Charles Barkley famously expressed the phrase, "I am not a role model," in a Nike Air commercial. Many have lost the message from that commercial where Barkley also said, "Parents should be role models."
Unfortunately, Charles, for you and the many superstars who have graced the NBA, you are role models. Maybe not role models for social behavior or business ethics, but indubitable role models for how to play the game that so many kids love.
More often than not, young aspiring basketball players compare themselves to the elite not realizing that the two abilities are unmatched. The dichotomy of the "team player" and "superstar" is lost on a kid with nothing but hopes and dreams.
Of course, that's not to say that NBA superstars can't be team players—kids just don't recognize that quality as clearly.
Consequently, many young aspiring players get lost in their development. They emphasize the look, signature moves, and style of a superstar. The fundamentals and intangibles get lost in translation without a good parent or coach.
When I was growing up, Michael Jordan played in his prime and just like the old Gatorade commercial said, everyone wanted to “be like Mike.” Kids fought over the number 23. They wore the knee sleeve void of any leg injury and stuck their tongue out.
Legitimate post players with height and strength over their opponents disregarded their advantage and traded their coach’s post moves and footwork for the patented MJ fade away. They even kicked their leg out.
Jordan was an ideal player because not only could he score many different ways, but he was also a tactical, consummate team-player. Parents across America could tell their sons and daughters, “Watch him play defense. Watch how he gets teammates involved. Watch how he coaches everyone on the floor,” aside from his obvious prowess as a scorer.
After Jordan, kids became more infatuated with impersonating the likes of Allen Iverson. Here was someone the undersized youths of America could actually relate. And what made Iverson the hero he was to the younger generations? The patented Iverson crossover.
Kids across America doubled—no tripled—their turnovers by not being able to quite get the ball to exchange hands as quickly as AI. Let’s not even discuss Mr. Iverson’s views on practice and the impact it had on basketball amateurs.
And that whole elbow sleeve craze sweeping basketball players? I'm not sure, but I think AI started that after he wore one after elbow surgery for bursitis.
How many Michael Jordans are there on a team? Heck—how many Michael Jordans or Allen Iversons are there in a section, region, or state? Why not mimic someone who fulfills an important role, someone more equal to the masses of young basketball players who will forever be told to “accept their role.”
The 2009 NBA Finals contains just that player for youngsters aspiring to become better basketball players. His name is Luke Walton.
Phil Jackson, who is one Finals win away from passing Red Auerbach with 10 championships, said a couple of years ago that Walton is like “yeast in bread” because of his exemplary team play. Not a bad endorsement.
Walton doesn't even play half of the game for the Lakers, yet his importance to the team is not lost on perhaps the greatest coach of all time.
During these playoffs, he'll usually substitute in when Kobe Bryant subs out. Why? Jackson knows that the University of Arizona product will do the little things to keep the Lakers offensively efficient without their best scorer. When Walton enters the game, so do the fundamentals of basketball.
Walton's knowledgeable play keeps the defense constantly moving and rotating. The Laker forward understands the value of ball reversals and makes them quickly. He also makes entry passes to the post and will relocate every time he sees a post player's chest. A valuable quality indeed.
If he's open, he knocks down the shot. If not, look for Luke to quickly get it back to the middle of the floor either with a pass or the dribble.
Most importantly, however, Walton never does anything with the dribble that does not force two defenders to commit to him. No matter how fancy a move, it serves no value to the game of basketball if it doesn't force defensive commitment from more than one player. It also doesn't hurt that Walton seems to have an innate passing ability as well.
Walton's role on the Lakers is not the result of any lack of skill. In the 2009 playoffs, Walton is shooting 43 percent from the field and 33 percent from three-point range. At 6'8", he is agile enough to guard the perimeter or the post.
The same goes on the offensive end. He usually faces up to the basket in more of a wing role, but Walton will also post up smaller players and display his back-to-the-basket skill set.
Walton doesn't boast the flashiest of games. There exists no signature move or alluring equipment that kids can mimic. He doesn't have to possess these though. For Walton, it's more important to be an efficient player who contributes to the flow of the team.
Should the aspiring truly pay attention to Luke Walton when he enters in the game, you can guarantee an appreciation for the game's intangibles. Though they may not be as tall or as natural a passer as Walton, their understanding of the game will certainly expand.
Who knows, maybe we'll see young players fighting over the number four instead of 23 and 24.
Besides, how many mix tapes can you find for a guy with a career scoring average under six points?