On fandom, Raab, LeBron, Karl Malone, and me

“Lighting bolts from my fingertips!”

I was standing in my kitchen, feet and hands out wide, palms pointed toward the sky. Facing Erin. I had just violently thrown on my purple Karl Malone jersey, the one with the original music-note logo.

This was Tuesday night. Wednesday, I was to spend the daylight hours flying on my snowboard down the steep, deep runs at glorious Wolf Creek. (Ski Santa Fe has 24 inches of snow as I type this. Wolf Creek reports 163 inches. God is trying to bury that place in snow, and I thank him for that.)

I left Erin’s sight. Took off the Malone jersey. Put on and zipped up my puffy, down snowboarding jacket. It’s an Oakley. Color: desert camo. With sweet wrist gators. Pulled the  jersey back on. It’s tight against the puffiness, but the lengths match. I like how the purple and yellow jersey works with the varying shades of brown and yellow in the desert camo.

Dope, no?

Strutted back into the kitchen. Erin sees my sick getup. We lock eyes for a few awkward seconds. Hers roll. “That looks so stupid.” Direct quote.

No duh it does. But it’s awesome. Totally awesome.

I have worn the Malone jersey on the slopes at least a dozen times. It infuses an obligation to excel. I ride my ass off when I’m sporting Mailman’s colors. Have to, because people can see me. I’m standing out. If you’re gonna do something to brazenly draw attention, you’d better represent.

Motivation to shred like an action hero is not the reason I do this, however. I do it because I want people to think about Malone. Remember him. Or at the very least wonder who the hell “Malone,” “32,” “Utah Jazz” is.

Numerous times, I’ve heard the hollers from the ski lift, or from Texan skiers taking one of the 30-or-so breaks they feel every run requires: “Malone?! He sucks!” “Boooo!” “Karl Malone, man?! What the hell?” This always makes me smile wide beneath my big goggles.

I know people hate Malone, a rugged NBA banger prone to dirty play; a hickish choker who was Michael Jordan’s greatest foil of the ’90s. Being the second-best player at the time of Jordan, on a team from Salt Lake City, with ugly uniforms and two white guards who wore short shorts, does not endear a man to the sports world at large.

But I love Malone. I was born in Salt Lake City and have loved the Jazz since before I can remember. I was in high school when John Stockton’s shot over Barkley sent Utah to its first NBA Finals; I jumped around my house cheering, fists in the air. Jordan’s flu game and the shot over Byron (OK, it’s “Bryon”) Russell still make me sad.

Jerk.

Me on a snowboard zipping under lifts while wearing the loud, ugly jersey of a player everyone else thinks sucks (if they remember him at all) is a pretty solid example of sports fandom, I think: irrational and deeply strange.

I know Jordan was the better player. I understand his greatness and am thankful to have seen him dominate in my lifetime. He’s got to be the greatest athlete in American sports history. But I don’t love Jordan. I love Malone and Stockton and those Utah Jazz teams of my youth. So occasionally I metaphorically rub that fact into the faces of others. Not because anyone’s asking for it, but because I want that flash in their mind of this man I so revere, and while the Jazz might be lame, I’m stuck with them.

What else would I do to exert my crazy fandom?

Esquire magazine’s subversive, brilliant, prolific writer Scott Raab has Chief Wahoo, the mildly offensive Cleveland Indians mascot, tattooed onto his forearm. He was a Cleveland Cavaliers fan in 1970, the team’s first season. He carries around with him a ticket stub from December 27, 1964. He sat in the lower bowl of Cleveland Stadium that day and watched Jim Brown lead the Browns over Johnny Unitas’s Colts for the NFL championship. It’s the last championship any Cleveland team has won.

“I was twelve years old. Old enough to stand fast, amid men warmed by whiskey and their fiery love for the Browns, and drink in the sight of 80,000 of our number rising as the clock ticked toward infinity, fixing that victory forever as a fact of history, past insult or dispute. That flag still flies in my soul. That roar still echoes in my ears. The vision – of Cleveland triumphant, of Cleveland fans in communal thrall to a joy beyond all worlds, of a Cleveland team lifting the town’s immortal heart to heaven – still fills my eyes. I’m fifty-nine years old now, far from Cleveland in every way save one: I still live with the Browns, the Indians and the Cavaliers, and I will die with them.”

What Raab did to exert his crazy fandom was go on a mission after LeBron James’s soul. Because what LeBron James did to Cleveland demonstrates an outrageous indifference toward fandom Raab could not abide. LeBron dissed Raab’s team and, more importantly, his city. He had to pay.

Imagine a 350-plus-pound, bearded old Jewish man, so fat his legs have to be slathered in cream and wrapped. His feet so swollen he waddles about in size 14 Crocs. That’s the creature pursuing LeBron James’s soul like Gollum after the One Ring to Rule Them All. Raab sits in the front row of LeBron’s press conferences not taking notes or asking questions. Just staring, with hate in his eyes.

LeBron is fantastically talented, a born natural at his craft. That must be understood. Raab told him, pre-betrayal, “I saw Oscar in his prime. Michael. Magic. All of them. And you’re the best basketball player I’ve ever seen. Thank you.”

What can a professional sports talent like LeBron mean to a city? Watch these final seconds from a live news broadcast in Cleveland, running simultaneously against a live Cavaliers playoff game, which LeBron won at the buzzer with a shot from 30 feet away. This is a biracial, multi-gender portrait of the city itself reacting to LeBron’s on-court exploits:

Spontaneous joy.

Raab writes that he “sat in a hotel room in Hollywood alone on May 31, 2007, alone, awestruck, and weeping as he scored the Cavs’ last 25 points and destroyed the Detroit Pistons in a double-overtime playoff victory, the single most astonishing performance by any Cleveland athlete I’ve ever seen.”

We watched that live in the bar Uptown in Albuquerque, and everyone there was freaking out.

So he is, unquestionably, a singular talent. All those skills in one 6-foot-8, 270-pound package is a gift for sports fans.

But he is also tragically flawed. He chokes. He gets to the cusp of the finals (or even to the finals) after MVP seasons and suddenly plays inexplicably terrible basketball. This is a man going bald at 26. As a child prodigy, he had to become polished for the press at 13. His failures don’t make him hateable. They make him Citizen Kane.

Jordan came up before this horrible culture machine of highlights and sports pundits could seek him out young and destroy him. He famously was cut from his high school basketball team. (Actually, he dominated on junior varsity.) He went to college for three years, at North Carolina,  and won a championship there. (LeBron went straight into the NBA.) When the fame machine cranked up on Jordan after he won three Bulls titles in a row – and after he became the world’s most famous pitch man – Jordan took a two-year break from basketball for grounding in minor-league baseball, a move widely ridiculed. Then he came back to hoops better than ever and won three more championships to bring his total to six. LeBron hasn’t won one.

The timing was unfortunate for self-proclaimed “King James.” He came after Jordan, and was consumed wholly by the fame machine Jordan had wrought.

Raab has a different take on LeBron. He hates him. The LeBron hating is complete enough that a Tweet about dessert from @KingJames sets Raab off. Raab tweets: “Broussard sez @KingJames having pineapple upside down cake tom’w. Bucher doing recipe book. Wilbon to query chef. J Gray wiping Bron’s ass.”

“The Decision.” It gets to the core of the hatred. Broussard, Bucher, Wilbon and Jim Gray are all very famous basketball reporters whom Raab despises for “felating” LeBron on television throughout “The Decision.” See, LeBron didn’t merely leave Cleveland when his contract was up, he announced his new team in a live, one-hour special on ESPN. Cleveland fans thought he still might stay. Many of them thought he still might stay because it would be pretty damn mean to tell them you’re leaving with a show like this:

That announcement came after a half-hour of completely uninteresting questions like “How have you been sleeping these days?”

Here’s some reaction from Cavaliers fans. Check out the little interviews at the end. Consider about how this clip compares to the TV news one.

They wanted him to stay because he’s the best player in the NBA. LeBron is faster than anyone else. He’s the league’s best passer, scorer and defender. His team would have been a joke – the worst – without him. With him it won more games than anyone else each of his last two seasons.

They wanted him to stay, also, because he’s from a half-hour away in Akron, and he’d told them he understood the pain of Cleveland fandom from having grown up in it. In all these years since 12-year-old Raab watched the Browns win the NFL Championship (they have never won the Super Bowl, which the title game was named later) it’s been pure misery to root for Cleveland. In “Whore of Akron,” Raab describes with searing honesty his battles against drug addiction, weight gain and depression. He is big and sad, full of passion and angst. He personifies Cleveland fandom, with its inherent misery.

In one of his latter seasons with the Cavs, LeBron showed up at a playoff game between the Indians and the Yankees… wearing a Yankees hat. Raab wrote this then: “The sooner this son of a bitch hauls his ass out of Ohio, the better.”

Cavaliers fans were incensed with Raab for dissing The King. “Not because they didn’t love Cleveland and the Cavaliers and Browns and Indians, but because they weren’t old enough to have known Cleveland when Cleveland felt any collective pride and dignity. Having lived their whole lives in a punch line, having watched their favorite ballplayers leave as free agents or in lopsided trades, having seen each local franchises build a team seemingly good enough to win it all but doomed to fail in the end, often under circumstances so absurdly painful that some of them came to believe the town was actually cursed: Pride and dignity were foreign to a fan base whose daily bread had forever tasted of ash.”

When he finally did leave them – with that stupid, spectacular mistake called “The Decision” – it bulldozed an entire fan base.

“For seven years, LeBron did the same thing as any trollop worth her taxi fare: he made the right noises, told us how good it felt, how big we were, how he loved us, how special we were. He never even told us not to touch his hair.

“Oh, we knew – some of us knew better than others, of course – that he was only a child, and a child born unto a hapless mother more or less a child herself. His vast sense of childish entitlement seemed to speak louder every season. But, lord, the sex was fine. And there was very little he wouldn’t or couldn’t do; he’d even play in the low post once in a while. Good as he was from the get-go, he got better each time around. LeBron James put out like no one else.”

Raab stalks LeBron in Miami. Because he doesn’t hide his mission or venom from the Heat organization, he finds himself banned from practices and denied media credentials to games. He still gets there, though, and doesn’t hold back on Miami’s fans, who are issued a special book to tell them how to cheer and who don’t turn out on time for huge playoff games. “Sun-dried cretins,” he calls them. Raab heckles at LeBron. Stares him down in press conferences. Insults him viciously on the internet.

He knows it’s all crazy. But he’s a fan. He can’t help it.

“I acknowledge the validity of the view that fanhood is a matter of rooting for laundry,” Raab writes, “that the names on the back of the jersey will change as the years go by, and that loyalty – the word tattooed in cursive script running up LeBron’s left rib cage – is not integral to the business of pro sports. It’s a one-way street stretching from the fan to the franchise to the players.”

There was a really great Radio Lab podcast recently, all about why sports fans root for teams. It began with a San Jose Sharks fan talking about a day when they’d choked in the playoffs for the umpteenth time. The Sharks were always one of the best teams in hockey, and they always folded to lesser teams come playoff time. Always. The speaker said he found himself looking at the skyline of his city, a spectacular sight which had never failed to lift his spirits. Except all he could think after that Sharks loss was “Burn! Buuuuuuuuuuuurn!”

It sounds insane. Raab’s book on pursuing LeBron’s sole articulated like nothing else I’ve ever read why a person would throw on a Malone jersey for a day at Wolf Creek: Sports fandom makes us insane. It’s beautiful that way.

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