It has long been said that the previous generation of NBA superstars—primarily Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird—didn't join forces in their pursuit of championships. As LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and several other stars contemplate where they might do exactly that, the old lions and their admirers like to brandish the difference as a way of elevating themselves.
Didn't, though, is different from wouldn't have.
This, for those who have forgotten, is how Magic and Co. reacted in 2010 when James bolted for Miami to join Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade: "That's not what we were about," Magic Johnson told Bloomberg News (via ESPN.com). "From college, I was trying to figure out how to beat Larry Bird."
Jordan agreed, telling NBC Sports: "There's no way, with hindsight, I would've ever called up Larry, called up Magic and said, 'Hey, look, let's get together and play on one team.'"
"It would've been too easy to play together," Bird told an Indiana radio station.
More than a different attitude, those comments reflect the most significant change between then and now—the circumstances. Magic and Bird competed "from college" against each other because they never had the chance to do anything else. That was where great players first crossed paths; there was no convenient way of getting to know each other.
Jordan also wouldn't have called Larry or Magic, because walking around with a cell phone and routinely communicating with one didn't become popular until the late 1990s.
As for Bird's "too easy" claim, isn't that the same attitude James got torched for in his "not five, not six, not seven" declaration?
It's safer to say Magic, Michael and Larry pursued titles the way they were conditioned to chase them, and LeBron, Melo, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard are merely doing the same. Today's players, thanks to the enticements by shoe companies to build super AAU teams, take it as a badge of honor to partner up with the best running mates they can find because that's how it has worked since they were in grade school. The new bragging rights are less about whom you've beaten and more about whom you've befriended. The hangin'-with-the-cool-kids mentality has taken over grassroots basketball.
For Bird, Magic and Michael, AAU basketball was little more than a refuge for players who couldn't make their high school team or wanted to play after they graduated and didn't have the talent or inclination to go to college. Bird's only AAU experience came after he dropped out of Indiana University and returned to his little hometown of French Lick. He joined the local AAU squad, Hancock Construction, merely to get in some games while he figured out his next move.
Instead, Bird, Magic and Jordan all began their rise to fame playing for their local high school teams, where they were not the choosers but the choosees. When it came to college, all three had out-of-state options but all three stayed close to home. Magic chose Michigan State over Michigan. Bird went to Indiana State after dropping out of Indiana. Jordan went with the dream of every North Carolina kid, choosing to make the two-and-a-half-hour drive from his hometown, Wilmington, to UNC's Chapel Hill campus.
Is it any surprise that all three of them, except for Jordan's late dalliance with the Wizards, spent their entire careers with the teams that drafted them? Never was there talk about going some place else, even though in the case of both Bird with the Celtics and Jordan with the Bulls, neither team was very good when they arrived.
The NBA has made the same shift in mindset. Now it has a multitude of programs that asks its players to spend down time with each other. Back in the day, there were actual team and league rules to prevent the kind of fraternization that is commonplace now.
"The league used to fine players just for talking to players on the other team in the lay-up lines," said former Knicks and Grizzlies coach Hubie Brown. "And then the team would fine them, too."
Now? Paul invites Deron Williams to his house for dinner and a card game or two the night before they're scheduled to square off on the hardwood. Some opposing players have even been known to crash in an opponent's guest bedroom and catch up with his team at shootaround the next day. Is it all that different from hanging out in the same hotel for a weekend at an AAU tournament?
"Social media and AAU have changed the NBA," said Pelicans general manager Dell Demps, a journeyman guard who played three seasons in the league for three different teams. "When I was younger, I never knew guys from New York or Chicago or Louisiana. The top guys got to go to one camp a year, the ABCD camp, for four days. Now they're seeing each other three, four times a month during the summer at AAU tournaments or skills camps. They know each other, they're texting each other."
It actually wasn't James' idea to ride the AAU circuit beyond the Northeastern Ohio Shooting Stars, a team formed largely of childhood friends who were nonetheless pretty damn good. Right before heading to high school, they reached the eighth grade AAU finals in Orlando, Florida, but lost to the Southern California All-Stars.
Chris Dennis, an influential figure in Akron's youth basketball circles, believed—this may sound familiar—James could not reach his full potential, though, playing in a program as low profile and with as limited resources as the Shooting Stars.
Having spent time in California's northern Bay Area during college, he had contacts with a powerful AAU program known as the Oakland Soldiers, which had at that time such future NBA players as Leon Powe, Kendrick Perkins and Chuck Hayes, and two future overseas pros and college standouts in Ayinde Ubaka and DeMarcus Nelson. Not to mention generous sponsorship by Nike.
Dennis worked on both James, who wasn't wild about playing with someone other than his trusted friends, and the Oakland Soldiers organizers, who were pretty content with the team they had. A deal was finally brokered when the Soldiers agreed to let James bring his friend and high school teammate, Dru Joyce III, with him, and Dennis agreed to cover their expenses to play with the Soldiers for one AAU Elite Eight tournament at Cal Berkeley.
"The first year he came we were expecting a lot," said Calvin Andrews, a co-founder of the Soldiers' program. "He was 6'4", really thin. Quiet kid. Not dunking at all, laying everything off the glass. He didn't do anything spectacular, but if you were a basketball guy, you could tell he knew the game."
James, Andrews said, was eager to come back the following spring, his attachment to the Shooting Stars having dissolved by the chance to play with players who didn't look to him to lead or dominate. He came back three inches taller and having added, seemingly, 10 inches to his vertical leap.
The Oakland Soldiers played a wide-open style, and those around the program at that time say there was very little coaching or structure. It was about providing enough incentives, via shoes, gear and high-profile tournaments, to keep their stable of talent from being poached. It certainly helped that they were greeted with the fanfare of AAU rock stars. LeBron was more than happy just to be part of it, no matter that it was halfway across the country from his home.
Demps pointed to the famous alliance of five freshmen at the University of Michigan—Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson—who formed the Fab Five that went to consecutive NCAA finals in 1992 and '93 as the first example of a group's familiarity drawing them together to the same team. Webber and Rose were from Detroit, King and Jackson were from Texas, and Howard hailed from Chicago, but they all knew each other well enough to decide to band together and attend the same school.
"When C-Webb and the Fab Five at Michigan got together, that was the first time you saw the result," one NBA scout said. That, of course, was at the college level. Twenty years later, the same phenomenon shaped its first NBA team.
The U.S. national program certainly has had its influence as well, bringing together the best high school players for multi-week trips for various tournaments often held overseas. One source said Austin Rivers, now a guard with the New Orleans Pelicans, switched his commitment from Florida to Duke while playing for the U.S. under-17 team in a tournament in San Antonio. That's where he met former Duke guard Kyrie Irving, who was playing for the under-18 team, which was training in San Antonio before heading off to a tournament in Germany.
Shortly thereafter, Rivers switched his commitment from the Gators to the Blue Devils. There's no way to prove Irving had any influence on Rivers, or even had a discussion about college, but Duke's chance of landing Rivers certainly wasn't hurt by their shared involvement in the national program.
To their credit, Magic, Jordan and Bird have all acknowledged that times and circumstances had changed from their playing days, but they stopped short of saying they would've been changed by them as well. But just imagine if the three of them had spent summers in the same hotels and gyms playing in AAU tournaments or traveling together overseas with the USA basketball program. Or if they'd had the ability to text and direct-message each other via Twitter.
Actually, it doesn't take all that much imagination. Check out the 1992 Dream Team documentary and how their relationships softened—and this was as fully grown men. Shooting a joint Converse commercial in 1986 affected Bird and Magic so much that their respective Lakers and Celtics teammates questioned at certain times where their loyalties stood.
If Melo is the last of today's crop to directly contemplate joining a perceived competitor—he went to the Knicks for the market more than anything else—it could be because he was not as heralded during his early AAU days and elected to go the old-fashioned way, rising to national prominence by winning an NCAA title at Syracuse.
Now, the fact is, both James and Melo would have to make considerable sacrifices to become NBA teammates, starting with their salaries. Being in the same market also means sharing endorsements, as opposed to being the lone superstar raking in all the off-the-court dollars. If they're making those sacrifices to win, an argument could be made they're placing a higher value on winning than on mere material gains. Isn't that old-school thinking?
And all the pairing off comes with a price not calculated in rings or contracts. James, Bosh and Wade certainly have had their success, but no one is vaulting them or their team, historically, above other recent teams that won multiple championships. Chances are whatever success any of them have, it won't be looked at in the same light as the superstar combinations that came before them.
So feel free to gripe that today's superstars are doing something that those of yesteryear didn't do. There's truth in that. Just be sure to stop there. There's no way to definitively prove Jordan, Magic and Bird are markedly different from James, Anthony and Paul. All that is certain is that, from the start, they were provided different road maps to success.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.
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