As the 2007 NBA Playoffs kicked off this past weekend, I came to a few uncomfortable realizations. I realized that Shaq no longer held the title for most popular nickname on the Miami Heat, as Dwyane Wade has surpassed the big man in the middle. I recognized that Jason Kidd, although still able to see the court like few before him, is a step slower with every passing year. I grasped that the Warriors are no longer basement fodder for other teams in the league to pick up two easy games every year, as they finally made their triumphant playoff return. It’s become obvious to me that the NBA is changing. And as much as I don’t want to admit it, my fan ties to the NBA have changed.
I remember the 1998 NBA Finals, with the Chicago Bulls squaring off against the Utah Jazz. I still recall watching Michael Jordan “gently brush” Bryon Russell along, in order to clear the way for Jordan to hit the now-famous jump shot that propelled the Bulls to yet another title. Now, more importantly, I’ve also come to recognize that only one player out of those 24 in uniform that day is still in the NBA today: Jacque Vaughn. Astoundingly, Vaughn only played 24 minutes in those entire playoffs, the least out of anyone in the NBA Finals. That series took place less than nine years ago, and only one guy remains; that’s the sign of a league moving forward.
The only two players left in the NBA with any ties to the 1980s are, the now ancient by NBA standards, Kevin Willis and Clifford Robinson. They’re like classic cars that have picked up some scrapes and scratches and are still trucking along 100,000 miles later. Even the staples of the league for nearly the past decade and a half, Shaquille O’Neal and Chris Webber, are on their last legs both literally and figuratively – both have battled knee problems recently. As these older players have trudged along, the new wave of LeBron James’ and Carmelo Anthonys have taken over the NBA by storm. I’m not saying that I don’t still enjoy watching a good basketball game, but I am saying that the league and the players I grew up with are gradually fading into the sunset.
Twenty years from now, when I’m talking about the players that I remember watching, I’m not going to be talking about LeBron, Carmelo and D-Wade. They’re all great players, but I feel like there’s a new wave of fans that can lay claim to those guys as “the guys they grew up with.” No, for me, I’ll be talking about watching Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen “Batman and Robin” their way to six NBA championships. I’ll go into precise detail about growing up in an era where the center position was an art form, and Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Patrick Ewing and David Robinson were high-quality craftsman, always trying to paint a more beautiful picture than their counterparts. I won’t be talking about D-Wade’s new kicks, but what I will be sharing memories about is the time I listed Mitch Richmond Nike Air Bacons as the number one priority on my Christmas list.
The day Shaquille O’Neal retires is going to be a sad day. It will be sad for criminals everywhere because his retirement means that he’ll probably be taking a full-time job in law enforcement, where he’ll be slamming jail cell doors instead of basketballs. It will be sad for Shaq himself because the man has left his footprints all over the NBA hardwood for 15 seasons now, and hanging up his size 22 sneakers won’t be easy. But, more than all of that, it will be a sad day for me. It’s going to be a day when I have to finally accept the realization that I can’t call the NBA my own anymore.
Maybe I’m on to something, or I might just be taking the basketball/life metaphor a little too seriously. Either way, I’m entering these playoffs with a lot of questions; questions that will nearly all be answered in just over a month, when the NBA Finals MVP is announced. Chances are, he’ll be the same age as me.