While the NBA has become a playground for the young, fast-paced, high-scoring millennial superstars including the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Steph Curry, day one of the 2014-15 season told a different story.
Yesterday, the basketball world watched as Tim Duncan picked up his fifth championship ring, subsequently duking it out with long-time rival Dirk Nowitzki until the final buzzer, and Kobe Bryant returned to play in what could be the second-to-last season opener of his career. So there weren’t as much high-flying dunks, fast breaks, or ridiculous examples of athleticism, but that wasn’t what made last night so unique or special.
What last night really told us is that we are at the end of a beautiful age of basketball. The age with Steve Nash’s endless supply of no-look passes; with Duncan’s big, confused eyes; with Nowitzki’s unorthodox one-legged jumper; with the only words coming out of Kobe Bryant’s mouth being “win,” “ring” and “championship.”
This was an age that began before high-definition television, before instant replay, before YouTube supplied us with every highlight we needed, and even before LeBron James had a ring.
After Michael Jordan retired for good, people worried about what would happen to the NBA. Who would step in to fill the shoes of the greatest of all time? In the first phase of the post-Jordan era, we saw superstars rise to the challenge and claim their respective places in history.
Shaquille O’neal, Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson drew first blood, winning three championships from 2000-2002. Then, it was Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Popovich’s turn, taking a total of three in the first decade of the new millennium. New superstars joined the party in 2003 and 2004, including Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, and the Miami Heat’s eventual big three. However, they would have to wait their turns for success as the great stars that preceded them once did. Bringing in the jewelry was Bryant, Duncan, Nowitzki, and Garnett; the future legends who stepped up when destiny called on them to do so.
Last night, I experienced déjà vu watching the Spurs and the Mavericks go down to the wire, remembering the great battles they had over the years. So many playoff games, so many big shots, so many times Mike Breen went “Bang!” and Kevin Harlan yelled “Without regard for human life!”
Nowitzki made clutch fadeaways, Parker hit a clutch three, the Spurs won by one point. That sounds a little familiar.
Then, it was Kobe’s turn. The return of the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer overshadowed even the Lakers’ intense hatred for Dwight Howard, and with good reason, of course. Up until his recent injuries, Kobe had been one of two constant truths in the NBA since the late ’90s, along with Duncan. No matter what changed around them, with so many great careers beginning and ending in the process, at the end of any given season, either the “Mamba” or the “Big Fundamental” would be one of the last men standing.
It looked almost too surreal to see an old, not-yet-so-worn-down Bryant sitting on the bench with Julius Randle on one side, Carlos Boozer on the other, and Jeremy Lin running the point. Throw in Byron Scott manning the sideline and a commercial showing Pau Gasol wearing a Bulls jersey and you’ve just reached downright disorientation. The Lakers down by 25 on opening night and Kobe playing just two minutes in the fourth quarter before being subbed out?
Ladies and gentleman, we have officially reached the end of a beautiful journey.
We have already heard the news that Steve Nash is out for the season, likely ending the career of one of the final greatest true point guards, (and by true I mean doesn’t have a Russell Westbrook-like unfairly insane amount of athleticism to help his cause), and the clock is ticking for everyone else. Paul Pierce is already on his second team in post-Celtic life, Ray Allen is going to have to be convinced not to retire, Kevin Garnett is a shell of his former self, Derek Fisher is a head coach now, and even T-Mac isn’t trying to come back from any injuries.
These players all grew up and played in the first era of basketball I ever witnessed. Thanks to them, it will always be the most emotional, heartfelt, and important period of basketball in my life. I will soon be one of those tiring, frustrating men who can’t stop blabbering about how great basketball was to watch back in “the old days.”
I’ve spent countless nights conjuring up all my emotional endurance to watch Kobe and his fellow Lakers go up against foe after foe, never believing that they didn’t have a chance to win. Last night, in the eyes of the greatest warrior of a dying breed, I saw that dreaded look for the first time. The look that says, “It’s over.”
And when Kobe goes – after seemingly thousands of clutch shots, millions of miles traveled, and too many rivals to count – the rest must surely soon follow.
Boy, was it fun while it lasted.