Playing with friends in the neighborhood was the beginning of Fitzum Ghebrenegus’ involvement with basketball. There was a fascination with crossover moves and watching the ball hit the net.
Known as “Fitz” for short, he started balling in second grade but didn’t hit a growth spurt until his teenage years. Video games preceded his following of the NBA. “I remember getting NBA Live back in the day,” Fitz said. Other games such as NBA Street and 2K opened up an appreciation for the Magic Johnson and Larry Bird figures.
As for Fitz's favorite team, he has none. Vince Carter’s New Jersey Nets days were eye-catching. As a native New Yorker, Fitz could easily catch Carter and Jason Kidd on local networks. Carter’s hops and epic dunks helped usher in new fans of the early 2000s. “You never saw anyone doing that,” Fitz said. “When he bodied Alonzo Mourning, I lost my mind. This was crazy.” Carter was traded to the Orlando Magic and traded again to the Phoenix Suns the following year. At this point, Fitz was without guidance on who to support and needed to search for another player. No specific starting five had enough appeal to follow season by season.
Ironically for Fitz, he’s never attended an NBA game. Madison Square Garden is just a 40-minute drive from his Westchester home and the Barclays Center isn’t too far either. TV screens have always sufficed, even with his top player Kevin Durant being so close by as a member of the Nets.
Fitz spoke on the contrast for lovers of football and basketball. Football fans are committed to a team-first mentality as opposed to only idolizing individual players. Basketball fans often ride-or-die with Kobe Bryant or Lebron James. They would follow that player regardless of the team he played on or have a barbershop debate on who’s best of their generation. “In basketball, you can have a Michael Jordan and he’ll drop 63. You might be a Boston Celtics fan but also love Jordan. In football, there’s players like that but you’re not winning without the team.” Kevin Durant is surely familiar with the need for a well-rounded team to win.
Fitz has followed Durant since the 2011-2012 season. Durant reminded Fitz of himself in terms of body type. Both men have slim figures and enjoy taking outside jump shots. Comparisons can only go so far since Durant is 6’10” and dunking is an effortless process. Fitz wouldn’t liken himself to NBA players but he attempts to emulate the former MVP’s style of play. Style of play was also just plain style in high school when Fitz rocked all the KD gear. Sneakers alone weren’t good enough. Draped in an Oklahoma City hoodie and shorts sponsored by Nike, Fitz proudly walked into gym class ready to test his own shooting range. Regardless of the Thunder’s success or if someone gave him a hard time about the gear, his commitment remained.
The KD allegiance didn’t come without disapproval. Durant was unable to win it all with the Thunder. Fitz was “pissed off” when looking back on Golden State knocking off Oklahoma City after being down 3-1 in the series. “This is gonna be their year,” Fitz said. “This is KD’s moment to show that he’s really that alpha and he can beat the Warriors. When it really came time in Game 7 to really go off, it was too late and it was over.” What happened in the ensuing offseason was off-putting to a large swath of the NBA audience. Durant signed with the 72-win Warriors; a team who already had two of the best shooters in league history in the starting lineup. Fitz still views this decision as outright cowardly. Instead of choosing to beat the best, the superstar joined them and took an extreme shortcut. The Durant stan mentality continued but without the obvious display of the #35 jerseys or new KD Trey sneakers.
It’s clear what happened next for Durant and the cementing of a stellar career which is still continuing. Injuries have been a setback, especially the right calf strain of the 2019 playoffs. Fitz has an understandable bitterness toward Golden State for allowing Durant to return in the NBA Finals, resulting in a ruptured Achilles tendon. “They don’t care. They’re trying to win a championship. I was really disappointed.” A long comeback was made so Fitz is impressed with Durant’s progression as a Brooklyn Net. On a smaller level, progression itself connects Fitz with Durant and Fitz with basketball. After participating in pickup games 20 years ago, room for improvement is a theme. Continued dedication is required and KD himself symbolizes the “Ball is Life” motto. Although these two individuals are worlds apart in numerous ways, they still just want to put the ball in the net.