We are nearly 15 years removed from the ’90s but it is still the most talked about era in NBA history. The 1990s was just a great all-around decade for modern culture and style. Whether it was watching Will Smith in the Fresh Prince, Biggie and Tupac going at it for rap supremacy, or MJ dominating the game, the ’90s impact on our society is still very present.
While some are going to argue the ’80s was the best decade for the NBA, featuring stars like Magic and Bird, the ’90s brought in an abundance of talent that have become Hall of Famers and some of the players that we have grown to love and idolize.
Here are the top ten reasons why the ’90s was the best era in NBA history.
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There were not as many friendships like we see in today’s NBA in the ’90s. (Think LeBron, ‘Melo, D-Wade.) In fact, there was some real bad blood between a lot of teams and players. Every marquee player in the ’90s wanted to win and that meant no type of association with anybody from any team. With so many fights and brawls, you could tell players really did not like each other.
Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls set the tone with rivalries as they battled everyone in the Eastern Conference–the Pistons, Pacers and Knicks–in some brutal matchups. If you want to know how bad rivalries were just ask Isiah Thomas why he didn’t make the Dream Team roster in 1992.
Two years prior, before MJ finally won an NBA title, the Pistons wreaked havoc on the Bulls. It was just bad timing for Isiah when the Bulls finally overthrew them, then went on to win two championships in a row. At the end of that 1991 Eastern Conference Final series, Thomas told his teammates to leave the floor while there was still time on the clock. The Pistons walked passed Chicago’s bench without offering any handshakes or congratulations, a true form of disrespect and bad sportsmanship.
While MJ had his hand in the decision to leave Thomas off the team, Scottie Pippen was not afraid to sound off in the Dream Team documentary on NBA TV about why Isiah was left off the team, saying, “Isiah was the general, he would yap at his teammates and say ‘Kick them on their ass. Do whatever you have to do.’ No, I didn’t want him on the Dream Team, I despised how he played the game.”
The rest is history; Isiah became the biggest snub from the greatest team ever assembled.
The Bulls and Knicks matchups–during the playoffs and at Christmas–were always worth the watch. MJ and Pippen broke a lot of New Yorkers hearts in the ’90s and are the main reason why the Knicks had a tough time winning a championship. MJ’s great escape in the 1991 Playoffs is one of the greatest moves in NBA history and he made John Starks look foolish before dunking on Patrick Ewing.
However, the Knicks and Pacers matchups were probably the most entertaining rivalry in the ’90s. The teams played five playoff matchups and every one of them is a classic. Lifelong Knicks fan Spike Lee and Reggie Miller would go at it, which led to Spike getting the famous choke sign from Reggie. Every Knicks fan remembers “8 points in 9 seconds” and one of the biggest choke jobs in NBA history during the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Then the last true rivalry was the Heat and the Knicks. Both teams went at it for years. Former Knicks coach Pat Riley was the center of the rivalry after he left the team and went on to join the Heat. At the end of Game 4 in the 1998 Eastern Conference First Round, Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson fought but the two did not land any punches. It will always be remembered for Jeff Van Gundy holding onto the legs of Mourning to stop the fight.
By the early ’90s, the NBA was becoming extremely popular, which meant endorsements and elite clientele for brands such as Nike, Gatorade, Converse, McDonald’s, Reebok and Pepsi. We saw some of the best commercials in the ’90s from NBA stars, such as Michael Jordan’s advertisements for his Air Jordan sneakers. Michael Jordan revolutionized the opportunities for athletes, giving players the chance to become global superstars. Basketball commercials of this time provided entertainment, from the Lil’ Penny Nike commercials and the Larry Johnson “Grandmama” Converse commercials to the Nike Fun Police. The ’90s was the platform for athletes to start making serious money off the court.
The ’90s era has become iconic for its retro sneakers and re-releases of kicks. Every modern young hypebeast wished they lived in the ’90s. There was just so many fresh kicks coming from multiple athletes and companies. Michael Jordan and the Air Jordan brand, and then Charles Barkley, Penny Hardaway and Allen Iverson led the way in the kicks department. The Reebok pumps were a favorite. Even Fila had a nice run with Grant Hill as the brand’s main endorser. But no one is coming close to what Nike did for culture back in the ’90s. The company put out an array of vintage collections, all of them now must-haves.
7. Physical basketball and fights
Only a handful of NBA players playing in today’s game could have survived the physicality of the game about 20 years ago. Fouls weren’t called every second and hand checking and hard fouls seemed like they were allowed.
When legends such as Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Karl Malone and even Dikembe Mutombo protected the rim, there was not a lot a small guard could do. In the modern NBA, we have seen guys like Derrick Rose and Chris Paul dominate the game on the ground but if they decided to take the ball in nonchalantly back in the day, they were headed to the ground.
There were some ruthless defensive players and teams back in the day. The Bad Boys were the most physical team in the NBA for a while and punished any players that challenged them in the paint. There was so many memorable brawls, even one in which MJ had to fight his way against Reggie Miller.
The best of the best: Shaq and Barkley; Knicks vs. Suns; Shawn Bradley getting body-slammed by everyone; Larry Johnson vs. Alonzo Mourning, and Latrell Sprewell chocking out his coach, P.J. Carlesimo.
Some of the best jerseys in NBA history come from the ’90s era, with some of the most mesmerizing color schemes and designs. The Orlando Magic’s pinstripe jerseys are an all-time great in the Shaq and Penny days. The Bulls jerseys were simple but after being the most dominant team in the ’90s, the red, black and white colorway is a staple of the era. The Charlotte Hornets pinstriped teal jerseys were the truth. The NBA introduced team logo jerseys, which teams such as the Suns, Rockets, and Raptors famously wore. Imagine approaching guys like Charles Barkley and Karl Malone with the short-sleeve jerseys; definitely would not have happened.
5. NBA on NBC
The NBA on NBC was something special and provided the best coverage for the NBA. From the intro montages before the game to the legendary theme song to having the best host, broadcasters and color commentators in Marv Albert, Ahmad Rashad, Mike Breen, Bill Walton, Hannah Storm and Bob Costas call games was perfect. There is no broadcast network touching the history the NBC and the NBA. From Reggie’s eight points against the Knicks in the final seconds to All-Star Games, to MJ’s return and last shot, the NBC had everything covered.
4. Hip-Hop era
Rap music became a key influence in the NBA in the ’90s as it began to grow and popularize in communities. People witnessed NBA players began to dress like their rap counterparts and wear longer shorts on the court (besides John Stockton). Then when Allen Iverson entered the league in 1996, everything changed forever. Du-rags, jewelry and all, A.I made the most of his success by staying true to himself and paying homage to his passion and culture.
We also saw some dope movies that combined the hip-hop elements with basketball in Above the Rim with Tupac and Duane Martin, White Men Can’t Jump and He Got Game.
Every night there was a game on TV that was worth a watch. Teams were perfectly balanced with talent, unlike how it is nowadays when you just look at the miserable Eastern Conference. Any given night you could have watched an extraordinary matchup, such as David Robinson vs. Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone vs. Barkley, Jordan vs. Drexler. There weren’t as many games that didn’t matter, and the majority of the era’s teams had a few stars that were worth a watch.
2. Golden era
The ’90s was the golden age of basketball. There are over 20 Hall of Famers that played during the era, excluding those who are bound to enter one day in Shaq, Duncan, Kidd and Kobe. When the Dream Team assembled in 1992 to become the greatest team ever in any sport, the landscape of basketball changed forever. The Dream Team featured 11 Hall of Famers! There was no match for players outside of the US in the Olympics. Foreign players were star-struck and wanted autographs instead of playing.
But the Dream Team’s dominance in countries impacted the future generation and globalized the game, motivating guys like Dirk Nowitzki to become great.
Magic Johnson, in 1991, announced he had contracted the HIV virus and it became a major story in the United States. Johnson is now a key voice for HIV awareness and role model for people battling the virus.
We witnessed MJ in his prime and the Bulls dominance, capturing six championships. The ’90s also gave birth to young stars like Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan. There will never be another era that embodied the talent the ’90s brought.
1. Michael Jordan
MJ can easily be number one on any great basketball-related list. His impact on the game of basketball changed the way people respected the game globally. Jordan was dominate in the ’80s but reached his prime in the ’90s and flourished, having perhaps the greatest decade for any professional athlete ever.
From his competitiveness, marketability and style, MJ will always be an icon. In the ’90s, he averaged 30.8 PPG, 5.1 APG, 6.3 RPG and 2.3 SPG, and shot 50.1 percent from the field. He garnered six NBA championships; six Finals MVP awards; four league MVPs; seven All-Star appearances; an Olympic gold medal and many more accolades. He did all of this despite retiring twice.
He had the best sneakers, commercials and had one of the most popular basketball films of all time in Space Jam. MJ’s legacy in sports is out of this world and is the key reason why basketball thrived in the ’90s.
Was this the best era of basketball?
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