t help that the jackass just stole Emmanuel Mudiay right out of Calipari’s pocket) But in 14 year old Rick’s mind this was just a surly, crotchety old man who stole Karl Malone’s championship. This was the antithesis of Bueno. I did not like this Pistons team, I was bitter that they beat the Lakers team I was rooting for, and I was certainly not going to change sides at this particular moment in time.
Further complicating things, was the fact that that 2004 Lakers team which I absolutely fell in love with imploded after the season. Malone mailed it in and retired. Derek Fisher opted out of his contract. The team swapped Phil Jackson for Rudy Tomjonavich (what the hell kind of name is that?). And the Kobe-Shaq split (of which I firmly rooted myself on the Shaq side) erupted which sent O’Neil to Miami. SO the only piece left was Kobe Bryant who I had decided I hated simply because I arbitrarily chose to stay on the Shaq side when that whole rivalry was happening. I needed a new team and it couldn’t be the team that made me want to like the NBA, because they had pulled a Quan Duc and self immolated.
(accurate depiction of the 2004 Lakers offseason)
It couldn’t be my Dad’s team (as I normal do when jumping into a new pro sport and looking for a rooting interest) because I had just spent the last postseason actively rooting against and convincing myself I hated his team.
***An aside: Further straining my early years of Piston’s relationship would be the Malice at the Palace. I really liked those Ron Artest Pacers teams. They were fun to watch and had some colorful personalities (Stephen “Captain Jack” Jackson and Ron Artest [I’ve especially always liked these crazy instigator types in sports… Sean Avery was my favorite hockey player for those years he was in New York] Both those guys were absolutely crazy which is exactly what I like in my NBA players) and they were just a good exciting team to watch. SO it did not endear the Pistons to me when I felt that they (and mainly their fans) derailed that team and essentially knocked Ron out for the season.
And then, as I was googling around the internet (thats a verb… trust me… autocorrect doesn’t know shit… its normally drunk anyway) I was discovered veritable mana from Heaven falling from the sky directly into my outstretched palms. The NBA would have an expansion draft in the summer of 2004. I had my team.