Five years ago, you didn’t see too many Miami Heat fans walking around D.C. But a couple years ago, oddly, you started seeing them. Last year, you saw more, and this year, even more. Heck, I saw a grown man wearing a teal-colored Miami Heat jersey just the other day.
Now, maybe there’s been a large migration from South Florida to the District. More likely, these are just the same people whose favorite college basketball team is now Louisville, and whose favorite NFL team is the 49ers, and who have always loved the Dodgers, I swear, starting about two months ago. What I’m talking about is different from the casual locals who start rooting for the Nats or Caps when they’re in first place. This is cross-continent bandwagoning.
I was reminded of this on Wednesday night, when LeBron James and the Heat seemed to win just about all of the awards at the fan-chosen ESPYs. As someone whose primary rooting interest in sports is against all things LeBron, this was particularly distressing to me — nearly as distressing as the fact I was watching the ESPYs — and I literally hid my head under the pillows at one point. But, like it or not, there’s no denying that there are now a lot of Miami Heat fans in this country.
Ray Allen — who helped accept some of the hardware on Wednesday — happened to be in The Post newsroom last week, as part of his trip to Washington to testify in favor of federal funding for research aimed at finding a cure for diabetes. In between health policy talk, I asked him about bandwagon fans.
“When we go on the road, you see people in Heat jerseys that have never been to Miami,” Allen said with a smile. “We were in Utah, and I thought that same thought — like, these people, some of these people, have never been to Miami before. I think it’s the machine of SportsCenter….Look at all the media outlets, from First Take to PTI to Around the Horn, that talk about the same stuff. We haven’t played for two weeks, and I think every time I turn on SportsCenter, they talked about LeBron in some form. And he hasn’t done anything but just be on vacation. So as much as we blame the fans for being bandwagon, it’s mostly the media’s fault. Because the media’s the one that continues to feed the machine.”
It’s an interesting point, and the same one I often go back-and-forth on with readers. Do the Redskins dominate local sports conversation because they have by far the most fans, or do they have by far the most fans because they dominate the local sports conversation?
Allen said Heat fandom in Utah is “absolutely cool” and “there’s nothing wrong with it,” but he also said he’d like to see an NBA in which more people rooted for more teams.
“I went to a Lakers game when I was young, and at the time I was a Lakers fan,” he told us. “When the Lakers and the Pistons played, I knew everybody on the Lakers team, and I knew everybody on the Pistons team. And I thought the Lakers and the Pistons played 20 times a year, because that’s all they ever talked about, that’s all they ever showed….
“The way the league is portrayed is what [the media] puts out there,” he continued. “So for people all over America, that’s what you see on a daily basis. That’s ultimately what you’re going to end up cheering for and liking. People know Norris Cole more than they know anybody in the starting five for the Charlotte Bobcats, and Norris Cole comes off the bench for us in Miami, just as well as I do. If it’s anybody’s fault, it’s the league’s fault, because we need to do a better job of marketing every team — players, bios, everything.
“I think the NFL does a great job of that,” he went on. “You talk about every team, every Sunday. I truthfully would like to see even the bad teams [in the discussion]; if you talk about them, you put the pressure on them to have to be better. You can’t be a basement-dwelling NBA team if people are talking about you over and over again and putting the pressure on you to be good. We get that in the big markets; you’re gonna get enough pressure put on you where you’re gonna have to put a contender out there, and you’re gonna have to spend money. In the NFL, every team is in the spotlight one game a week, every Sunday, so you’ve got to put on your best show and your best face to get better continually.
“As great as the NBA is, that’s something we could do better,” he concluded. “That bottom quarter of teams in the NBA that kind of always hover there — there has got to be a way to make sure they continue to put pressure on them to be better.”
(Before I go on, I have to write something about diabetes. As I mentioned, Allen was in town with his wife Shannon — who’s on the board of directors of JDRF — and their son Walker, a 6-year old with Type 1 diabetes. Their media tour preceded Walker and his father’s appearance before the Senate Special Committee on Aging, where they asked Congress to continue funding a research program set to expire in September 2014. Shannon didn’t testify, but she dominated our conversation.
“This money goes to the NIH for research for a cure,” she said. “Ray and I, everybody we know — all the people with kids that are now young adults, people that have been living with Type 1 diabetes for 30, 40, 50 years — we go out all year long. We do galas, we do bike rides, we do walk-to-cures, we spend all this time raising noise, raising awareness, doing PSAs, and raising money. And as a group, we maybe raise $100 million, if we’re lucky, in a great year.
“But in this one moment, the Special Diabetes Program is $150 million directly toward research for a cure, research that’s already been started and is on its way through clinical and human trials. And if it doesn’t get picked up, it doesn’t happen. So being consistent, getting us to the finish line, can be the difference between a cure for these 3 million people, yes or no. It has to get renewed, not just for Walker but for the 3 million other people that are desperate for it, because Type 1 diabetes is a curable disease. They have the smartest minds in the world, and they’re SO close.”)
Anyhow, since Allen mentioned the NBA teams that seem to hover somewhere apart from the top, I had to ask about the home-town Wizards. He talked about championship-contending teams needing two-and-a-half or three All-Stars, guys who can “carry the load and can win big games down the stretch,” and mentioned that the Wizards have lacked that for several years. So I asked why free agents don’t clamor to come to this town — a massive media market, a city that loves basketball, an East Coast hub.
“It’s all about making that great trade that gets that one centerpiece you can build around,” Allen said. “And then everyone else wants to follow. For the last decade, nobody wanted to come to Boston. When they made the trade for me and Kevin, it changed the whole mystique of what was going on in Boston. Everybody was like, now they’re a team to deal with. When you have those young players, you’ve got to be ready to move them around to get some quality pieces. But you’ve also got to do chemistry, and throw chemistry into play. You can’t just think that you can throw a lot of money together and then these guys are gonna win.”