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
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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