Miami fans make it clear who they're cheering for during Game 1 of the… (Ronald Martinez / Getty…)
An NBA Finals is moving on without the Lakers or Boston Celtics or even the mega-media market Chicago Bulls, and most fans have already taken a side. So whose side are they taking, that of the Miami Heat or the Dallas Mavericks?
This much is certain: Nobody in Ohio is caressing worry beads and stressing about whether LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will win that NBA title they've been climbing toward for all these last 10 months or so.
But is the rest of the nation following suit, also rooting against the favored Heat and the triumvirate of star players who banded together in South Florida hoping to put together a run of championships?
One keen observer thinks so.
"Anything outside of Miami, it's all pro-Dallas," said Jon Barry, an ESPN analyst. "The LeBron James decision [to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers, announced on an ESPN special] and the way it happened ruffled so many feathers, it's just meant so far that anybody playing the Heat … that's the fan base nationally."
In other words, the Mavericks might not be the reason people are rooting for the Mavericks.
"The Heat, they are either loved or hated," Barry said. "I think the older, traditional fans aren't going to like this trend of players joining forces. They appreciate how [Dallas'] Dirk [Nowitzki] has stayed with one team, old school, like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird.
"For younger people, they like what they see, players developing super powers on their own. LeBron, of course, and Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire joining forces" with the New York Knicks.
According to data collected by the league just before the playoffs began, 32% of NBA fans between the ages of 18 and 34 want to watch the Heat on television as opposed to 25% eager to see the Mavs.
Between the ages of 35 and 54, 54% wanted to see Dallas as opposed to 49% for the Heat. Among fans 55 and older, it was a tie — 20% wanted to see the Heat and 20% wanted to see the Mavs.
Still, Stephen McDaniel, a University of Maryland professor who specializes in consumer psychology and fan behavior, said he senses lines have been drawn among fans according to age.
"I haven't seen a lot of numbers, so this is truly anecdotal, but it seems as if different people in different age groups have different feelings about the whole Heat deal," McDaniel said.
"Maybe younger people appreciate the uniqueness while more traditional fans, old-school fans, want to see the old-school players, like Nowitzki or Jason Kidd win.
"I see the Heat a little bit as the substitute for the Lakers, the team that's so good you either love them or hate them."
Lynn Kahle, a marketing professor at the University of Oregon who is an expert in consumer psychology, said younger people might usually be expected to root for the Heat and older fans for the Mavericks, but added, "in this case it's not so obvious."
"Usually ownership doesn't matter much, but [Dallas'] Mark Cuban is such a high-profile person who has struck a nerve one way or another with so many people. Cuban might be a character more appealing to younger fans and less appealing to older fans," Kahle said.
Jeff Van Gundy, the outspoken analyst for the ESPN/ABC game crew, said he doesn't have a sense of who is rooting for Dallas and who for Miami. But he's not happy about one trend he's noted.
"It's new to me how the best player in basketball" — James — "has gone from popular, not because he changed teams, but how he changed teams," Van Gundy said. "That's pretty shallow.
"We'll celebrate players who beat their wives or who were drug- or alcohol-dependent, and who have done many other things wrong, but because of how LeBron changed teams there's this lingering animosity? That doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me."
Of course, no one said fandom makes sense.