It’s the world versus the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. If not the world, then at least the rest of the United States is rooting for an upset win for the Toronto Raptors. A map that sourced Twitter hashtags by geolocations showed that 47 states wanted the Raptors to reign over the defending NBA champions. Only Hawaii (I can only assume vacationing Warriors fans), California, and Nevada, where there is plenty of Vegas money riding on the Warriors, are going for Golden State. Whom one roots for with their heart is separate from their wallet for the thin-skinned.
There are many reasons for the lopsided cheering section. The Warriors are overwhelming favorites to win the title, and cheering for an underdog is at least half the reason why any casual sports fan watches a team other than their own. Not only are the Warriors favorites, they’ve already won three championships in four years. This is Toronto's first ever appearance in the Finals.
But there’s another layer to the sentiments about this matchup—and its reasons are as cultural as they are geographical. Toronto, despite being a major Canadian metropolis, is counted among the second and third tier U.S. cities that are home to professional sports teams. The places without the major media markets, without the startups, without the film agents and TV studios and perfect year-round weather. Cities like Cleveland, Detroit, and Oklahoma City. Visiting players openly mock their perceived lack of culture and nightlife. You can barely talk free agents into signing there; the world was shocked when Paul George opted to stay with the Oklahoma City Thunder instead of signing with the prestigious Los Angeles Lakers.
Before the Warriors swept the Portland Trail Blazers —without three future Hall of Fame players on their team. Really? Do I need to say more to convince you the past few years have been stacked? — they were in trouble. Kevin Durant, the best player in the league this year, went down with a strained calf and would miss the rest of the series against the Rockets, who had come so close to beating them the year before.
At the outset of the playoffs NBA pundits were worried that the league was in trouble, too. Could you imagine if there was a Finals matchup between Houston and Toronto? Between Denver and—oh God, gag—Milwaukee? The ratings would crater! Who would care if we didn’t have a coastal team to watch?! Fortunately for the worried parties, the Warriors found a way to win, despite their injuries.
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We live in the player-empowerment era of basketball, where individual stars are their own brand with their own fans. Why should a player remain loyal to a team, or a city, if a franchise can ship you and your family out of town for cash to buy a new copy machine? From a wider point of view, I can appreciate someone taking control over their own life and where they choose to live and work. But from the perspective of a fan I can only begin to see my team as a band of hired hands, mercenaries ready to move on when the fighting is done.
LeBron James kicked off this era by signing with Miami in 2010 and bringing his superstar friends with him, announcing on his own terms (even if it was poorly conceived and received). But LeBron also reminded us of the mysterious power of a home, and the teams that play there, when he left South Beach to return to Cleveland. I still tear up every time I watch that video of Lebron crying, collapsed on the floor, and rising to scream, “Cleveland! THIS IS FOR YOU!” after beating a 73-win Warriors team in the Finals after the entire world counted them out.
LeBron left Cleveland for Los Angeles this year. And while his team missed the playoffs, he hit an enormous personal milestone: passing Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list. The reaction from Lakers fans? Tepid at best. It’s an awkward scene to watch. Gameplay pauses to recognize the achievement. A half-interested stadium golf-clapping while LeBron hugs a bunch of teammates that he barely knows and has just tried to trade away to the Pelicans for Anthony Davis. Now, if that happens in Cleveland? The place where Jordan shoved dagger after dagger into the heart of a city during his dynastic runs? The place where LeBron grew up? The Lakers already have a Mount Rushmore of basketball legends: Jerry West, Kareem, Magic, Shaq, Kobe. LeBron could return to Cleveland for just his final season and he’d get a key to the city and a giant statue outside Quicken Loans Arena.
LeBron might not be in the Finals (for the first time in 9 years), and yet players leaving franchises and fans that have bought into them is still the dominant storyline heading into the series. The Raptors took Kawhi Leonard in a trade last season, knowing that he was very likely to leave for the Los Angeles Clippers at the end of this season. The worst-kept secret in the league is that Kevin Durant seems destined to leave the Warriors for the New York Knicks this offseason. And even the Warriors themselves are leaving Oakland, crossing the San Francisco Bay for a new arena where Silicon Valley techlords can shell out millions to watch a basketball game courtside in a button down shirt and gray vest.
Tell me that the NBA is a business, and that talent and industry flow where there is capital to fund it. That hometown teams are for college and high school sports. Fine. And yet—
It does not change that the narratives of home and loyalty and David against Goliath will move fans (and history) more than chasing championships with superteams, analytics, and max contracts will.
Zac Davis is a native Ohioan who currently lives in New York. He writes for America Magazine.