Thursday, August 2, 2012

I Love This Game

People often tell me that they don't care for today's NBA. These same individuals claim that basketball was much better back in the day. Of course, "back in the day" means different things to different people. Some miss the excitement of the Jordan era. Some miss watching Larry Legend and Magic Johnson battling on the game's biggest stage. The one thing that all of them have in common (aside from the nostalgia that comes with getting older) is that they are all wrong.

The game of pro basketball has never been better.

If this is true, then why have so many lost interest in the sport? More often than not, people have the same grievances. Some complain that guys don't really start competing until the Playoffs, but that has been the case for years. The majority of people who don't care for the sport, for whatever reason, do not like or relate to today's NBA players. There is another factor at work here.

In a much simpler time many years ago, popular culture gave birth to a phrase.

"Don't hate the player. Hate the game."

That saying changed everything. The 90's were a decade plagued by "player hating" which gave birth to the aughts, a decade of "game hating". You see it happen again and again. When Latrell Sprewell claims that he can't feed his family on $14.6 million dollars a season, people hate the game. When A.I. routinely skips practice after signing a $70 million contract, people hate the game.  When guys piss and moan about every foul call, people hate the game. Let's face it; some guys in the league are downright unlikable and I can understand people not wanting to support them. Unfortunately, a lot of truly great basketball was missed as a result. Let's examine the 2000's NBA.

The aughts gave us the best years of some future Hall of Famers. The greatest power forward of all time established himself in that era. There are plenty of guys in the league who can either score, rebound, pass, defend, or block shots. For many years 4-time champion, 2-time MVP, 13-time All-Star Tim Duncan did all of those things exceptionally well. Basketball purists were losing faith in the new crop of shoot-first point guards until a shaggy haired baller from British Columbia made it cool to pass the ball. How can anybody who loves sports not enjoy the way that Steve Nash approaches the game? Him being named the NBA's Most Valuable Player was a resounding victory for all those who still play basketball the right way. We saw a lanky kid from Wurzburg revolutionize the power forward position in that decade. The world had never seen a 7-foot tall low-post presence with the shooting range of a 2-guard and the skill set of a point guard before Dirk Nowitzki stepped on the scene. His talent was unreal and getting to see a humble, hardworking, loyal guy win it all after years of disappointment was truly gratifying. Who can forget "The Answer"? Few were as polarizing as that diminutive David in a game of Goliaths. Whether or not you like the guy, witnessing Allen Iverson carry the Sixers to the Finals with a bruised tailbone, right quad contusion, sprained right knee, sprained left ankle, inflamed right toe, right hip contusion, left hip pointer, dislocated shoulder, bursitis in his left elbow, and a sprained left thumb captured my imagination in a way that transcended sports.

The 2000's also gave us some great teams. Seeing the dominant yet dysfunctional Lakers 3-peat was unforgettable. Shaquille O'Neal was a once in a lifetime talent (on the basketball court, at least) and he and Kobe Bryant may be one of the greatest tandems to ever play together. The Spurs were also a force to be reckoned with in those days. Some said their style of play was boring; I thought it was brilliant. Each and every night, San Antonio played relentless defense and executed their offense with surgical precision. In 2007, three superstars put aside egos and big contracts to win as a team. They did just that. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo were all great players in their own right but what stays with me is that despite all of their individual greatness, every game they competed in was a clinic on how basketball should be played. The '04 Pistons with Billups, Hamilton, Prince, and the two Wallace's could be the best defensive unit ever assembled. Watching them absolutely manhandle a heavily favored Lakers squad with 4 future Hall of Famers was quite entertaining.

There were no shortage of awe-inspiring moments in the aughts: Kobe's 81 Point game, Tracy McGrady's 13 points in 35 seconds, the Celtics beating the Nets after being down 21 points in the 4th quarter, the postseason battles between the Lakers and Kings, Dwayne Wade's performance in the '06 Finals, Vince Carter's gravity-defying dunk contest, Robert Horry's numerous game-winning buzzer beaters, and Phil Jackson surpassing Red Auerbach for most championship teams coached to name a few.

When I first starting following basketball, guys like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, John Stockton, and Hakeem Olajuwon's unbelievable talent, skill, and passion for the game made a lasting impression on me. Pro basketball became my favorite sport and this didn't change throughout the 90's or the 2000's. Right now there are more great players, great teams, and great coaches in the league than ever before, and last season's Playoffs provided some of the most competitive games that I've ever seen. Despite all of that, the player haters and game haters of the world still won't watch, which doesn't bother me at all. Katt Williams did say that it is a hater's job to hate. Perhaps that makes it my job to love the game that much more.