Love for the Game: My journey through NBA fandom

NBA Golden State Warriors Stephen Curry (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
NBA Golden State Warriors Stephen Curry (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

Taking a trip down memory land with one NBA fan’s fandom as the 2019-20 season inches closer

On June 13, 2019, Stephen Curry’s 3-point attempt, with eight seconds left in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, caromed off the back of the iron to seal a Toronto Raptors victory over the Golden State Warriors to end the 2018-19 NBA season. Over the course of the next 100 days I clung to the NBA Draft, free agency, Summer League and the FIBA World Championships to quench my insatiable thirst for NBA basketball.

There are now only six days left until some teams begin training camps, 12 days until the first preseason game and only 30 days until the regular season tips off.

I live only 82 miles away from the University of Florida, who is scheduled to host Auburn in a classic SEC match up of top 10 teams on October 5, 2019. Most of the people of Jacksonville will either be at the game or watching at a party or sports bar. I, however, will be glued to the Lakers visiting the brand-new Chase Center against the five-time defending Western Conference Champion Warriors in a preseason game.

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As the season approaches, I wanted to take the time to reflect back on why I love this game so much. My first exposure to basketball was at eight years of age when my father took me on a weekend trip to Philadelphia to see the Rockets versus Sixers and the No. 1 ranked Georgetown Hoyas versus the Villanova Wildcats at the old Philadelphia Spectrum.

I was excited for weeks to see Dr. J’s introduction, made famous by the late David Zinkoff. I couldn’t wait to see him glide through the air and dunk the ball. What I was not expecting was to have the weekend dominated not by Dr. J, but rather by Patrick Ewing.

Ewing and the Hoyas were brash and bigger than life. Coach John Thompson stalked the side line, white towel draped over the broad shoulders of his 6-foot-10 frame. Patrick Ewing played with a fierceness and bravado I had never seen in sports. From that day forward the Georgetown Hoyas became my main passion.

A few months later Villanova exacted their revenge on the Hoyas, as they shot 78 percent from the field in the National Championship Game to pull off one of the greatest upsets of all time. Patrick Ewing graduated and the New York Knicks, winner of the first draft lottery, selected him with the No. 1 pick of the 1985 draft.

When Ewing moved to the NBA, I began splitting my fandom between the Georgetown Hoyas and Knicks. In 1994, with Michael Jordan playing baseball for the Birmingham Barons, the Knicks were finally able to get past their nemesis, the Chicago Bulls, after having been eliminated from the playoffs by the Bulls in four of the previous five seasons.

It was shaping up to be the ultimate high school graduation gift, as the Knicks made it to the NBA Finals to face off against the Houston Rockets. My high school graduation party coincided with Game 5 of the 1994 NBA Finals. My friends and I huddled around the TV hoping the Knicks could take a commanding 3-2 series lead, putting them on the brink of their first NBA Championship since 1973.

Neither I, my friends at the party, nor most of America got to enjoy much of Game 5 of the NBA Finals, as the O.J. Simpson freeway chase took over the airways, sending the basketball game to a box in the corner of the screen as we watched the white Bronco slowly meander towards his Brentwood estate.

Five nights later after a Game 6 loss, John Starks went 2-18 from the field, including 0-11 from 3-point range in Game 7 and the Rockets hoisted the trophy for their first NBA Championship.

I left my hometown of Harrisburg, PA a few months later for my freshman year at Florida State University. In November of my freshman year my dad called me the night after the Choke at Doak, where FSU overcame a 28 point 4th quarter deficit to tie their rival Florida Gators. I assumed it was to discuss the amazing college football game I had attended the day before or to discuss his undefeated Penn State Nittany Lions victory over Wisconsin. I was surprised to hear that he wanted to tell me about the unbelievable point guard that had made his debut with the Georgetown Hoyas that night versus the defending NCAA Champion Arkansas Razorbacks.

I was hesitant to believe that a point guard at Georgetown, a team known for their dominating centers, could be as amazing as my dad described him. Two weeks later I caught my first glimpse of Allen Iverson as they played the Memphis Tigers. He had a sub par game but he was a whirling dervish on the court, playing with a tenacity, fearlessness and quickness basketball had never seen before or after.

Iverson declared himself eligible for the draft after just two years with the Hoyas and my hometown Sixers won the Draft Lottery. With the first pick of the 1996 draft the Sixers selected Iverson. As Iverson began his rookie season, I was in my junior year at Florida State. NBA coverage then was not nearly what it is today and there was nary an opportunity to see the Sixers on national TV. To remedy this, my dad recorded the local Sixers broadcast on VHS tapes and mailed them to me in Tallahassee.

During his rookie campaign Iverson crossed over Michael Jordan and scored 40 or more points in five straight games as he captured the Rookie of the Year honors. A few years later, the Sixers opened the season on a 10-game winning streak. They would finish the season with the best record in the Eastern Conference and fought through two seven-game series against Vince Carter and the Raptors and Ray Allen and the Bucks on their way to the NBA Finals, where they met Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.

Iverson looked poised to pull off the upset after pouring in 48 points in Game 1, including a baseline jump shot and step over of Tyronn Lue at the end of overtime to seal the victory. Iverson’s magic was not enough for the injury riddled Sixers and the Lakers swept the next four games to cap off their second straight championship.

For the next five seasons the Sixers searched for the right star to pair with Iverson to get them over the top, including Glen Robinson, Keith Van Horn and finally Chris Webber. In 2002 the Celtics embarrassed the Sixers in the decisive Game 5 of their opening round series, making nine of 10 3-point attempts in the 4th quarter to cap off a 33-point victory. In 2003, the Sixers led three of the four games they lost to the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Semifinals with less than 15 seconds left in regulation.

Allen Iverson was traded at the 2007 trade deadline to the Nuggets where he would team up with Carmelo Anthony. It was not the same watching Iverson in a Nugget uniform and I couldn’t bring myself to watch the Sixers without Iverson.

Fortunately, a few months later I tuned in to Game 1 of the Warriors vs. Mavericks first round playoff series. The Warriors had transformed their roster at that year’s trade deadline, trading Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy for Al Harrington and Stephen Jackson. In their Game 1 upset of the Mavericks, the Warriors shot 30 3-point attempts. Though relatively tame by today’s standard of 3-point attempts, at the time that volume of outside shooting was unheard of.

The Warriors played at a frenetic and chaotic pace. No shot was a bad shot to the “We Believe” Warriors. Stephen Jackson, Baron Davis, Al Harrington and Jason Richardson would frequently pull up for three on a 3 on 1 break and take contested 3-point shots early in the shot clock.

In Game 6 at Oracle Arena it rained a cacophony of “Warriors, Warriors” chants as Stephen Jackson knocked down seven of eight 3-pointers and held Dirk Nowitzki to eight points on 2-of-13 shooting in a 25-point blowout to clinch the series victory for the 8th seeded Warriors. The Warriors were eliminated in the next round of the playoffs by the much more physical and disciplined Utah Jazz, but not before one of the greatest dunks of all time.

To cap off a 20 point blow out of the Jazz in Game 3, Baron Davis drove baseline past Deron Williams and rose over Andre Kirilenko to throw down a thunderous dunk. Utah immediately called timeout giving Davis the opportunity to make a victory lap around the amped up Oracle Arena, replete with a dusting off of the shoulders by teammate Stephen Jackson.

The next season I watched every single Warrior game. They teetered constantly between an artistic aesthetic through their improvisational chaos and an undisciplined indifference to the fundamentals of basketball. Monta Ellis, who has infrequently been accused of being a team player, loomed large as the veritable voice of reason among Nelson’s mad gun slingers. Don Nelson flirted all year long with the fine line between mad scientist and absentee coach.

Most nights it was far from evident that the Warriors players, especially their leaders Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson, were aware that the last two minutes of the game were decidedly more important than the first two minutes. If they were aware of this difference their shot selection and decision making certainly didn’t reflect it. The Warriors won 48 games in the 2007-08 season but missed the playoffs.

Baron Davis left the Warriors in the offseason for the Clippers and Al Harrington was traded just five games into the 2008-09 season. Midway through the 2010 season, Steph Curry’s rookie season, Stephen Jackson was traded to Charlotte. It appeared that the Warriors would build around a back court of, highly underrated, Monta Ellis and rookie Steph Curry. That pairing only lasted two and a half lackluster seasons before Ellis was traded for Andrew Bogut.

I was an ardent supporter of Monta Ellis, who was among my favorite players in the league at the time. I was incredulous that the Warriors thought they could build a team around the fragile, little, flash in the pan, NCAA Tournament darling. Not one of my more prophetic moments.

Following the Warriors first Championship, they began the 2015-16 season with 24 straight wins. After the 1995-96 Bulls won 72 games, I never thought I would see another team flirt with that record let alone eclipse it. I cheered all year long to see the Warriors reach a 73rd victory, which they did on the final night of the season. With 73 wins in hand the Warriors still had to consolidate the record with the NBA Championship.

Steph Curry sustained a knee injury in Game 4 of their opening round series against the Rockets, forcing him out of the next four games. He certainly did not seem to be the two-time reigning MVP of the league upon his return, as he went 22 of 59 from the field in losses in Games 1, 3 and 4 of their Western Conference Finals match up against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder had the Warriors on the ropes down 3-1 in the series.

The Thunder were on the verge of closing the series out at home in Game 6, up 94-87 with 5:48 left in the game. However, Westbrook and Durant would combine for 1-5 from the field and six turnovers the rest of the way out. Meanwhile, Klay Thompson poured in 10 of his game high 41 points, Curry added 8 points, including two 3-pointers and Andre Iguodala plucked three steals over that same stretch to force a Game 7. The Warriors closed out Game 7 behind seven 3-pointers by Steph Curry to earn their second straight trip to the NBA Finals to meet LeBron James and the Cavaliers.

The Warriors jumped out to a commanding 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals, however towards the end of their Game 4 victory in Cleveland, emotional leader Draymond Green got tangled up with LeBron James and took a swipe at James. Green was already teetering on the precipice of disaster in the previous series as he kicked his leg out on a jump shot, landing a blow to a delicate area of Thunder center Steven Adams. The NBA issued a one game suspension leading to a Game 5 loss at home to send the series back to Cleveland where they would have the opportunity to force a decisive Game 7. The Cavaliers would do just that behind a 41-point performance from LeBron James in Game 6.

Game 7 would come down to the wire with the teams deadlocked at 89 for 3:46 down the stretch, including a come from behind block of an Andre Iguodala lay-up by LeBron James. Kyrie Irving unlocked the tie with a 3-pointer with 53 seconds left and Steph Curry was unable to answer on the other end, choosing to hoist a 3-pointer while isolated on the slower footed Kevin Love rather than drive the lane to extend the game. Curry missed the 3-point attempt and the Cavaliers sealed the greatest come from behind victory in NBA Finals history to spoil the Warriors quest to consolidate their historic season with the championship.

Over the offseason the Warriors did the unthinkable and acquired Kevin Durant in free agency. For the next three seasons I anxiously awaited the Warriors ripping off another 73-win season, this time closing the deal with an NBA Finals victory. Each of those three seasons it became obvious early on that my hopes were going to be dashed as the Warriors played with an increasing level of complacency, lethargy and sheer arrogance that they could effectively treat the regular season as an extended training camp in preparation for the playoffs.

The Warriors coasted to a title in the 2016-17 season, posting victories in their first 15 playoff games, including a late game come back in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, punctuated with the iconic walk up 3-pointer by Kevin Durant over LeBron James. However, the Cavaliers erupted for 49 points in the first quarter of Game 4 to avoid the sweep and end the Warriors hopes of finishing off a perfect postseason campaign.

In the 2018 playoffs, the Warriors faced elimination at the hands of the Houston Rockets, down 3-2. The Rockets took a commanding 39-22 lead to close out the first quarter of Game 6, but the Warriors used their patented third quarter barrage to seize back control of the game as they closed out the final three quarters on a 93-47 run to cruise to a 29 point victory, forcing a Game 7 on Houston’s home floor.

The Warriors again absorbed an early blow from the Rockets in Game 7, falling behind by 15 points late in the first half. Another flurry in the 3rd quarter led by Steph Curry put the Warriors back on top heading into the 4th quarter. Kevin Durant iced the game down the stretch as the Warriors scrapped their motion offense and deployed their ultimate break glass in emergency weapon. Durant pick and rolled the Rockets to death the final five minutes of the game, getting the isolation he wanted each time down the court and exploiting it with his 7-foot frame and silky smooth midrange jump shot.

The Cavaliers without Kyrie Irving proved to be no match for the Warriors in the NBA Finals. In spite of one of the greatest performances in NBA Finals history in Game 1 by LeBron James, the Cavaliers came up short in an overtime that perhaps never should have been as JR Smith went full JR Smith, grabbing a rebound off a missed free throw by teammate George Hill with four seconds remaining in the game and the score tied. Rather than go back up with the ball or pass out to a teammate for a shot, he dribbled the clock out as though the Cavaliers had the lead.

They did not have the lead and the expression on James face told the whole story as the Warriors finally woke up in overtime to post a 10-point victory. The Warriors would go on to sweep the Cavaliers for their 3rd title in four years.

The 2018-19 season was by far the most frustrating season to watch. The Warriors had by this point succumbed to extreme fatigue and outright indifference for the regular season while the looming free agency decision by Kevin Durant followed them throughout the season.

A rematch of the 2018 Western Conference Finals seemed to be the only thing all season that rejuvenated the Warriors spirits. The two teams held serve on their homecourts through the first four games of the series, including an ugly Game 1 which redefined the contentious relationship that had been building over the last several seasons between the players and referees.

Fortunately, all of the complaining over the landing spot foul by both teams subsided after Game 1 and we were treated to an all time classic series in which all 6 games were decided by six points or fewer.

In Game 5 the Warriors jumped out to a 20-point lead before the Rockets came roaring back to close within one point with 2:11 left in the 3rd quarter. Durant hit a midrange jump shot to extend the lead to 3 points but immediately upon landing he began clutching at his calf.  Durant would limp into the locker room and Oracle Arena took a collective gasp as the Warriors hopes of a third straight title seemed to be dwindling.  Steph Curry however rose to the occasion and caught fire, hitting 5 of his next 6 shots for 14 points over the next 9 minutes to help the Warriors escape with the victory and a 3-2 series lead.

With Durant unavailable for Game 6 and questionable for Game 7 the Warriors went back to Houston to attempt to close out series. Steph Curry, mired in foul trouble during the first half, went scoreless in 11 minutes. Game 6 Klay reemerged however, as he scored 21 first half points to keep the score even at half time. Curry exploded in the second half for 33 points and the Warriors moved on to the Western Conference Finals.

After comebacks of 17, 18 and 17 points in Games 2, 3, and 4 of the Western Conference Finals the Warriors swept their way into their fifth straight NBA Finals appearance with Durant out of the lineup, still nursing his strained calf. The Warriors finally succumbed to devastating injuries to Kevin Durant in his return to the lineup in Game 5 of the NBA Finals and to Klay Thompson in Game 6 and their quest for a three-peat was ended at the hand of the Raptors.

I will forever wonder what could have been had Durant been healthy or even had Klay Thompson not gotten injured with 2:22 left in the 3rd quarter of Game 6 and the Warriors up five points.

Since the end of Game 6 of the NBA Finals the league has under gone a seismic change. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have joined the Clippers, Anthony Davis has joined LeBron James and the Lakers, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have joined forces in Brooklyn, Russell Westbrook is now with James Harden and the Rockets and D’Angelo was acquired by the Warriors.

A new era of the NBA will now begin as the Warriors strangle hold over the league appears to be over, with new contenders emerging in Los Angeles, Houston, Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Milwaukee. LeBron James is in the twilight of his career. However, just as Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson were there to take the torch from Michael Jordan at the end of his career, so too are Steph Curry, James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard poised to lead the post James era of the NBA. Budding superstars Luka Doncic, Trae Young, D’Angelo Russell, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Zion Williamson will look to take the helm from them.

In my lifetime the league has evolved from the Bad Boy Pistons and Knicks, where you went to a brawl and a basketball game broke out to the high flying, break-neck pace of today’s game. Michael Jordan, we were told, was irreplaceable but superstars Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have elicited conversations of just who is the greatest of all time.

Every superstar player, every dynasty, every era is beget with another more exciting player, more polarizing dynasty and a new even more thrilling era of basketball. I never thought any player would capture my imagination like Allen Iverson had but just a few years later I became captivated by the enigmatic Steph Curry. In the player empowerment era the league can change so dramatically. Overnight perennial losers like the Clippers and Nets can emerge as title contenders.

Every night there is a new story line to follow, another unbelievable individual or team performance. The upcoming season, which looks to be the most wide open chase for the championship we have had in decades, only strengthens my invigoration for the NBA.

Next. Los Angeles Lakers: 7 players to target using their disabled player exception. dark

Perhaps that is why as Notre Dame vs. Georgia lingers as background noise, I sit plugging away at the keys to write about how much I love this league. Many of you reading this article may have similar stories to mine, a defining moment that ignited your passion for the game and a favorite player who served as the fuel to manifest that passion.

As we embark upon a new season and a new era of the NBA hopefully you can take that nostalgic journey through your fandem to discover just why you love this game.