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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

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LeBron James, #6 of the Miami Heat, looks on during a game against the Los Angeles Lakers at American Airlines Arena on Feb. 10, 2013 in Miami, Fla. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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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.”

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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