On November 1st, 2016, Ray Allen announced his retirement from the National Basketball Association, but way back in June of 2013 when I was a wee lad of 32, I was in my living room watching game six of the Finals with my guy Zach, an unabashed LeBron James non-fan. We both claimed indifference to the outcome, but as the series progressed, it became evident that I was outwardly pro-Heat, and he was low-key pro-Spurs – or maybe just anti-Heat. I think our lines of division were cut primarily along a Lebron-drawn border and of course it was the King who lost his headband and went HAM, but it was Ray Allen in his most particular attention to detail who attempted the improbable, impossible, iconic corner three while backpedaling, squaring his feet, catching, rising, and with a posture and form that has always been the envy of jump shooters around the world, actually made one of the greatest shots in pro basketball history.
If I remember nothing else of Ray Allen, that shot will forever be seared in the part of my memory that houses basketball. It’s up there with MJ’s shot against the Jazz and Dave Newman’s shot against Valley High School in 1998 as my trinity of greatest shots of all time experienced live in the moment. (This list is subject to change at the author’s own whims and as memory affords.)
In as much as Ray’s basketball excellence can be boiled down to a single shot that articulates and expresses everything about his basketball greatness, the breadth and depth of his career is vast.
My own personal relationship with Allen dates back to his Big East days where I have recollections (and maybe even a VHS recording) of UCONN battling Allen Iverson’s Georgetown squad and Ray going by the nickname The Candyman which, whenever I’m reminded of this, I hear the refrain from the song, “The candyman can because he mixes it with love that makes the world taste good,” which is fraught with awkwardness. This is back when I was 14 or 15 which means I’ve been conscious and aware of the being called Ray Allen for over half my life.
While his Milwaukee and early Seattle years established him as top-tier and probably the top shooter in the league, my own fondness for Allen developed when I moved to Seattle in August of 2004. Up to that point, I’d never lived in a city with an NBA team. The Sonics were gone four seasons after my arrival, but in my time here they were an ok-to-good team with Allen and Rashard Lewis as their go-to guys and took the eventual champion Spurs to six games in 2005. The game three atmosphere in Key Arena was beautiful, moving enough that my mom, always good for an emotional release, had recently become a US citizen and cried through the rousing national anthem. It’s strange, but my memories of Allen are not profound and certainly not as moving as my mom’s experience during that playoff game. During the three years I watched him at Key Arena (attending roughly 5-10 games/season in-person), he experienced his statistical peak with a three-season average of 25-points, over 4 rebounds, nearly 4 assists, with 3 threes-made-per game and made the All-NBA Second team in 04-05.
There was something rote or maybe even boring to his excellence. That’s not to imply there’s something less valuable about a versatile two-guard with a well-rounded game and the prettiest jump shot of all-time and an incomprehensibly quick release. It’s not to discount the nuance of his footwork curling around a screen and lining his feet up perfectly while catching and shooting in one motion. There was something almost in the vein of Floyd Mayweather; the technical genius who is indisputably great, but semi-predictable and at worst taken for granted. I enjoyed his game most of all when he was acting as a playmaker as he was capable of expanding his game beyond the shooting and attacking style he was known for up to that time. His handle and playmaking ability were given short shrift, but I always wondered what type of ceiling lay lurking beneath that jump shot.
Stylistics aside, my strongest memories of Allen in a Sonics jersey are conflict and performance-related. First there was the long-simmering beef with Kobe Bryant, encapsulated so beautifully by Kobe reportedly calling Ray-Ray before a pre-season game to notify him of a pending ass busting and then telling reporters, “Don’t even put me and dude in the same breath.” How could I forget that kind of old school inter-positional shit talking? Allen was always a yin to Kobe’s yang; an ultra-talented player, athlete and shooter, but all business which isn’t to say without ego. Where Kobe couldn’t coexist with Shaq or be a part of a big three, Allen just went about his craft scoring 20-25-points while setting NBA 3-point records and eventually filling roles on championship teams in exchange for his own individual stats and accolades. Even to the end, Kobe couldn’t share the spotlight with anyone else while Ray was more than comfortable receding without fanfare. One isn’t better than the other, but their contrasting styles and personalities create a natural rivalry that Kobe, for his part, seemed comfortable exploring.
On a winter night in January of 2006, the Sonics hosted the Orlando Magic with reserve combo-guard Keyon Dooling. I was somewhere up high in the rafters of Key Arena watching with my wife. Early in the second quarter, Dooling smashed into Allen with an intentional forearm shiver. From my vantage point, all I saw was the aftermath which was the flurry of activity that accompanies a fight. Allen lifted Keyon and drove him into the front row and from my seat so many hundreds of feet away, I still had that prickly hair-on-end feeling that accompanies live, physical violence. As someone who’s attended 30-some-odd NBA games in person, it’s strange to me that the one fight I’ve witnessed included Ray Allen.
On the performance side, the evening of Sunday, January 22nd will always belong to Kobe and his 81-point game, but it was a game in Phoenix that’s often added as a footnote to that day in NBA history and is my Ray Allen ideal. In a double-overtime contest, Allen led the Sonics with 42 points and 67% true shooting. The final score was a ridiculous 152-149, but Allen was quintessential Ray-Ray late in the game. Maybe it was exploiting the occasional mismatch with Steve Nash or maybe he just put the team on his back like Greg Jennings. Whatever the case, Allen scored 10 through three quarters and went bonkers in the 4th with 21 points on 6-6 shooting including 5-5 from 3. If you watch the clip below, the threes are contested, but Allen, in all his obsessive compulsive nuance, maintains the same form, same footwork, and alignment on every shot. His ability to run in a straight line at full speed or go full speed, curl around a screen, situate his feet just behind the line and catch and shoot with defenders rushing at him like barbarians at the gates is makes him a stylistic father to Klay and Steph. It’s the kind of skill that requires its own targeted defense. The broadcast is comedically highlighted by one of the announcers (Craig Ehlo?) saying, “You know what his mama always told us? ‘Don’t worry about Ray, he’ll get his shots.’”
As if his flawless fourth quarter and a 138-138 tie through four periods and one overtime wasn’t enough, the Suns had the audacity to lose Allen on the final play of the game. Tied up at 149 with 2.5 seconds on the clock, he caught the ball probably 40-feet from the hoop, took a big dribble and stepped in a game-winning shot from somewhere around 30-feet out, nothing but net just for good measure.
Raja Bellsummed it up nicely, “How do you explain a guy knocking down a 30-some footer to win a game? It’s not really luck, but it’s a tough thing to explain. It just happens.” Meanwhile, announcer Kevin Calabro held it together, but somehow got stuck repeating, “Break on through to the otherside!”
Through a combination of national exposure, NBA championships, the evolution of the internet and a vociferous online basketball-loving community, Allen’s peak popularity came after his peak as a player. The Boston Big Three was a collection of first-ballot Hall of Famers on a mission – and they delivered. I hated this Celtics team with a passion I’ve reserved for Curry’s Warriors and the “if it ain’t rough it ain’t right” Pistons. Kevin Garnett had evolved into a bully with Kendrick Perkins as his henchman. Paul Pierce was a shit-talking heel. Rajon Rondo was sullen, too big for his britches or something. And they embraced it all! How dare they! But then there was Ray Allen, a steady Eddie if ever there was one. And even though his temperament was the calm day to KG’s tempestuous night, he was perfect for the Celtics model. Unlike KG, he wasn’t angry or demonstrative. He assimilated into the Boston culture without nonsense, without pretense or personality sacrifice. By being his uncontroversial self, he differentiated from his bombastic teammates which also speaks to why Allen’s departure from Boston was met with acrimony by KG and Pierce. Ray went about his business, KG caught feelings.
We finish where we began, in Miami, in his late-30s as a reserve, comfortably and quietly in the background as LeBron, Wade, and Bosh absorbed all the attention. Ray Allen spent his career as a constant, always conforming to roles his team required; be it as an evolving young star with the Bucks, face of the franchise with the Sonics, critical component of Boston’s Big Three, or floor stretching reserve with Miami. His conformity to role and commitment to regiment is the gateway through which his greatest individual play as a basketball player passed. At 37, with any hope for any NBA championship resting on his ability to place a basketball in a rim while opponents distract him, Ray Allen did what he’s done more than any player in NBA history: he made a three. The rest is just epilogue.
We were all so much more innocent back on April 13th, 2016. A historic NBA season was coming to a close with dual games competing for the main stage of national TV hoop audiences: In one corner, the final game of Kobe Bryant’s illustrious 20-year-career. In the other, Kobe’s antithesis, the record-setting, fun-loving, three-point-chucking Warriors of Golden State questing for their record-setting 73rd win. That sweet night back in spring may have been the end of the 2015-16 NBA regular season, but it was just the beginning of a 90-day stretch that has laid waste to forward and backward views of the NBA and culminated on July 11th with Tim Duncan’s retirement acting as an appropriate bookend to what Kobe started back in April.
It’s not a knock on Golden State that Kobe stole the show on that Wednesday night. The Warriors hosted a short-handed Memphis team they’d already whooped up on three times. The Grizz were without Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, etc. The game was a formality, a 48-minute procession that lead to crowning the Warriors as the greatest regular season team of all time. It was anti-climactic, but not without massive historical significance.
If Golden State embodied audacity in their pursuit of 73 wins, Kobe’s been radiating his own stubborn brand of nerve dating back to the first references to him in the history books as a competitive savant of sorts playing against grown men in Italy. That brashness is why people tuned in, hoping to get one last memory from Kobe – either something to solidify their notion of his greatness, reaffirm that he’s a ball hogging diva, or just say goodbye to an icon. In his most polarizing approach, he delivered to everyone.
In 25 years of watching basketball, Bryant’s final game with 60 points on 50 shots and 21 three point attempts; with his 37-year-old body gasping for air, visibly fatigued, committed to squeezing in as many shots as possible will always sit near the top of my memories. It was by turns hilarious and awe inspiring, predictable and incomprehensible. I don’t imagine I’ll ever see a player drop 60 in his last game, deliver what felt like a pre-planned speech, and un-ironically wrap it up with, “Mamba out,” but that’s what happened and it should’ve been a reminder to us all that this game, in all its beautiful bouncing and human fragility, is unpredictable.
A few weeks the collective NBA world had shifted focus to the Western Conference Finals. Some people expected Oklahoma City to beat Golden State and maybe the events of May 24th aligned with their thoughts, but I think most of us were surprised to see OKC run the Warriors off the floor in game four: 118-94 to go up 3-1. OKC was faster, stronger, longer, more confident, tougher, better. Something like 10 teams had come back from 3-1 deficits, but OKC had just won back-to-back games by a combined 52 points.
If Kobe’s last game is a shiny performance that demands a place in memory, Klay Thompson’s game six against OKC was probably more impressive given the context. Down eight heading into the fourth, a historic season on the line in a hostile environment, the future of rival Kevin Durant at stake, and Klay comes out gunning with three threes and all nine of GSW’s points to open the period. He would end up scoring 19 in the quarter, 41 for the game. These weren’t just spot up threes or blown defensive assignments, but hair trigger releases against great defense and bombs from 30 feet.
Despite Klay’s classic game, it’s fair to look back at the game six and the subsequent GSW win in game seven as critical dominoes in the Durant sweepstakes. It’s not likely anyone will ever know what KD would’ve decided had OKC won the west, but they didn’t and before game summary stories had been filed, the KD exodus rumors were already trickling out.
About a week-and-a-half after GSW had given Durant an up-close look at what he was missing out on, they took their own 3-1 lead over the Cavs in the Finals.
I don’t know if it’s the omnipresence of connected media and the Twittersphere or the sheer improbability of it all that etched it in my mind so clearly, but the Cavs comeback feels like something that’s been drilled into my memories: the Draymo suspension, Bron/Kryie going batshit crazy in game five, Bron going HAM in game six, and the unceasing rising tension of the 89-89 tie punctured and punctuated by a cascade of hugely historic moments: the block, Kevin Love’s defense on Steph, Kyrie’s shot, Bron trying to jackhammer home the final nail in GSW’s coffin by dunking on Draymo but getting fouled and maybe, possibly hurting his wrist. It’s all there, so clear and incredible, so historic and memorable, but so so foreboding as evidenced by GSW’s owner Joe Lacob’s, “All I can say is I will be very aggressive (in the off-season)” post-game comment.
When Cleveland was down 3-1 after having been trounced in game five at home, a comeback felt so out of reach and improbable. The odds were less than GSW’s comeback over OKC. After all, we’d seen the Warriors break teams and were just a couple weeks removed from Klay and Steph’s bombs away act finishing off OKC. Trading Kevin Love was inevitable, and at times Kyrie looked like a great individual talent that just didn’t comprehend the level of effort required at this level. Obituaries were drafted, LeBron’s window slammed shut, Warrior pressers were jokey events offset by obligatory “the series isn’t over” statements. A comeback wasn’t possible until it was and a month later my mind is still blown by it.
Of all these moments, maybe the most seismic was Durant’s July 4th announcement on the Player’s Tribune that he’d be joining Golden State – joining Steph, Klay, Draymo, Iggy. But what, but how? The stories and the analyses flowed out: if OKC beats GSW then he doesn’t leave, if GSW beats the Cavs then he can’t go. It’s what-if conjecture that can’t be solved any better than generational NBA debates.
In our reality, it happened the way it did and now the 6’11”, jump shooting, all-position defending, long-limbed 27-year-old from DC is joining one of the greatest teams of all-time. All the pieces had to fall just right to even allow it and when I write allow, I mean the cap, OKC losing, GSW losing, the conditions being created that made it rational and acceptable to Durant to leave OKC and join its greatest rival. Amid all this great on-court achievement and drama, the possibility that Durant brings to GSW is what makes it the greatest plot twist of all. Who’s the real Keyser Soze here?
So if Durant-to-the-Warriors is the climactic event, it’s Duncan low-key retirement on July 11th that acts as a coda for this dramatic 90 days that shook the NBA. The turnover is radical; from Kobe going out like a roman candle to Duncan fading into the cold quiet darkness of Spurs space. Two all-timers who played with their franchises for the entirety of their careers retiring against the backdrop of one of the most historic Finals and Finals performances, and all while Durant trades in the blue and orange of the Thunder for the blue and gold of the Bay.
How did we get here and where do we go? Our familiar faces are changing places or leaving us altogether. I don’t have a clue what this new NBA looks like, with the exception of a divisive CBA negotiation next summer. It feels like we’re coming out of an exhausting whirlwind, and entering what? I never could’ve expected a 90-day span like what happened from April 13th to July 11th and I don’t know what I expect the ramifications to be. But where I originally tuned in for a game played between lines drawn on a 94×50 hardwood court, I stick around as much now for the drama that unfolds off the court; in its history and operations, in the shaping of histories and futures by actors who are owners, front office officers, coaches, and self-determining players.
A great chapter closed, an era ended, the ink is finally dry on the career of Tim Duncan. Of course, we’ll be arguing legacies and positions played until time immemorial because that’s what we do, but there is no next with Tim Duncan. In the early morning when I found out about his retirement, my mind was clear, not yet polluted by the noise of the day and corporate worries. I trust my morning mind and for some reason, my first thoughts of Duncan were his failures.
Back in 2013 when the Heat battled back from a game six fourth quarter deficit and eventually won the series in game seven, a major footnote of the series happened in the fourth quarter of game seven with Miami up 90-88 and less than a minute remaining in the game. Duncan, guarded by 6’7” Shane Battier, caught the ball on the left block and dribbled across the middle of the lane where he attempted and missed a driving layup. He perfectly timed his miss and used his great length to tip the ball back up, missing that as well. Miami rebounded the ball and went on to win the game. Duncan and the Spurs got the shot they wanted, but he missed. For a guy who’s considered by many to be the greatest power forward of all time, this was a low point.
“To be at this point — with this team, in a situation where people kind of counted us out — [it] is a great accomplishment to be in a Game 7,” Duncan said. “Or to be in a Game 6 up one and two chances to win an NBA championship and not do it, that’s tough to swallow.”
But now that the world has turned and left Duncan here, so close and yet so far away from the fifth title he so desperately craves, the Game 6 meltdown isn’t what he’ll remember most.
“For me, no. Game 7, missing a layup to tie the game … Making a bad decision down the stretch. Just unable to stop Dwyane [Wade] and LeBron [James]. Probably, for me, Game 7 is always going to haunt me.”
Tim Duncan’s greatness has never been up for debate. Since he stepped onto the court as a rookie and averaged 21-points with 12-rebounds and 2.5-blocks, he’s been firmly entrenched as a top player in the league. And yet, I’ll always remember his early career bugaboos from the free throw line. He never reached Shaq-level struggles, but battled the yips on multiple occasions over the years; most notably against the Pistons in game five of the 2005 Finals when he went 0-6 from the line in the 4th quarter including 0-3 in the final minute. It was remarkable to see a player who was otherwise so fundamentally sound lose focus or over-focus at critical points in big games. He was a 7-foot expressionless (except when disagreeing with calls) tactician with his own flaws and struggles.
I assume I’m attracted to Duncan’s failures in part because as a Lakers fan during the Shaq/Kobe era, Duncan and his Spurs were a fear-causing foil. If Shaq was a human wrecking ball patrolling the paint, Duncan was the Excellence of Execution, a player whose overall game was so refined as to appear pre-programmed, Terminator style. Some guys are so great that you that their success is assumed. If you root against these players or their teams, you become conditioned to them snuffing out your hope by just doing what they do.
But it was never just about Duncan. In some ways, Duncan and the Spurs were too good to be true, too good to resist. Part of the indelibleness of his and their failures is rooted deeply in the 19-year-long crush of a narrative that trails these Spurs around as a model of virtue and righteousness. It’s this unbudging narrative (and lack of questioning it) that pushed me to write this in 2014 and drove my friend Jacob Greenberg to write this a few months later. Duncan isn’t guilty of crafting these narratives, but Spurs and Popovich exceptionalism have always generated incessant storylines that made any deviation from the flawless particularly enjoyable.
But as I look back and re-watch some of these old misses, there’s no longer any joy. Removed from the passion that accompanies being a fan fully engrossed in the live moment, it’s empathy and feeling that stand out. For all the descriptions of being a stoic and being a robot, Duncan is composed of the same moondust that makes up all of us. And in seeing his failure and the weights of those disappointments, I can’t help but feel some of what he feels even if I only ever hoped his team would be defeated.
So in my pettiness, it’s failure that stands out and it isn’t just the free throws I remember. As has become a theme of this blog, my own personal fan experience is one that relishes the defeat of true foes as much as it celebrates my own team’s victories. May 13th, 2004 delivered an iconic basketball moment and Duncan was a significant figure in the memory. I was at my apartment in Iowa City, a fifth-year senior grinding through his final classes, watching a Lakers/Spurs Western Conference Semifinals grinder from bed while my wife (then my girlfriend) studied or worked or just chilled next to me. The game unfolded on my crappy 19” TV, a low-scoring affair in the 70s of which I remember little except two shots.
With just over five seconds on the clock and a 72-71 Lakers lead in San Antonio, Duncan caught Ginobili’s inbounds at the right elbow and with a 7’1”, 350lbs-plus Shaq draped over him, took a couple hard dribbles to his left and elevated with his momentum carrying him that direction and flung a shot at the basket. He didn’t follow-through, it was just a quick trigger of a line drive that seemed to be magnetically pulled into and through the hoop.
The Spurs, their fans, and of course Duncan erupted. The camera zoomed in on Kobe, on Shaq. They’re stunned, disbelieving. The clock read 0.4 seconds and in my room as a 23-year-old, I am deflated. Even re-watching it now, a stain of disappointment is still there, just barely, but there it is; knowingly bested even if by a fluke shot. Even if it didn’t play out that way, the likelihood of defeat was all too real to the point I still carry it with me more than 12 years later.
The Lakers come back down with Gary Payton inbounding. Shaq peels back checking for the lob, but Rasho Nesterovic denies it. Kobe tries to break away north of the three-point line, but it’s Derek Fisher making a hard cut to the ball, catching and barely turning and shooting all in one motion. From a sitting position, I jumped off my bed, nearly hitting my head on the ceiling. I shrieked or screamed or yelled and my wife nearly had a heart attack. And all those Spurs, Kevin Willis, Bruce Bowen, Hedo Turkoglu, and of course Tim Duncan are struck down by their own incomprehension which is only made more agonizing by the review process that confirms it all: shot is good, Lakers win.
That the most controversial aspect of Duncan’s career is whether or not he was a power forward or center is the vanilla of NBA controversies. He made no waves, just dominated. He won two MVPs, three Finals MVPs, an All-Star MVP, and five NBA Championships. I guess people want to debate if he’s the best power forward ever or how he stacks up against Kobe as the best player of their shared generation, but there’s not much to argue for me. I’ll always remember the failures and even if I understand how and why my memories drift that way, I can’t help but feel that in relishing the losses, I missed out on some great moments from one of the greatest basketball players of my lifetime.
Hard to imagine it was over 20 years ago that Michigan’s Fab Five played Duke in the NCAA Finals, but we’re 21-years on and counting. I was reminded of the Fab Five charging into the basketball world like bald mayhem bringing news of change wearing long shorts, black socks, and attitude to spare. I was just 11-years-old at the time. A University of Iowa fan (read: Jess Settles, Chris Kingsbury, Andre Woolridge, Tom Davis); I didn’t catch on to the blue and gold bandwagon until Webber and Rose were on the way out. It was more about the cool than it was any Schembechlerian blood coursing through my veins. I had to have that maize Jalen Rose jersey because the little version of me attached value to material things. It couldn’t be Webber because he was the obvious superstar. It had to be Rose; the subversive 6’8” impossibly long point with the bald head, mumbling motor mouth, and pencil thin mustache that he wouldn’t actually grow for a few years – it’s just how I remember him. I read Mitch Albom’s Fab Five: Basketball, Trash Talk, The American Dream with the enthusiasm of a teenage hoop dreaming disciple somehow merging my athletically-challenged basketball fantasies with the realities of the black kids Albom so meticulously framed in Fab Five.
Over the years, I haven’t dwelled on the Fab Five or their back-to-back finals appearances in ’92 and ’93. Then I was reading the Sports Illustrated college hoops preview issue with a little section dedicated to John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats and the seven freshmen in line for big minutes this season. These days, it’s standard operating procedure to reference the Fab Five any time you’re talking or writing about a strong freshmen class, but this group of Wildcats, while they may or may not be better, are deeper, and may end up more accomplished; they won’t make a mark anywhere remotely similar to that Michigan group. Even Aaron Harrison, one of the freshman starters on this Kentucky team acknowledged as much: “It’s amazing not just what they did on the court but how they were a part of pop culture.” Granted, Harrison wasn’t alive when the Fab Five were reshaping basketball in America, but he’s seen the Fab Five 30 for 30 on ESPN.
It was in this SI piece where I came across a reference to the NCAA Vault; a strange archival warehouse free to anyone with a computer and halfway decent internet connection that includes over 300 games and over 4,000 highlights from the NCAA Tournament dating back to 1976. How do I know these exact numbers? Because the site also includes a handy Media Guide with quick-access URLs for every game. The user interface is simple to use as it allows visitors to apply a variety of different filters to find old games and revisit old memories. There are no registrations, no usernames, no passwords, and, best of all, it’s free. As I stumbled into this vast record of nostalgia, I had to cast a shifty glare in the direction of the NBA where a cavernous library of game footage sits in some giant safety deposit box, gathering dust, waiting for the NBA to figure out how to best monetize the content.
Now’s a good time to mention that my former love affair with college basketball has grown cold with the knowledge of the exploitation that takes place at the collegiate ranks (the one-and-done trend destroys continuity as well). That Jalen Rose jersey I mentioned earlier? It was Rose’s number five, inspired by Rose, in existence only because of Rose, but the young guard from Southwest Detroit didn’t benefit from its sale. I used to spend hours in front of the TV, playing Coach K on Sega Genesis; using old school teams with player numbers instead of names – because the NCAA and EA Sports used a little loophole to make gaggles of money without having to give any to these kids for profiting on their likeness. There were eight classic teams and I was so overzealous about this squad that I wrote EA Sports inquiring as to why Michigan’s Fab Five teams weren’t included among the other classic rosters. They even responded and I walked away satisfied; not at having made a change in the world of video games, because of course they didn’t magically add the Fab Five, but because I had been heard. I also have this foggy memory of playing Coach K and using Ed O’Bannon’s UCLA team; ironic given the recent class action lawsuit against the NCAA led by O’Bannon.
So my relationship with college basketball is complex. There are these memories that date back over twenty years, as real as the games that Chris Webber played in at Michigan and the banners that once hung in the rafters there, but which have been vaporized from the record books like simple signs of dissent in Nineteen Eighty-Four. In other ways my memories are stained with the knowledge of a ruling class of college athletics, made up of TV execs, Athletic Directors, and university presidents, preaching the gospel of an unbelievable and outdated amateurism while lining their bulging pockets with money spent by parents on jerseys and video games and other useless collegiate memorabilia.
I’m human though with all my breakable bones and shitty ideas and so I gave into the muse of nostalgia and indulged the NCAA Vault. With my leftover chicken fried rice and a beer, I sat down with a notebook, clicked the play button and watched the 1992 NCAA Final.
I’m not sure what I was expecting. I knew the outcome, knew that Michigan lost 71-51, that the dreaded (Blue) Devils of Duke walked away with their second title in a row. I know I’d be disappointed and all along found myself looking for these what-if moments. What if Webber didn’t get in foul trouble (two of his first three fouls were tick-tack) and play tentative defense as a result? What if Michigan could hit a shot outside of the lane? What if Billy Packer didn’t say dumb shit like, “Kamikaze pressure?” None of it mattered though. No basketball mind tricks could change the truth: It was a terrible basketball game that happened to be close for about 33-and-a-half minutes. Even when Michigan kept it tight and took a lead into the second half, Duke looked like the better team. Michigan made stupid mistakes, dumb passes, had child-like miscommunications while Duke just missed shots and gave up offensive rebounds. Combined, they committed 34 turnovers (20 for Michigan, 14 for Duke) and shot 41% from the field with the Wolverines going 1-11 from three. Not surprisingly, a 45-second shot clock didn’t enhance the watchability of the second half. As Duke established a lead and their scrawny senior point guard went to the bench with foul trouble, their offense shifted into clock-wasting mode and spent at least 35-seconds/possession playing hot potato with the ball 40-feet from the hoop – and this started with something like eight minutes to go in the game.
The very little redemption I could pick out of this shit-stack of unfulfilling basketball was the obviousness of Webber’s ability. Where Laettner, Hurley, and even Grant Hill appeared to be merely strong college players with questionable pro futures ahead, Webber’s fluid athleticism was on full display and punctuated by his gracefully pushed fast break through defenders and behind-the-back pass to a cutting teammate for the score. Packer, for all his Laettner-jocking, compared one of Webber’s post moves to James Worthy and it made perfect sense: the freshman version of Webber had the quickness and explosiveness of an NBA small forward. Rose, Jimmy King, and Grant Hill had flashes of the pro-style ability, even those moments were fleeting and overshadowed by poor decision making and execution.
There’s so much and so little to take away from this experience. I don’t know if I’ll watch another game on the Vault, but I could see it being useful for re-watching old classics (don’t be surprised if you walk away underwhelmed and unfulfilled) or exploring the early developments of players like Patrick Ewing, MJ, Olajuwon, etc, or maybe just passing the time on a rainy day in the off-season. The NCAA’s delivered its fair share of dramatic sporting experiences and memories over the years and I’m thankful for that, but it’s difficult to watch these events unfold, even in retrospect, with the knowledge that so much has come from lies, greed, and hypocrisy.
I’m a Lakers fan. Make no mistake about it. Beneath all my demands for fairness and bridging the rich-poor gap acrimony, I still cheer for the Lakers and their “see money, throw a problem at it” philosophy. So you can imagine my curiosity last year when I’m watching the Lakers slowly implode like a basketball version of an ugly, slow, painful deterioration of something or someone you know. Maybe it’s like when Brittney Spears fell off the rails in public and her fans just sat there and watched and they probably wanted to help her … “If I just had a chance, I could help Britt.” I can see some Lakers fans convinced they had solutions to the incurable problems the team had last season. But not me. I wasn’t one of those fans. I sat back and watched in enraptured entertainment. Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol. So many of us presumed that the star power alone would blind opponents, leaving them defenseless to an onslaught of well-aged skill and Howardian beastliness down low. And when the reality of age and fragility set in and the team underachieved for so many games, those shining stars dimmed to a cynical glow and Lakers fans frowned and grunted through an extended shit show where nothing made sense and everything went wrong.
All the while I sat bewildered, but unexpectedly entertained. In the NBA more so than the NFL or MLB, you can pick a handful of contenders at the beginning of the season and be fairly confident in your assessments. For all of us to whiff so badly last year; including the Kupchaks and Busses of the world … well, it was like watching a Hollywood blockbuster with one of our favorite action heroes as the star, but only the script goes off somewhere. The hero doesn’t fit the prototype we’re trained to recognize. Superman can’t change into his blue spandex in the phone booth let alone fly through the air. The Batmobile catches a flat and Bruce Wayne has to wait for Alfred to show up and change the tire. Meanwhile, Lex Luther and the Joker are taking a big ol’ dump on Metropolis and Gotham. That was the Lakers we saw last season.
Now in the fall of 2013, on the cusp of another NBA season, I’m all settled in, prepared for a crummy Lakers campaign that rivals the miserable outcomes of the post-Shaq Lakers like 2005 when Kobe “led” the team to 34 wins. But the difference is obviously that we’re prepared for it now. That preparation or expectation is the critical piece. When we know what to expect, we can maintain an even keel while still experiencing fluctuations in emotions. It’s the unexpected that challenges our conditioned responses.
You might be wondering why I’m just now drifting back to these Lakers memories. After all, we’re several months removed from the realization that the Lakers were not who we thought they were. A couple of my other favorite teams are presently walking through their own purgatories of expectation and I’m reflexively flashing back:
The current Manchester United team, another team I support (go ahead, make your front-runner jokes, but know I’m a long-suffering Cubs fan as well and experience both sides of the winning/losing of fandom), is enduring a challenging season with their new skipper, David Moyes. Moyes is replacing the living legend, Sir Alex Ferguson, who managed the world’s most recognizable sports franchise for over 26 years. In that span, he etched out a profile for himself that, on a global scale, exceeds that of Pat Riley, Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson and all the rest. Ferguson was an anomaly in the English Premier League where clubs cycle through managers more frequently than most of us go through a pair of jeans. United has mostly the same roster they had last year when the dominated the league and secured the title with multiple weeks still to play. It was fantastically anti-climactic and Ferguson left the new manager with a sturdy foundation on which to build a new legacy for himself and his new club. Instead, nine matches into the new season and United has struggled with a miserable defense that is regularly outplayed and compounds their shortcomings with knuckleheaded decision making and lapses in discipline. Yet … as I watch the team, I’m taking a strange satisfaction in the struggle. It’s not a sporting masochism. In the case of United, there’s this part of me that’s enjoying the uphill climb of this underachieving group. Maybe it’s because it’s still early in the season and I have faith that they’ll figure it out, that patience will win the day. Or maybe it’s just the feeling of stepping into a different, less comfortable role. Maybe I feel better being on more relatable terms with my friend who’s a Tottenham supporter? Or maybe I’m just a confused elitist who’s confusing the struggle with a footballing equivalent of slumming. Either way, it’s a more engrossing feeling than the anticlimactic sprint away from a pedestrian pack.
At home, my Seattle Sounders are flailing through the final few weeks of a grueling MLS regular season. Where the team was riding the natural high of an eight-match unbeaten streak that saw them climb to the top of league standings, they’ve now lost four straight matches by a 2-12 deficit. The Sounders haven’t won a match since mid-September. Players are hurt, the defense is in shambles, luck favors their opponents and yet, I find their matches more magnetizing than ever. I tune in or go to matches wondering if this is the game they turn it around. I anticipate the euphoria that must come with a break from these autumnal doldrums. With the MLS playoffs a week away, the Sounders somehow backed into the playoffs, and instead of drinking myself to sleep or crying tears of blue and rave green discontent, I’m cautiously hopeful that things will turn and we’ll look back on this rough stretch as nothing more than a funky smelling aberration. Something to share a beer over and thank the soccer gods it’s passed.
Familiar site. Not fun to see.
Let’s be real here … maybe I just don’t know how to be a fan. Maybe there’s some twisted gene hiding in my DNA that’s afraid of the pressure that accompanies a winner. Maybe I just don’t get what it means to be a fan, because I’d expect a different reaction. I’d expect to be pissed off or pouty about these things, but I just accept it with curious observation. The 2013 Lakers, Sounders and Man United teams have stumbled into strange playoff positions with dust-covered aging rosters and defenses that can be exploited by younger, less-skilled opponents. And I sit back and take it all in with a chuckle at the unexpected deviation from the narrative and the strange satisfaction I feel from not knowing what’s coming next. The Lakers, Sounders and United … my teams, my disappointments, my entertainments through winning, losing, and all points beyond and between.
Keyon Dooling retired and it doesn’t leave much more than a footnote in the greater basketball history that rolls forward in freight train fashion, weighed down with players whose careers earned more inky and statistical significance than Dooling’s. I struggle with the meaning, with the place Dooling occupies in the evolving landscape. That he came of age around the same time as me is no trivial detail in my Dooling relations.
My memories of the combo-guard date back to the late 90s when I lived in Iowa and Key was just south at Mizzou. Was Norm Stewart still coaching? The Big 8 had just become the Big 12 and Dooling supposedly had hops, good dunker, strong athlete, but I never envisioned him as a pro. He didn’t have that pre-tragedy Ronnie Fields electricity and I struggle to get over the prejudices I hold towards 6’3” combo guards: What are you? I need definition like Dooling needed two more inches—although a lot of good it did his old Mizzou teammate, Kareem Rush. So Dooling escaped my simplistic ideas and did so for 12 long, hard years as a quality rotation guy on six different teams.
He etched himself into my memory at Missouri, but it was years later with the Orlando Magic that he finally revealed himself. Orlando was visiting the Sonics and I was seated in the upper deck somewhere in Key Arena, when a little friction occurred between Dooling and Ray Allen. I don’t recall if punches were thrown, but there were tackles, glares, posturing and I could feel the rising tension all the way up in my nosebleed seat. It was that uncomfortable fight or flight feeling, that deeply primal sensation most of us encounter as kids and try to avoid as adults. Then they were both gone; ejected and calm was restored. I later read Steve Francis’s post-game comments that “Ray didn’t want none of Key.” And whether it was more of a shot at Ray’s crisp, straight-laced image or a reference to some well-known reputation of Dooling’s, I’ll never know, but I chose to believe the latter. In a league full of posturing and fugazi, was Keyon Dooling one of the real ones, the genuine articles?
Whatever he was to the NBA, I’ll remember Keyon Dooling for his days at Missouri, his scrap with Ray Allen, his deep brown skin, a headband wrapped around his close-cropped hair, glaring eyes, scrunched up scowling face and an oddball jersey number like 55 or 51.
I know Ricky Rubio will come back to us in six to nine months like most victims of torn ACLs do, but it doesn’t ease the pain, the sense that we’re all being deprived of something or someone with rare abilities. Ricky Rubio is that someone and it sucks that he’s gone too soon, but when we get out of bed in the early morning hours and walk out the door, we put ourselves at grave risk every single day. Ricky was doing what he what loved when he tore the aforementioned ACL…just like so many blessed basketball players before him—and my fiancée when she tore her ACL on a trampoline last year.
So instead of sitting in a windowless room with the light of a single candle burning while Michael Jackson’s “Gone to Soon” fills the silence and I swallow Xanax to calm my worried mind, I decided to get tough and force myself to see a bright side of this situation. The truth is there is no bright side to Rubio tearing his ACL.
But there are other truths. Like this one: Today’s NBA is cram packed with men of average-to-just-above-average height (worth noting that the point guard position, based on the physical pre-requisites of the position, has a larger pool of humans to select from than all other positions combined) who play the point guard position extremely well. For my buck, none of them have that je ne se quoi that Rubio possesses, but what they may lack in some poetic Spanish essence, they make up for in burst and tenacity, abruptness and precision. As much as I want to stack rank these players (it feels so damn natural), I realize that rankings obfuscate the point and result in arguing and debates that have nothing to do with this celebratory acknowledgement that I wish Walt Whitman and Curtis Mayfield could collaborate on instead.
We’re in the midst of a point guard boon and even with the loss of one of its most joyfully entertaining members (it’s temporary!); it remains a group bound together by ability and time. To investigate the “why now?” is to embark on a Freakonomics journey that I’m not presently being paid enough to embark on. In place of said investigation, I’ve included an homage to the shabooya roll call, giving out respect and love to the architects who laid the blueprints for this position and the torch bearers who continue to shed light on its borders:
Bob Cousy: One handed, but he greased the wheels of the most successful machine we’ve seen.
Oscar Robertson: Elgin Baylor at the point. The Big O would’ve been big for a PG in today’s game. In the 1960s, he was pretty much a predecessor to LeBron.
Isiah Thomas: Lord lord lord, the original baby faced assassin. I hated his guts, but Zeke was the last great point guard (Rondo?) to lead his team to a title … 20+ years ago.
Unseen 80s buddy flick: Zeke and Billy's Wacky Summer
Magic Johnson: The greatest nickname for the greatest point guard of all time.
John Stockton: Slow and steady wins the race. Watching Stockton and hearing stories about him, you get the feeling he has a cockroach-like ability to survive any situation. If and when the nuclear holocaust happens, Stockton will be one of the few to survive and re-build our civilization.
Tim Hardaway: It was all about the UTEP Two-Step, but little Timmy was a founding member of RUN-TMC and was one of the original jitterbug point guards. If Rubio needs inspiration during his recovery process, he need look no further than Timmy who tore his ACL and bounced back to become one of the most dynamic points of the 90s.
Jason Kidd: Cut from the Magic mold, Kidd could’ve retired five years ago and still made the Hall on his first ballot. Still ticking away and winning a title in his late 30s, he makes me wonder what Magic could’ve accomplished if he hadn’t retired prematurely at 31—I’m 31 and I know I’ve still got some good hoops left in me.
Nate Archibald: I don’t know much about Nate except he preceded Hardaway at UTEP and led the league in scoring and assists. How you do that?
Steve Nash: When Nash was decked out in Santa Clara red, I never would’ve imagined he’d be a two-time MVP and retire as one of the greatest passers and consummate PGs in league history. Not knowing is what makes this game so lovable and addictive. Who’s going to fuck up your misguided misconceptions next?
Kevin Johnson: Fred Hoiberg’s already got the “Mayor” trademarked, but KJ acting as the savior for the NBA in Sacramento exceeds anything he accomplished in a Suns uniform… although Hakeem might disagree.
Mark Price: Bobby Cremins’s original point guard extraordinaire. Price has won free throw competitions in all 48 of the contiguous United States as well as Hawaii.
Stephon Marbury: Sticking with Georgia Tech, Marbury’s resume is debatable, but he was one of the original one and done players and is a poster child for the mid-90s malcontents. Hate if you must, but there’s a place in the point guard pantheon for Marbury; I just don’t know where it is.
Gary Payton: Yakety yak, Payton loved to talk smack. A 6’4” point with a post game, Payton is regarded with universal positivity. The northwest adores the man to this day and his NBA TV partnership with Chris Webber is as entertaining as his partnership with Shawn Kemp…albeit for completely different reasons.
Mark Jackson: It’s not fun to watch a man start backing another man down at the half court line, but Jackson made a career out of utilizing his superior size and apparent “old man” strength. The league changed the rules because of his constant abuse.
Chris Paul: In terms of pure point guard-ability, CP’s my preferred flavor for today’s game. He might be a dirty player, but he controls the timing and tempo of any game he’s in. The only drawback to his game is when he over point guards—that’s a term for point guards who are so insistent on getting teammates involved that they essentially remove themselves as scoring threats and allow the defense to play 5 on 4 basketball: *Over point guarding*.
Deron Williams: Hard to believe the Hawks passed (no pun) on Deron and CP3, but they did. Deron’s a fullback of a point guard at 6’3”, 200lbs+. He can score, pass, provide court generalship and plays Lex Luger to CP’s Ric Flair.
Rajon Rondo: People should be nicer to Rajon. He’s a point guard who can’t shoot worth a damn, but I don’t remember Mark Jackson or J-Kidd hitting too many jumpers either. Rondo’s an underappreciated innovator…with a ring.
Chauncey Billups: Is a he a Hall of Famer or isn’t he? Should he really be called “Mr. Big Shot?” These aren’t the questions to consider. Instead of questioning, let’s all appreciate Billups for being a power point guard whose value always exceeded the conventions of a box score.
In all seriousness.
Derrick Rose: An MVP at 22 and completely incorruptible by the LeBron-led “cool kids” clique. Rose is a point guard version of Kevin Durant—a young man wholly committed to the game of basketball. Let’s just hope his back is up for the task.
Russell Westbrook: The pressure he applies on the offensive end is unrelenting and suffocating. He plays point guard, but if he was two inches taller, he’d be a younger, more explosive D-Wade. As it stands, we’ll just have to accept him as the league’s most explosive point guard (sorry, Derrick).
Rod Strickland: He might have a serious problem with drinking and driving, but nonetheless Strick enjoyed a 16-year career as a pure point guard.
Kyrie Irving: His game doesn’t match his age at all and I’m probably the first who thinks someone should check his birth certificate, but my paranoia aside, Irving is taking the right steps towards a career of accomplishment and accolades. When you think Kyrie, think poise.
Mike Bibby: Maybe had the best mid-range game of any point guard here. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.
Dennis Johnson: He wasn’t the best passer on his own team and he left us far too soon, but DJ’s completion of “a steal by Bird!” is a signature moment of the 80s NBA.
Anfernee Hardaway: Injuries robbed Penny and robbed us of what appeared to be a HOF career in the making. What’s not to be won’t be and we’ll have to settle for memories of Butch McRae tossing lobs to Neon Boudeaux while Coach Pete Bell watches; anxiously waiting for the other foot to fall.
Ricky Rubio: It was love at first pass. I have a terrible memory, but like LeBron James’s debut several years ago, I can remember exactly where I was when I saw my first Rubio NBA highlights.
Baron Davis: When I was in college (early 2000s), I got in an argument with someone about the similarities between Baron’s game and Allen Iverson’s game. I disagreed Davis would ever be an Iversonian scorer then and I disagree now. Unfortunately, that’s my first thought when Baron’s name comes up. It’s not his fault, but he’s definitely to blame for regularly showing up out of shape.
Lenny Wilkens: I’ve only seen faded clips of Lenny playing ball, but his sideburns and coaching (most losses in NBA history) have embedded memories that can’t escape.
Doc Rivers: He’ll always been remembered more for coaching the Celtics to the title, but when I was six years old, Doc averaged a double double running point for the Hawks.
Mookie Blaylock: The original inspiration for Pearl Jam, M-m-m-m-m-m-Mookie played integral roles on mediocre teams. Does that make him mediocre? I say no.
No doubt, Omar picked up 3 assists on this one pass.
Omar Cook: Some people might scoff at Omar’s inclusion on this list, but just know that for the one year he played for St. Johns, Cook was a point guard prodigy who broke Mark Jackson’s single-game school assist record with 17—as a freshman. While I’m hesitant to question any of Cook’s decisions, he most likely could’ve benefited by staying at St. Johns for a few more years and fine-tuning his all-around game. Omar Cook, we won’t forget.
Walt Frazier: If you have League Pass or watch Knicks local broadcasts, then you’ve no doubt heard Clyde’s legendary vocabulary narrating their games. And then there’s his game seven Finals performance in 1970: 36 points, 19 assists and five steals.
Michael Adams: If a baseball player’s career stat-line followed the diminutive (5’10”) Michael Adams’s, someone would be pointing the accusatory PED finger at him, but since pro basketball players would never take PEDs, no one ever questions anything. Anyways, Adams was mostly known as a shoot first, shoot second, shoot third point guard with good, but far from great talents. He averaged 14.7ppg and 6.4apg for his career. And then there’s the blip on the radar that I remember all too well. In 1991, his 6th year in the league, Adams exploded (over 66 games) for 26.5ppg and 10.5apg.
Scott Skiles: 30 assists in a single game is good enough for me.
Derek Harper: Harper was his best playing alongside Rolando Blackman with the Mavs, but I remember him more for his redefined role as an enforcer of sorts on the 90s Knicks.
Norm Nixon: What do I know about Norm Nixon except he was pretty much forced out by Magic? Not too much.
Terry Porter: Porter was firing threes before it became the popular thing to do. He was never a speed/quickness-modeled point guard and I have my doubts that he’d be as successful in today’s game, but in the late 80s and early 90s, he was a key component of Rick Adelman’s Blazer squads.
Micheal Williams: Still holds the record for most consecutive free throws made at 97.
Micheal Ray Richardson: A victim of the 80s drug explosion. Everyone who saw him gushes about “Sugar,” but sadly isn’t that the case for most of the players who are either corrupted by drugs or tragedy? Despite my skepticism, there’s no arguing with Richardson’s stats: 15ppg, 2.6 steals/game, 7apg and 5.5rpg.
Brandon Jennings: The fact that Jennings probably isn’t a top-10 point guard is more reflective of the league’s depth at the position than it is an indictment of Jennings’s abilities. He’s Chris Rock skinny, but he’s got the stones of a leader.
Tony Parker: No one said you had to be a model citizen, friend or teammate to make the shabooya roll call for point guards and that’s a good thing for Parker. He’s been and done everything the Spurs ever asked from him and then some.
Fat Lever: One of the original triple double machines. Lever played for 80s version Mike D’Antoni in Denver’s Doug Moe and his stats reflect it. Over a four-year stretch in the late 80s, Lever put up 19ppg, 8.9rpg and 7.5apg.
Damon Stoudamire: Mighty Mouse won a rookie of the year award, shot over 3,000 threes and was pulled over with Rasheed Wallace for speeding and driving under the influence of reefer while driving from Seattle back to Portland after a game against the Sonics. Stoudamire’s also notable for statistically declining season over season as opposed to the natural bell curve we see with most players.
Kenny Anderson: Bobby Cremins strikes again. Kenny was a second overall pick and was supposed to be the next great NYC point guard. He never lived up to the lofty expectations, but he did marry Tami from the Real World.
Muggsy Bogues/Spud Webb: Both were great players who unfortunately can’t escape the association of being short men in a tall man’s game.
Nick Van Exel: My fond memories of Nick the Quick chucking ill-advised threes with that cock-eyed lefty release are accompanied by the hand-held Rodney King-quality video clip of Van Exel and some cronies of his stomping the shit out of some poor guy. Of course, I can’t find any reference to this on the internets, so I can only assume it’s a figment of my imagination (wink wink).
Ty Lawson/Jrue Holiday: A pair of speedy, talented, under-represented guys. Holiday and Lawson are perfect examples of the league’s depth at the position. They’re 21 (Holiday) and 24 (Lawson). The future is bright.
Andre Miller: The future might be bright for some, but we keep expecting the sun to start setting on others. Andre Miller refuses to recede into the horizon. He’s tough as pollution (ask Blake Griffin), knows his role and gets the job done every night. Is he underappreciated? Most likely, but even in his under-ratedness, he knows his role and plays it well.
John Wall: I feel bad for this kid who’s forced to play with mind benders like JaVale McGee, Andray Blatche, Nick Young and Jordan Crawford. Then I see him pull shit like that behind the back dunk he ripped off in the rookie/sophomore game and I’m like, “Hell no, I don’t feel bad for him.” I feel bad for us for not getting the chance to see what Wall’s all about. Until the Wizards finally bite the bullet and push the reset button all the way in, “How good is John Wall?” will continue to be asked on message boards and in cubicles.
Steve Francis: Is Steve Francis gay or isn’t he? I don’t think it matters, but typing his name into a search engine, the first few recommended searches include “Steve Francis gay.” Where does this it come from? I don’t have time to worry about it as I’ve already spent 2500+ words taking a trip down memory lane and present day boulevard to revisit point guards who have stepped on NBA courts in NBA jerseys over the past seven decades. Francis isn’t memorable because he was possibly gay. He’s memorable for doing things like driving for a game-winning dunk and disintegrating from NBA relevance overnight.
This was never meant to an all-encompassing list of NBA point guards (it was meant to be about Rubio), but rather players who, for one reason or another, stood out to me. If there was a question mark around a player’s position (Iverson, Jerry West, Steph Curry, the Jones boys from the Celtics), I left them off. Like Monica sang, “don’t take it personal.”
Tune in next week as I tie Hamed Haddadi and Omri Casspi into America’s foreign policy in the Middle East.
With Kobe Bryant continuing to defy the wearing and tearing of over 47,000 minutes and 1,300 games (combined playoffs and regular season) by scoring 40+ on a nightly basis, I started thinking about his once-upon-a-time rival, Tracy McGrady. A quick look back through the histories of webpages and you’ll find hundreds of thousands of words filling up blogs, message boards, forums and comments sections making the case for and against each player with the more objective writers conceding the players were, for the most part, too similar to pick one or the other. For the sake of this post, the Kobe-McGrady discussion stopped mattering when their paths diverged (assuming they were once walking the same path).
The Kobe vs. Tmac debate reached its high water mark during the 2002-03 season when Tracy was destroying all comers in Orlando and posted the 14th highest PER (player efficiency rating) in NBA history at 30.3—a mark Kobe’s never bested. McGrady was dominant on a mediocre Magic team that went 42-40 and did what every McGrady-led playoff team has ever done: got bounced in the first round. A few time zones away in LA, Kobe put together a masterful season where he established career highs in rebounding, minutes played and steals—all while scoring 30 points a night. Both players shared a spot on the All-NBA First Team (the last time McGrady would earn the designation) and finished third (Kobe) and fourth (Tmac) in MVP voting. That these two young wings (24 and 23 at the time—Tracy the younger) revealed the full breadth of their talents at such young ages guaranteed a rivalry of sorts if only by virtue of their ages and heights. By 2006, the chatter was quieting down and by the end of the 2007 season, McGrady’s back had finished for good as a present-tense argument.
To address whether or not there was a rivalry is to a take the first steps towards forming a potential understanding of how and why Tracy McGrady went from legend-in-the-making to a guy who occasionally comes to mind as a second-thought to another man’s career. I dug around the dusty internets of 2003 and found a well-written story by Charley Rosen from ESPN’s Page2. The story included some telling quotes:
According to Horace Grant, who played with Kobe in 2000-01, and knows the full intricacies of the triangle offense, “Kobe is totally into proving that he’s better than Tracy. Last week, when the Lakers came to Orlando, Kobe was breaking plays left and right, just forcing shot after shot, trying to outscore Tracy.”
And McGrady? “Well,” he says, “to tell you the truth, as late as last season, I did get caught up in trying to prove that I was better than Kobe. But not any more. It’s a huge compliment that people even consider me to be one of the best players in the league. But I’ve learned to focus on winning.”
OK, OK … but, besides Shaq, who is the NBA’s premier player?
“There’s no question about it,” says McGrady. “It’s Kobe and he’s got three rings to prove it.”
Tracy was right (but I’m not sure how honest) to focus on winning instead of Kobe, but reading about Kobe or MJ or Bird or Magic, the “focus on winning” was always a given. Yeah, you better damn well be focused on winning because you’re competing against the greatest players in the world every night. What it doesn’t seem like McGrady was able to do was find the motivation to give him that extra edge. Anyone who heard MJ’s Hall of Fame speech knows that cold bastard is still carrying grudges today—nearly nine seasons after he retired. Bird used any edge he could and made it a point to not befriend players on other teams—which made the Converse commercial with Magic all the more difficult since this was the closest thing to a sworn enemy and rival. And we know Kobe’s pursuits drift somewhere between manic and sublime. The fire burning inside that man still feels like it’s fueled by some long-standing chip on his shoulder, possibly from his first years in the league when he was regularly and rightfully criticized for being an unapologetic chucker. Now, 16 seasons later, he’s still proving that he can go it alone. What was McGrady’s fuel?
It’s clear he was conscious of differences between himself and Jordan and Kobe. From a Hoopshype interview by David Carro in 2003:
Carro: What particular aspect of MJ would you like to have or imitate? What would you like to learn from him?
McGrady: The competitive fire. I don’t think there is anybody in the league as competitive as Michael. I think Kobe is close. I’d be content to have that of Jordan.
Carro: Do you see yourself at that level?
McGrady: Me? Hmmmm… I think I’m close to that mental level right now.
And in September of 2007, Sonny Vaccaro, sneaker executive and creator of the ABCD high school summer camp, responded to a question from Tim Lemke of the Washington Times:
Lemke: Who’s your favorite athlete?
Vaccaro: I don’t want to go there because there’s so many kids, but I’ll tell you the one who I think is the most naturally gifted is Tracy McGrady. Tracy doesn’t work as hard–and you should put this in your story–as some of the others. Tracy was given more ability than anybody. He didn’t always use it.
Keep in mind, Vaccaro’s been around elite high school players for decades.
All too familiar scene
Lastly, Houston Rockets GM, Darryl Morey:
McGrady was the most gifted player I’ve ever had on the roster. I do think (his talent) got in the way of Tracy’s development. Much of the game was so, so easy… When it’s that easy to dominate at that young age (that McGrady did), because of your physical tools, his wing span was freakish, his size was enormous, his IQ. But my sense was that all of that did get in the way of Tracy reaching his highest heights.
None of this is new under the sun though. It’s the information and quotes we’ve been hearing for the past decade. It’s stalked McGrady’s career without discrimination since he was a sleepy rookie in Toronto. When I initially sat down to think about Tracy McGrady and the powers and/or choices that led to his career decline at the young age of 27, I had in my mind a man who was blessed with talents and a physique that forced him down a funnel that became narrower and narrower as he grew older and taller. The gym, with the ball in his hands was his destiny and it’s where he arrived and found definition. But, in my thoughts and recollections, I insisted on assigning a level of blame to McGrady for not doing all he could to cultivate that gift. This is the question that came to the surface:
Are athletes, artists, entertainers, etc obligated to commit themselves to the mediums for which their talents are best suited for a greater good?
Possibly for selfish reasons, Phil Jackson indirectly answered this question in the mid-90s when he said to a recently-retired Michael Jordan, “You don’t know the talent that God has given you and what you are going to deprive people of.”
The same words could be echoed to McGrady and countless others over history. T-Mac’s not Michael Jordan, but he was a great and gifted basketball player who could’ve taken certain elements of his craft more seriously. In the McGrady interviews I read while researching this post, I saw the outline of a man who was fully in tune and engaged in the NBA. McGrady’s simple, but honest and well-thought responses reveal consciousness and awareness. In response to a question about flopping ruining the game, instead of taking the bait he said: “You know who started that was freaking Vlade Divac. He’s the king of that. But those guys, they ain’t soft or anything, they just trying to get a call. They’re trying to win ball games. That’s one thing I’ll give the European players. They competitive and they go hard.”
When asked about the 2006 NBA Finals and Dwyane Wade getting all the calls, he unflinchingly said: “If you were watching that game, it seemed like it was rigged … yea, it seemed like it was rigged. The calls he (Wade) was getting, Jesus.”
Honesty’s never been a problem unless McGrady’s talking about himself. His comments about winning, about his “main motivation is the championship ring, the NBA title,” about learning “to focus on winning” and more win-related clichés that prevent anyone from discerning any truth from his comments. The words he spoke in March of 2011 invited us into the mind of a multifold McGrady who responded to a question about never winning a playoff series with: “I think about it, but I don’t lose sleep over it. It is what it is. If you look at my numbers, what I put up in the playoffs, it’s not like I disappeared every playoff series. I did everything I could to try to advance to that next level. A lot of bad breaks, better teams.’’
McGrady came to terms with his team’s failures by convincing himself he did everything within his powers to win. This comment comes, despite advisors, teammates and general managers continually calling him out for not doing everything he could with the talent he had.
In the same HoopsHype article, he said:
I just wasn’t a great practice player. I just wasn’t. I wasn’t. I just think I could cruise through practice and still be effective. Some guys have to really go (all) out to really have an impact on practice. My ability was just I had God-given talent to where I could just cruise through practice and still be an effective practice player… I was inconsistent. Some days, I have really good (practice) days where I just go hard and a lot of days where like, ‘Uh,’ and I just go through the motions. But I work hard. But I’m just not the best practice player.
It’s difficult to assess McGrady’s commitment with so much contradicting evidence. No one ever considered questioning his talent, just the drive, will, dedication that went along with it and this is where the conflict about obligation comes in. I don’t believe T-Mac ever lacked a love of the game or faithfulness for it. His feel for the game, his knowledge of other players, his willingness to accept a supporting role in order to continue his career all indicate feeling and caring. The gaps show up when you start analyzing the aspects of the game that aren’t fun: practice, conditioning, accepting blame (to McGrady’s credit, he’s cried over losses and went out of his way to accept blame for the Rockets being eliminated from the 2007 playoffs). If you insist on closure for the Kobe vs. McGrady debate; you’ll find it somewhere between winning and just playing the game.
I don’t doubt that Tracy McGrady wants to win basketball games and wants to be an NBA champion, but I can’t help but feel his desire to win comes more from an awareness of what winning means to a player’s place in history as opposed to winning being the end means of playing basketball.
A fitting epitaph: “Win or lose, he just wanted to play.”