How LeBron James and the Miami Heat Brought Me and My Grandfather Together
Retired in Century Village, he has a newfound passion for NBA basketball that keeps him going and keeps us connected
My grandfather is 94 years old. He lives in the aptly named Century Village retirement community in South Florida—and he is a huge Miami Heat fan.
It all started around six years ago. Before that, my grandfather had a cursory interest in basketball, but nothing close to what he has now. Every morning he reads the Sun Sentinel’s Heat writer, Ira Winderman. At night he watches the Heat play on TV; tomorrow, on Christmas, he’ll tune in to watch his team play the Lakers at Staples Center in Los Angeles. Sometimes during the day, when there aren’t any basketball games on, he turns on ESPN anyway. He really likes Mike and Mike, thinks Stephen A. Smith knows his stuff, and gets annoyed by Skip Bayless. “I think he’s an actor,” he says. It took him about two viewings to figure this out. Smart man, my Popi.
Popi was never that into sports before. Tennis was always his favorite and something he watched on TV, but neither I nor anyone else in my family can remember him ever having any strong interest in other professional sports—and yet today he is a man completely infatuated with the Miami Heat and the NBA, more generally. Popi absolutely adores LeBron James and thinks Pat Riley is as brilliant and majestic an executive as there ever was. And of course there’s Micky Arison, the team’s Israeli owner, who, in Popi’s eyes, can do no wrong. For Popi, there’s a way to do things in life and a way not to do things. In his mind, the Heat know how to do things. “Name me another team that has gotten so many guys to take pay cuts,” he likes to say. “Only them. It’s like a family. They take care of each other.”
I’m not exactly sure how it happened or why exactly it did. I’ve never asked him. I suspect it’s because I’ve always been such a big sports fan; I studied sports management in college, and I’m now a sportswriter at a basketball publication, SLAM Magazine, so watching basketball offered a way for him to connect with me and my brother, who’s two years younger than me and also loves sports. And after a lifetime spent in the Bronx, the Heat are now his hometown team.
I’ve asked my mom, Popi’s youngest child, what she thinks about her father’s obsession with the Miami Heat. She mostly agrees with me but also says I’m leaving something out: that Popi’s newfound fandom has been a reaction to his deteriorating physical state. That since he could no longer play any tennis—a sport that he loved to play and did into his eighties—he needed something else to do with his free time. And basketball is a good distraction for him given that the majority of his time and energy are now spent trying to complete tasks—going to the bathroom, getting out of bed, traveling from room to room—that the rest of us don’t think twice about.
“It keeps me going,” he likes to say.
Solomon D.—he always insists on the “D.”—Rosen worked in the Bronx County court system for nearly 30 years and retired as the jury clerk of the Bronx County Supreme Court. Ask him and he’ll tell you how imperative it was for him to be a “people person” while working there, how that was one of the skills that allowed him to succeed. That and hard work. Lots of hard work.
After graduating Stuyvesant High School, he got a job working at his father’s fur factory during the day. At night he attended St. John’s University. Before he could finish, he enlisted in the Army. After WWII, he completed his courses and earned a joint bachelor’s and law degree. Then he became a social worker for the city of New York. Then there was a job with the office of price administration. Then one with the Army Audit Agency. Somewhere in there he got married, moved into an apartment on Pelham Parkway in the Bronx, and had a kid. But he decided he wanted more. That meant a night MBA program at Baruch. Four decades later, at 64, Popi retired, and he and my grandmother began splitting their time between Century Village and the Catskills.
Every Friday, the two of us speak on the phone, a tradition we’ve had for about seven years now. We talk about lots of random things—food, the latest news and politics from the Jewish world, stocks—but for the most part we discuss the NBA. The routine started when I was living in Israel for a gap year after graduating high school. Before I left my parents had both suggested to me that I start calling my grandparents every Friday prior to Shabbat. “It would make them really happy,” they said, “and it’s the right thing to do.” So, every Friday afternoon I’d take a break from whatever I was doing to call Florida.
Except I never really took a break. Instead, I’d make sure to call while doing something that I had to do but that could also be done while on the phone, like ironing. I was a grandson calling his grandparents because a grandson is supposed to call his grandparents. I don’t really remember what our conversations were. All I remember is that they were unmemorable.
Now, though, things are different, and I have Pat, Micky, LeBron, and the Heat to thank.
July 9, 2010. When I call Popi I can hear the ecstasy in his voice. With him you can always tell what kind of mood he’s in the second he answers the phone and says “Hello.” Today he sounds ebullient. It’s as happy as I can remember hearing him in a while. Last night was The Decision—the night LeBron James informed his home state of Ohio, and the world, via prime-time special that he would be leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for sunny Florida. “This fall I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat,” he told Jim Gray and a national audience on ESPN. Now NBA fans in 49 out of the country’s 50 states absolutely despise him. To South Florida, though, LeBron is a hero—and one who could do no wrong.
“Let me ask you,” Popi says. “Wouldn’t you rather play with your friends and for guys like Pat and Micky, and not that schmuck in Cleveland?” Popi is referencing the rage-filled email Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert sent out following The Decision. In it he vowed, in comic sans, that the Cavs would win a title before “the self-titled former King.”
But much to Popi’s chagrin, and the bewilderment of the rest of the basketball world, the newly star-laden Heat has managed to lose eight of its first 17 games, making Gilbert look prophetic, at least for a moment. “I think they need a psychologist,” Popi says when I speak to him early in the season. It’s a sentiment he will repeat often that year. “It makes no sense that these guys can play one way one night and another a different night.”
The Heat, however, go on to win 58 games that season and make it all the way to the NBA finals. Popi thinks they were a bit lucky because “that guy Rambo”—Rajon Rondo—“on the Celtics got hurt. Boy, is he something!” In the finals, though, Miami is upset by the Dallas Mavericks in six games. LeBron scores less than 18 points per game in the series as opposed to the 26.7 he averaged in the regular season. In the series’ final game, on a Thursday night, he looks terrified and passive—even with the diminutive J.J. Barea sometimes guarding him. The next day Popi is perplexed.
“I told you, buddy,” he says. “These guys need a psychologist.”
June 8, 2012. I know this call is going to be a fun one. Last night LeBron scored 45 points against the Celtics in Boston and looked unstoppable in a dazzling, critic-quieting performance. He helped the Heat, which was down 3-2, stave off elimination and possibly a complete demolition of the Big Three blueprint that Pat Riley so brilliantly put together just two years ago. My 89-year-old grandmother, Vivian, answers the phone.
Usually my phone conversations with Nani are quick. “How are you feeling,” she asks. “Good,” I say. “Any new developments in your life that I should know about?” she responds. “Not that I can think of,” I answer. “OK, have a good Shabbos. I’ll let you and Popi talk.”
Today, though: “Wasn’t that game something?” she asks. “So exciting, the best I’ve ever seen him play.”
She and Popi watched the game last night together on the TV in their bedroom before going to sleep. Usually they watch on the small TV in the dining room of their second floor condo, but this game was nationally televised—which means it had more commercial breaks—and ended later than a typical game.
I’m a Knicks fan at heart, but I now find myself rooting for the Heat too. It makes Popi so happy, and so it makes me happy. Because of this I’m also euphoric when the Heat beat the Thunder in the finals later this month.
A few weeks after the finals I receive a letter in my mailbox. When my conversations with Popi first started, I was the one educating him—on the rules, some of the game’s X’s and O’s, players’ backgrounds. One time late last summer, Popi called asking what “the post” was. He had been reading that LeBron was working on his “post game” after losing to the Mavericks and wanted to know what that meant. Now Popi has started cutting out basketball articles from the Sun Sentinel and mailing them to me. He especially likes ones that focus on the business of sports. The one that I open on this day is a story breaking down the Heat’s current salary-cap situation, but before I can finish reading it Popi calls to ask if I received any mail.
“I’m looking at the article you sent me now,” I say. He then proceeds to explain its contents to me and what the Heat would need to do in order to sign Ray Allen, which they do later that month.
August 6, 2013. Popi has now become an erudite basketball fan. He can name coaches and give his own scouting reports. I’m visiting him in Century Village and see Phil Jackson’s latest book, Eleven Rings, sitting on his desk. He tells me he liked it a lot more than Shaquille O’Neal’s biography, which he read last year. Lying next to Jackson’s book is the Miami Heat championship hat that Popi uses to shield his skin from the bright Florida sun.
Mentally, Popi is pretty much as sharp as he ever was. He’s telling me that he’s been worried about the Heat’s chance of “three-peating”—a phrase that he makes sure to inform me was patented by “Pat”—and so he’s using his recently developed Internet skills to do some research on Dwayne Wade’s injured knees. “I read that Wade has been switching between hot and cold on his knee,” Popi says, “so I asked my doctor about that to see if it makes sense.”
Later that summer, Pat comes through for Popi again and signs the immensely talented yet troubled Michael Beasley. It’s a move Popi really likes, and now, with Beasley serving as the Heat’s fourth-leading scorer, Popi feels even better about it. “Thank God Pat had rachmanis on him,” he says to me. He then goes on a rant about how, in his opinion, the Heat miss having Keith Askins sitting on the bench. Askins was an assistant coach for the team last year but this season is serving as a team scout.
I can’t help but smile. Before this I had no idea who Keith Askins was.
Today, there are few things that I enjoy as much, and even fewer that I cherish more, than my weekly conversations with Popi. When I first started calling him back when I was living in Israel, I thought I was doing Popi a favor; now I feel as if he’s doing one for me. On Fridays I now allot an hour to speak to Popi. I no longer iron during the calls. Sometimes the conversations don’t go that long; it seems like the list of Popi’s body parts that are properly working is shorter than that of those not properly working, and so there are times when he just doesn’t feel very good or energetic. “I’m not complaining,” he likes to say. And when the Heat wins that statement rings even more true.
Last week, four months after my visit to Popi, the Heat played the Pacers—the only Eastern Conference team that appears to have chance of dethroning the two-time defending champs—for the second time this season. This time the game is at home, and Miami exacts some revenge for the loss it suffered in Indiana just a week earlier. Two days later, this past Friday, I gave Popi a call.
“You guys picked the Pacers,” he said, referring to SLAM’s NBA preview issue, “but after watching this game I don’t know.” He told me he thought Paul George and Roy Hibbert were good, sure. “But don’t count out LeBron and Erik”—Spoelstra, the Heat’s coach.
“But what about LeBron yelling at Chalmers,” I asked him in jest. In last week’s game against the Pacers, ESPN’s cameras caught James and his Heat teammate Mario Chalmers getting into a heated altercation on the bench—and then James apologizing to Chalmers later in the game. It’s an innocuous non-story and something that the Heat says it has put behind it. Popi, apparently, has as well.
“That whole thing is nothing,” he says. “I read a Tweet that LeBron wrote after the game. He said he and Chalmers were brothers and that he was wrong. That’s why LeBron’s so great. He apologized. Can you believe that?”
That’s a 94-year-old man, sitting in Century Village, quoting LeBron James’ Twitter account. I, however, am no longer impressed. At this point nothing surprises me when it comes to Popi and his Heat.
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