A local radio station ran a poll for non-NBA fans recently, the types of fans who are perfunctory in their interest to any sport which does not include someone that could pass for a relative. The station's own hosts have no further knowledge than that of "the Jordan days", and their current knowledge of the NBA is rife with criticism for every aspect of the league, with little praise for its players, save for Canada's golden child, probably to fuel their own morbid fascination with the growing lack of interest in the NBA for Vancouverites. Their Poll ran as follows:
Do you care about the opening of the NBA season?
Granted, the poll's results are selected from a sample of listeners that are not only scarcely mentally capable of morbidly following the only professional team they've ever known, The Vancouver Canucks, but from a sampling of people who also harbour a deeply rooted resentment for a league that abandoned the city some 6 or 7 years ago. While I won't admit that the acute pain I feel from losing the Grizzlies and now the Sonics, albeit temporarily in the Sonics' case, from the Pacific Northwest is any less pronounced for me than it is for anyone else around here, I won't go so far as to unilaterally ignore a professional league with an overall talent level which surpasses any generation of basketball we've ever known and, though it may be sacrilege to declare, surpasses the overall talent level of the NHL, simply out of some silent protest which I believe will make David Stern suffer sleepless nights.
Overall talent of the league notwithstanding, there is still something haunting me about this poll, however. There is something that needs addressing here, in this era of budget conscious teams, and players signing abroad for more money. When I hear radio broadcasters reminiscing about Jordan hitting game winning shots, changing hands in a layup, and being "universally admired" I have to agree, there is no single player like emjay since, well, emjay. Still, there has never been a generation of players in the NHL like Gretzky's, and there never will be, yet this hasn't stopped NHL fans from doggedly following a diluted league that is nothing more than a cult following south of the 49th. In Vancouver in particular, for some fans the NHL isn't just preferred over the NBA, it is a line in the sand drawn for the NBA to cross or not -- a final "fuck you" to the league that turned its back on the prettiest NBA city that will ever exist. Fair enough
But this is not the reason I chose to write this today. I love the NBA irrespective of the detractors and anti-NBA'ers walking in my midst every day. My interest in the NBA is freakish in my neck of the woods. I would have more success asking friends to join a fantasy water polo league than one dedicated to the NBA. But this avid interest is still being questioned. I watch any NBA game I possibly can. I attend high school and university championships, and have coached at a variety of levels. I can actually name players and coaches in the NCAA, and have recently decided to keep an eye on international ball. In my spare time I go over footage from past NCAA championships and analyze half court sets. I subscribe to basketball magazines and devour articles written about the league and its players. The dearth of Pacific Northwest coverage has driven me to this. But still, I sense there is a disturbance in the force that is the NBA. Perhaps it's the Canuck fan in me, but I have become accustomed to waiting. Waiting for the next "one" to come.
It could have happened in Oakland, California. The 2000 All-Star game was highlighted by the most electrifying array of dunks ever performed in any, any, ANY, NBA slam dunk championship. Ever. The league had been waiting for the second coming of Jordan vs. Dominique as well as waiting for the Jordan and Pippen led Bulls. In this competition
we saw the birth of what could have been both. Both Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter absolutely stole the show. The Raptors were on the map, and every analyst was looking to "Air Canada" as the next "Air Jordan". What nobody knew is how much less of a man Carter was than Jordan was at the same age. The Raptors looked tough in the games leading up to clinching a playoff berth, and Carter started to understand the nature of Jordan's flair for the dramatic. Last second shots started to fall, 40-50 point games were becoming routine, and the NBA spotlight couldn't get enough of this immense talent. Every Raptor game was anticipated for the same reasons the Jordan games were watched. The anticipation of Carter's every fast break, every dunk, every no-look pass was becoming impossible to contain. His decision to attend a graduation ceremony instead of practicing with the team prior to the biggest game of his life up to and since that point, is one that will forever embody the demise of "The next Jordan" talks, and the reason for the reluctance of Jordan era fans to come back to the sport, particularly in fringe NBA markets like Vancouver, BC.
Jordan was special and accomplished everything one can ever hope to achieve in sport. Still, Jordan was uncanny for a reason that the Carters, McGrady's, Kobe's and even winners like Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal could never understand. Jordan understood his responsibilities in the way only the truly royal athletes understand. In Canucks' terminology, the problem with the NBA is similar to the problem with the Canucks. No leadership since the days of Linden. Jordan's legacy, much like Trevor's in Vancouver, was firm after he left the sport (team in Linden's case), but is part of the essential fabric of the league (city in Linden's case) because of the way he led his life on the court (ice in Linden's case). Jordan wasn't only the finest basketball player who ever played, but he was the player who most clearly understood the meaning of legacy. Too many players in today's game, NBA and NHL both, have lost the meaning of why sport has been created. Hockey, basketball, tennis or golf, sport is the physical measurement of a human being with other human beings who have played the same sport. Carter never liked comparisons and began behaving erratically to distinguish himself from Michael Jordan. McGrady wanted his own show to run because he didn't want to accept a Pippen like role. Kobe has, for too long, tried too hard to create a Jordan-esque image without learning about himself first. Duncan and Shaq are winners, but both rely on point guard play, and one doesn't work well with other egos (although he understands the concept of legacy, apparently
). And so, while the dust continues to swirl in the NBA winds, I wait.
Waiting, however can still be fun. Every team in the league has players that can bring excitement for the full game. Given a choice between paying for a Canucks vs. Wild game, or a freely televised Blazers vs. Lakers game, I'm still going to down to the local to watch my team grind one out. Still, that's not going to stop me from recording the game and watching it later.
Sooner or later, I'm going to see it. It's going to be there. From the shadows of that great legacy left behind by Jordan, while nobody is paying attention, too busy complaining about the poor state of affairs in the NBA, or mocking the lack of viewership for the opening of a new
season, there will be the sound of a cigar being lit somewhere deep in Charlotte, the slight jingle of expensive jewel encrusted bracelets, the clink of ice in a generously filled rocks glass and the rewinding of a recorded game recently played. Two legendary eyes will squint at the slow motion replay. A thumb will press pause, then rewind again. Then play. And, from the ashes of the NBA's leadership wasteland, a figure will emerge as a slow, knowing smile slowly prowls across a legend's familiar face.