This weekend, on a 90-degree day that seemed to shuffle between gray clouds and blinding sunlight, we got after it. Beers and pizza. There was the head coach, the assistants, the volunteers and the graduate assistants, the whole football staff my dad coaches on. It was for me, red and peeling from way too much sun.
Amazing how everything turns out; my birthday parties as a kid growing up were nothing but basketball and ice cream cake. We used to spend all day playing, stacking up two teams and playing seven-game series. We had introductions, cameras if we could find them and fights. The kind of fights that pick up for about 20 seconds – “You did it on purpose!”…”You stole my ball!” – and then die down without any real friction, us forgetting about it three minutes later. Basically every NBA tussle since 1997.
Those were the days, when rain meant nothing but a delay, and darkness was just a call to man up and go harder.
So here I was this weekend, chilling, sitting back with a Coors Light in my hand, being unable to escape the constant ambush: “Damn, I’m 25 years old.”
You grow up thinking certain things, and then after college or after high school or whenever you stop playing for real, you realize some things:
*** There are bigger things in life than sports
*** All those late Friday nights in the gym by yourself throwing behind-the-back passes off the wall were more about building character rather than skill
*** Defining yourself w/ one thing? Stupid, feeling like Mike Tyson after Buster Douglas and now you find yourself in an identity crisis, inking designs on your temple and singing Phil Collins in hyped-up frat boy party movies
*** The Kings probably did get cheated in Game 6
*** You can still play, but nothing will ever feel the same. You’ll never feed off the crowd again, you’ll never get the rush of playing the crew from across the way that hates you, nothing will ever come close again to being 16 and thinking you’re going to the NBA and talking so much s#%^ because you always thought you were better than you actually were.
So with that, I decided to think back and make a list: the 25 greatest things about the NBA for my 25th birthday…
*** *** ***
25. Chris “Birdman” Andersen
24. High Socks
(Or the lack thereof) Whoever killed this fad needs to be rewarded. Throw them a bone. Thank God. I can’t even bear to look at some of my old tapes when I used to wear them. This is the one reason I can find to hate Jason Terry.
23. 2008 Boston Celtics
They gave me someone to hate.
22. YouTube videos
Seriously, what did NBA fans do before 2005? The microscope is SO much bigger now, and it can zero in on nearly anything. Want to know how Dwight Howard can be shutdown by Jason freakin’ Collins? Want to relieve T-Mac‘s 13 in 35 over and over? Want to breakdown how Mike Miller‘s game started to deteriorate once he got a pet monkey? YouTube it. Seriously, think about how the history of this game would be altered if YouTube was always around? All of these so-called “quitters” wouldn’t be the only ones labeled that â€“ Kobe, Game 7, ’06 first round vs. Phoenix, LeBron, Game 5 ’10 semis vs. Boston â€“ because we would have video evidence of other players doing the same thing.
21. Gilbert Arenas before he fell apart
20. The metamorphosis from plodding centers to versatile, jack-of-all-trades players
19 & 18. PA announcer (John Mason) from Detroit…
…& The GOAT intros
17. T-Mac/VC Before They Went Downhill
16. Golden State, 2007
15. 2002 WCF
As you get older, you can better wrap your mind around myths that you hung onto growing up. Sacramento getting a fair shake in Game 6 is one of them.
14. Kevin Garnett
13. 2009, Bulls vs. Celtics, Eastern Conference First Round
Put it this way: watching the triple overtime Game 6 in a dorm room my senior year of undergrad, after the first half ended, I drank four rum-n-cokes, ate about two-thirds of my boy’s pizza, played three or four games of beer pong in a double-elimination tournament, had to withstand the inevitable influence of annoying females attempting to downplay the game or turn the channel altogether, got dressed, showered, was ready to head out and Joakim Noah STILL hadn’t gone coast-to-coast yet.
12. Phil Jackson
He’s the Liam Neeson of the NBA. First, he taught Obi-Wan the Force, taught him how to be mindful of the future but not at the expense of the moment. Obi-Wan was persistent, but he wasn’t inpatient. He knew right from wrong, and just needed some guidance. That was Mr. Neeson.
Then, Liam taught Batman. Batman had a fragile foundation, a past that nearly drove him insane. He was often his own worst enemy. He looked for shortcuts, quicker ways to get the revenge he wanted. By this point, Neeson, or Henri Ducard, taught him well, but didn’t cover everything. He had done this before and blindly believed Batman would just follow along.
Phil coached two of the greatest players ever, and made them even better. And they won.
11. Nick Anderson
If Anderson never slaps the ball away, never tugs on Superman’s cape, never beats Chicago and makes MJ look mortal, maybe we never see 72 wins, another MVP and the most dominating season in NBA history.
10. Heat vs. Knicks playoff rivalry
9. Big Country Reeves
8. The rise of the world game
7. Allen Iverson’s 2001 playoff run
Was there ever a better playoff run by a 6-0 jump shooting two guard surrounded by Eric Snow, Tyrone Hill and Aaron McKie? Actually check that. Was there ever a better playoff run EVER by someone who didn’t ultimately win it all?
6. TNT’s “Inside The NBA”
5. The Decision
Everything just seems so different now. I can’t even remember what life was like as a fan beforehand. LeBron: As much as you may hate him, there’s never been anything like this. This whole Decision aftermath made basketball relevant again and created the first hated villain since the Bad Boy Pistons. Now, the real story begins…
4. Jason Williams
3. Kobe Bryant and arrogance
The same s#$% that makes people hate Kobe, makes many love him. I wrote a few months back about that cockiness, that arrogance and how not only do the all-time best athletes have it, but it’s something we all wished WE had. We all wished we just didn’t care, didn’t give a f$%^. It’s what makes Kobe compelling.
During the height of the Shaq/Kobe feud, Brian Shaw once told Ric Bucher: “Bottom line, Shaq is going to have to become comfortable with it (the rise of Bryant). Because Kobe is not going to change. I’ll tell you that right now.” Kobe was 22. The same s#$%^ that makes people hate Kobe, makes many love him.
2. The New Era
I’ve broken down the years of basketball I’ve watched (once I got old enough to pay more attention to the game than toy cars) into three distinct eras:
pre-1998: This was the Jordan era…vets controlled the game…popular because it was about winning, and all of the best players were older players beating each other up for a shot at one final ring.
1999-2007: This was the first real wave of children influenced by the mid-90’s era when the league was either old vets (Hakeem, Malone, Barkley) or brash, wild youngsters (Coleman, LJ, Mourning)…all came in too early and were given too much…stars of this era were either ancient ’90s vets on their way out or young players too immature to handle the pressure of carrying a league…too many high school kids.
2008-present: Finally, all those high school kids grew up…league trimmed the fat (older stars retiring) and had to wait until the next generation (the youngest generation of ballplayers ever) matured…when they finally did, the product came back…stars learned from the mistakes of the guys who came immediately after MJ…now: great players everywhere, a handful of guys who when they hang them up will go down as one of the GOATS.
Quick story: it was early June, 1998. My family had just gotten back from a vacation in San Diego; a tornado had just ripped through our western Maryland town. The Bulls were in their last run together, going for a sixth title and the league was on the verge of being locked-out. Chicago looked vulnerable, had looked beatable all season. On opening night, Halloween, my best friend Solomon and I sat on the floor and ate candy as we watched the Bulls blow a 20-point lead to the Celtics. Yes, the Pitino Celtics with Antoine Walker, Walter McCarty and the rest. They would start slowly without Scottie Pippen, who missed the first half of the season with injury. In the playoffs against Indiana, they looked human. And in the Finals against Utah, I was nervous.
At the start of Game 6, myself, two of my best friends growing up, my parents and a few of their friends were all sitting in our living room, a couple of empty beer cans sitting on a table and a bowl of tortilla crumbs next to that. At one point, someone asked who everyone thought would win. Utah was up, at home, Pippen was hobbled. I was literally the ONLY person in the room who picked the Bulls. Blind loyalty. To me, there was no way Jordan would lose. No way. Even down three in the final 40 seconds, the black and red weren’t losing.
It was that blind loyalty that first inspired me, first gave a generation of young kids the ambition to play by themselves in the rain, first got them taping and re-watching games, first got them to define their existence by people who didn’t even know them.
It’s still there. 25 years hasn’t suffocated the will or desire. Sometimes I’ll think about what would’ve happened had Air never existed. Would my life be different? Would your life be different? I do know basketball would’ve never been the same for all of us.
We can thank Michael Jordan for that.
What are your favorite basketball moments?
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