I have a Kevin Johnson Suns jersey stashed in my closet. Any time I bust it out, I don't get ridiculed. I get admired.
"Oh man. That's a classic. That's awesome."
Why? Because Johnson didn't just represent himself. He represented the purple and orange. The former All-Star point guard will always be thought of as a Phoenix Sun. Always.
Some other unis in my closet get the same reaction. Scottie Pippen. Hakeem Olajuwan. John Stockton.
Those guys were their respective teams. There was a level of respect there, even for the guys like Stockton and Johnson, guys who never won a ring but stuck with their team hoping and working for it to happen.
There are others in my closet too, but they get more bittersweet reactions. A Kevin Garnett T'Wolves jersey. A Jason Kidd Suns jersey. An Orlando Shaq jersey.
These are franchise guys no longer associated with any one franchise. My nostalgia is conflicted, because Garnett's unparalleled ferocity in Minnesota mentally fights with the becoming-washed-up Celtics KG that finally got his ring.
In a funny way, players who stuck with their teams (even the ones who failed) are more respected, admired, and revered than winners who hopped from contender to contender. Who do you respect more, John Stockton or Shaquille O'Neal? Even if you said O'Neal, you had to think about it. Don't lie.
Now I've got a LeBron Cavs jersey and a Carmelo Anthony Nuggets jersey that have, and will meet the same fate. The once-unquestioned connection between star players and their teams is dissipating.
When old-timers say basketball is less of a team sport than it used to be, they aren't kidding. The "team" can't even be safely tied to its franchise player anymore. Seven years time, hit your prime, get out.
Here's reason No. 746 nobody will ever surpass Michael Jordan. His Airness' first seven years were ringless. Why? He kept running into loaded Boston and Detroit teams. Dominique's Hawks and Barkley's Sixers were in the mix. Even if he got past the brutal East (brutal is kind. The '80s East was that good), the Showtime Lakers were almost always waiting.
At any point, especially in a salary cap-less era, Jordan could have said, "Hey, maybe I'll join (or recruit) 'Nique," or "Me and Barkley could definitely make a run."
Here's the now-novel concept—Jordan stuck with it. His thoughts: "Fine. I'll get you next year." Every year (see 10:15 mark). He motivated (mostly in a negative way, but still) the teammates he did have until they collectively lifted each other up to a championship level.
In a way, Jordan was the midwife of those Bulls championship teams. He saw the whole process through, despite some ugly and disappointing moments. He committed to seeing that happen. In Chicago. Go back and look at that clip again. He commits to them.
Compare that to LeBron or 'Melo, who avoided/avoid committing anything to their team or fans.
You could say, "Wait, aren't they in it to win it? Shouldn't a ring be more important to the team?" My answers are "yes" and "depends."
Yeah, a ring is the ultimate prize.
Grant Hill, a guy who left his first team (Detroit. I have that jersey too, by the way) to team up with a then-superstar Tracy McGrady in Orlando a decade ago, was kind enough to give his two cents on the decision.
This is incredibly valuable input, because in 2000, Hill was every bit the superstar (25.8 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 5.2 APG. You're surprised, aren't you?). His words?
"I didn't win sixty-plus games with Detroit that year, so I don't know. If we'd won that much, I don't know if I would have left."
That's where the "depends" comes in. If you're a franchise guy that works his butt off and your team still sucks, you get a little leeway. Hill's Pistons only eclipsed 50 wins once (1996-97), and had just come off a 42-win season when he left. He literally carried that team to 42 wins. He gets some leeway, as does Kevin Garnett.
(Note: the "work your butt off" exempted Chris Bosh from leeway when he left his crappy Raptors team. Why? He was a key cog of Toronto's ¡Olé! defense. If you point out his 10.8 RPG and one BPG then:
1. You didn't watch the Raptors very often or...
2. You're forgetting Amar'e Stoudemire had nearly identical stats, and we all know how good a defender he is.
Bosh should've worked on his "D" like Jordan did in the late '80s and become a menace on both ends of the floor. He has all the tools and no excuses.)
Back to Hill's comments. LeBron simply decided making that last push with a 60-win team was either too hard, or too undesirable in Cleveland. That's a shame, because he decided to leave on the cusp of having that undimmed connection with Cleveland, a connection he could have made even more respected with a championship.
Now it's Melo's turn. He and the Nuggets won 53 games last year, were hailed as the Lakers' "threat" before their coach had to sit out the playoffs with cancer. He's got Chauncey Billups at the point and an imposing frontline.
But he wants out. He doesn't care about what he means to Denver, or that he'd be more respected for trying his hardest there than looking for an easier gig elsewhere.
When 'Melo, LeBron, and Wade became superstars we thought a new generation of identities was going to happen. LeBron's Cavs, 'Melo's Nuggets, Wade's Heat. We bought jerseys that symbolized those eras, thinking they would stick around for a decade or more. Those unis would symbolically represent that era.
Now I'm just left regretting the money I spent on jerseys that represent the opposite.