The thing about covering the NBA that’s hard to explain is that the way you root for teams and players changes. At least, it did for me. As the regular season approaches, I’ve been thinking about how different my approach to the league is today to my first few games I covered with a media credential. It’s been a fun journey thus far.
Growing up in Nova Scotia, I didn’t have a team. People usually think I grew up a Raptors fan, but that’s not true. I fell for the game because of the Lakers and really, really fell into I’m-going-to-spend-the-rest-of-my-life-with-you-or-at-least-writing-about-you love in 1996, with the draft class that’s still dazzling us today (what’s up, Kob’). I’d been a purple and gold girl for as long as I could remember and I swore that wouldn’t change.
Everyone told me that writing about the game, being in the locker room, sitting on press row and needing things to go a certain way for the story you had in mind would change the nature of your fanhood. I didn’t believe them, but now I’m proof. Instead of living and dying by the Lakers box scores and postgame interviews, I’m hoping for another player to score a career-high, for rookies to get triple-doubles, for history to be made and records to be broken, regardless of who is or isn’t playing. A lot of writers tell me this is because I just want a good story to tell, a reason for more eyes to look at my writing, but I’m not entirely sold on that.
Sure, I’m all for increasing exposure of my work and gaining new readers, but I think the reason things have changed for me is just because I’m able to watch the game up close and see the best in the business doing what they do each night. Covering the game, especially covering a team every day, you are able to relate to players in a way that isn’t possible when you’re watching through your television screen. You learn about their families, see children and cousins and friends, hear stories of athletes being normal people doing normal people things, and these superstars become humanized. That humanity makes their incredible feats accomplished within those 94 feet even more remarkable
It also makes it impossible — at least, in my eyes — to root for only one team or player. There’s just too much to love about this game, and I’m glad that witnessing it up close has enabled me to appreciate all of it.
I’ve attended just one game solely as an NBA fan, a game where the Lakers lost to the Raptors by four. I went with a friend who was among the Raptor faithful, but I was one of those annoying fans who sported a Lakers jersey in Toronto. I was the kind of fan that Chris Bosh chastised last season. While I was on cloud nine during the experience, I truly believed Kobe Bryant would hit a game winner. He had to. It was my first game. My only NBA game live. It could have been my only opportunity to see him play in person.
That was what prompted the trip in the first place. I was working at the campus gym in the summer going into my senior year of university and it hit me: Kobe wasn’t getting any younger. What if I didn’t get to see my favorite player play live? The NBA schedule was searched on Google, I called my mother at 7am on a Saturday (yeah … I spent my weekends as a university student working the morning shifts at the gym. Baller, right?) and put the plan in motion. The trip to Toronto to watch Kobe and the Lakers was a graduation gift of sorts and it will forever remain one of the best memories of my life. Regardless, while my friend and the rest of the Air Canada Centre crowd celebrated in victory after the game’s final buzzer, I was crushed. Crushed until later that night, when I cried my eyes out in happiness over finally seeing a real, live NBA game. Yes, basketball makes me cry.
A year later, I was still living in Nova Scotia, but somehow managed to convince SLAM Magazine to allow me to be their intern. I was working on a project involving Lakers’ rookie Javaris Crittenton so I was flying to Toronto to cover the Lakers/Raptors game. In reality, I could have just called Javaris, but, shoot, another opportunity to see the best in the game and the chance to cover the team as media? Yeah, you wouldn’t have passed that up, either. Just getting to the game was a challenge. There was a ridiculous snow storm, almost every flight was canceled, but luckily, thankfully, mine was still a go.
Sometime during the two hours and change to Toronto, the Lakers made their move, sending Crittenton and Kwame Brown to the Memphis Grizzlies for Pau Gasol. I get off the plane and my phone goes nuts with texts from anywhere and everywhere telling me the news. So, I’m sitting in the Toronto Airport wondering what the hell I’m supposed to do when my story — and only real reason for flying to Toronto — was just traded to Memphis. This will always serve as my first memory of wishing I could change the outcome of something about the league for the benefit of my own work. It didn’t matter that the Lakers just became significantly better, my story was dead.
The rest of that game was a blur. I thanked my lucky stars more times than I can remember when I was standing in the visiting locker room, after a game that the Lakers won easily, thanks to Kobe’s 46-point, seven-rebound, five-assist performance. I didn’t have a Crittenton story, but I did have a convo with Kobe about the acquisition of Gasol and that worked out just fine.
Two years later, as a member of the media covering the Raptors on the regular, the Lakers are back in town. Kobe’s coming off of a 61-point performance where he was doin’ work against the Knicks at the Garden and this time he’s got Gasol helping him down the Raptors. He didn’t need 46 points this time around, but still finished with 36 points, nine rebounds and five assists as Gasol added 31 points and 15 boards to give the Lakers the victory. This time, I was feeling bad for the Raptors, the team I had grown fond of after seeing the guys day-in and day-out, at games, for shootarounds, and in practice. That might have been the start of the realization that I was detaching. I was appreciative of the performances I had just witnessed more than anything else.
Three years later … damn, that feels crazy writing that. This past January, I was covering the game at the Air Canada Centre. The Lakers lose to the Raptors by one as Kobe Bryant misses a game winner after a whole season of hitting them. I was … elated. Elated that the Raptors fans in attendance were so loud and so into the game that it was difficult to concentrate. That night wasn’t about teams winning or losing for me. It was just thankfulness that I was able to be a part of it.
Less than a month later, I was in Los Angeles on the first vacation I’ve ever taken in my life, somehow sitting in third-row seats at Staples Center, given to me by an incredibly generous friend I couldn’t imagine claiming after growing up loving the Lakers franchise. Eddie Murphy was sitting in front of me. I had what I think may have been the best seats in the house, excluding Jack Nicholson’s courtsiders. I was living and crossing off an item from my bucket list. In that game, the Raptors fell to the Lakers as Kobe Bryant hit the game winner I had anticipated three years earlier. Yup. Full circle. It was the opposite ending to the game in Toronto just a few weeks earlier but same result for me. I was elated. And thankful.
I took a trip to Toronto because of a fear that I wouldn’t see who I consider the greatest player in the game in his prime. Four years later, I’ve seen him a handful of times. I’ve seen LeBron and Dwyane and Dwight and Rajon and the rest of this league’s brightest and best. Throw in the rookies, undrafted guys, then the vets hanging onto their dreams for a few more years and you’ve got it all. How can you have a loyalty to one franchise when you’re got so many great players and coaches and stories to watch unfold in front of you?
If that was confusing for you to follow — I know, I know a lot of flip-flopping Raptors/Lakers talk — the point is, not only do my loyalties no longer lie with a particular franchise, it flips for whatever the greater story seems to be. I think that is what’s supposed to happen when you do this job. Maybe I’m not supposed to be as much of a fan as I am, but that is the one non-negotiable for me. I will not pretend I don’t love every second of this gig or that watching the greatest players in the world doing what they do up close is anything less than a dream. It’s awesome. It’s fun. It’s everything I ever wanted and I feel thankful to everyone who has given me the opportunity to do this.
When some of you cringe because I’m all over the place with my loyalties just know that my loyalty lies with the game. Players come, players go, players thrill and disappoint, but the game? The game is always there.