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The drive from Cleveland, Ohio, to Indianapolis, Ind., is awful.
I’ve made it more times than I care to remember, covering the stretch of boring highway on the way from my hometown to the University of Missouri. The sights are about as exciting as a Bill Belichick press conference. There’s an exit for Grandpa’s Cheesebarn, an old farmhouse stuffed so full with cheese you could gain 10 pounds by inhaling too deeply. There’s a billboard for Tom Raper RV, which seems like a big joke the whole state of Indiana is in on—until you realize it’s not, and that Tom Raper is just a guy with a supremely unfortunate last name who sells mobile homes. Everything else is farms, strip malls, and grown men zooming by in hopes that you’ll roll down your window and ask if their Dodge has a Hemi.
When people call a place "blue collar," this is what they mean. No frills. No flash. Just the road.
But despite the lack of scenery, I’m back on I-70 and speeding toward Indy, where I hear that newborn babies are plucked from their mothers' arms and placed in front of Little Tike basketball hoops. Basketball is king in the Hoosier state, and the Indiana Pacers are, at the time of my drive, locked in a 1-1 series with the mighty Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. When a former college roommate of mine who lives in the city offered up the prospect of attending the pivotal Game 3, I was in my Honda Civic faster than he could say "Hoosier daddy?"
When I arrived in downtown Indianapolis, it wasn't hard to spot a Pacer fan. The city’s inhabitants were clad in gold, slugging back Budweiser tall boys in the parking lot adjacent to Bankers Life Fieldhouse as a giant "Beat the Heat" banner flapped in the wind behind them. Many wore jeans that appear to have been washed a thousand times and sported haircuts they've likely had for most of their lives. The jerseys on their backs ranged from current players like Roy Hibbert and Paul George to heroes of the past like Rik Smits and Reggie Miller. Some guy even dug a Ron Artest uni out of the depths of his closet.
They were fans who’ve rooted for the Pacers all of their lives, like I have for the Cleveland Cavaliers. That's how it is in the Midwest. Your fandom starts the day your father puts you in a Cleveland sports onesie as a baby, like his father did with him. You remember LeBron James dropping a triple double in his first career playoff game like you remember being terrified as a child in the arms of Brad Daugherty as he autographed your hat. You remember these moments just as Pacer fans remember the day Paul George was drafted, or when Miller went unconscious and scored eight points in nine seconds to defeat the New York Knicks in the playoffs.
No one "becomes" a fan of an Ohio or Indiana sports team mid-life. It's something you’re born into and that you can never change, no matter how poorly your team performs.
My friend and I climbed to our upper deck seats just before tipoff. As the lights dimmed and the national anthem began, I noticed something unsettling. Heat fans were everywhere. Two stood directly in front of us. Another group of 10 or more sat a few rows back. Other pockets of them buzzed to our left and right.
They were easy to spot, and not just because they were the only people not wearing the otherwise ubiquitous blue-and-gold Pacer garb that encircled the court. Here, a guy with Cheeto-orange skin in a way-too-small James jersey. There, someone in a Heat jersey with a white arm sleeve, as if he expected Erik Spoelstra to sign him to a 10-day contract before he reached his seat. Other Heat backers sported jerseys the team had never actually worn in a game—one, a black jersey with "Heat" in neon green letters; another, perhaps a custom edition, with red and orange stripes running up and down the sides, strolling along the concourse while his Maxim-caliber girlfriend wobbled in heels behind him.
Their shoes were bright, their shades—worn indoors and out—were designer. They didn't seem to be there to watch the game as much as to be seen themselves, to let everyone know they were rooting for the Heat.
“I’m from Cleveland, but a loyal LeBron fan,” explained one.
“I’m from Ohio but I never liked the Cavs,” another said, though his shirt featuring the silhouette of a dunking James suggested he’d been a Cavs fan for at least seven years.
When LeBron James made his now-infamous decision to jet to South Beach, it was never about Miami. It was about him finding the easiest route to a collection of NBA championship rings fitted for his massive fingers, to ensure his own success.
The Heat’s roster, he felt, offered him the best chance to win a championship. Period. So when he and Bosh joined Wade in Miami in 2010, they created a team that was about individuals, contradicting the old adage that you “play for the name on the front of your jersey, not the one on the back.” And with that paradigm shift has come a new breed of NBA fan, who seem more interested in cheering for the player than the team.
Want proof? Look around at the garish crowd of Heat supporters at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse. There were no Mario Chalmers jerseys. No Ray Allen jerseys either. Only James and Wade (with James outnumbering Wade two-to-one). There were no throwback Alonzo Mourning or Tim Hardaway jerseys either, possibly because the Heat fans in attendance possessed no memory of the team before 2010. These Heat fans weren't here because of longstanding support of the Heat. They were here because LeBron, Wade, or Bosh recently agreed to wear Heat jerseys.
A fan with no allegiance to a city is the worst kind of fan. Frontrunners, we call them. Guys like a former dorm-mate of mine who said the Dallas Cowboys, Boston Celtics and North Carolina Tarheels were his favorite teams. He cherry-picked the “it” squads and players of the moment. No one can stand that guy. But in today’s NBA, where star players seek greener pastures on a regular basis, the stands seem more and more packed with “that guy.” It’s a problem.
One of my strongest sports memories comes from 2006, when my friends and I squeezed into a tiny apartment to watch the Cavs first-round playoff series against the Washington Wizards. It was the first time the Cavs had been in the playoffs since I was old enough to remember, and it meant something more than just a basketball game to us. For traditional sports fans, their cities’ sports teams provide a sense of community—a way to connect with their fathers, scream at a television set with their relatives and neighbors, or explore their cities before attending a game in person. For the new fans, the best part of sports, the layers of experience that wrap around the games, is lost.
Midway through the fourth quarter, when even the fans in Area 55 (Roy Hibbert’s college-like cheering section) knew a Pacer comeback was not in the cards, most of the Indy fans filed out, transforming the upper deck into a Heat home game.
The Heat fans taunted and chanted, sliding their thumbs underneath their jerseys to protrude the “Heat” insignia across the front of their jerseys like a 3D movie. One stood at the entrance to his section with his back facing the court, removed his fire-red Heat shirt and raised it above his head triumphantly, like a Lannister after winning the Battle of Blackwater Bay in Game of Thrones. He stood with a smug grin splashed across his face until a few Pacers fans halfheartedly shouted at him to go home. He was the perfect representation of the new NBA fan. All eyes on him.