(insert throat slash here)
If this blog has one overriding theme, it's that we're all so excited about this new NBA, we want to puke. I've said it once and I'll say it again—this new crop of stars, and the new vogue for high-test, fast-paced teams, have reinvigorated a sport that had become one big inside joke. This is the changing of the guard, and someone has to be left in the dust.
We are in the process of saying goodbye to the worst kind of dark ages: one that flew too close to the sun and was found out. I will never forget the wonderful times I enjoyed watching the likes of T-Mac, Vince, Marbury, Stevie Franchise, and other versatile, dynamic, frequently unstoppable guards. But sad as it is to have to say so, their day has past. They are dinosaurs, and today is the time of the aqua-rat. They are the great teases of the sport: capable of nearly anything, content to do just enough to keep themselves at center stage, never quite regal enough to attain the Jordan-esque heights to which they had aspired. Too profligate to be a piece in the puzzle, too flawed and maddening to build the whole world around, it was their recent plunge into oblivion that truly ushered in the future we call wealth.
I would like to take this opportunity to single out three men who have the chance to move past this time-bound stigma. The Answer, a man whose greatness is so overwhelming, so persistent, that through sheer will, he has justified playing like the sun on fire. AI alone has strapped a subpar team on his back and dragged it, kicking and screaming, to the Finals. Vince came close that same year, but has flagged ever since; had T-Mac single-handedly offed the Pistons the year he should have, we might be chanting his name like a call to cancer. As fate would have it, only Iverson avenged the senseless. Ray Allen, he of the deft shooting stroke, impeccable manners, and bright, bright future, is a classic 2-guard with some extra special something. Observe his fair Supersonics, to see how easily the NBA's most effective class act thrives when his team finds its identity.
That would leave this blog's very own haunted house, the great and tormented Kobe Bryant. The closest we've yet seen to a carbon copy of MJ, he's in some ways the most explicitly post-Jordan of this soon-to-be extinct post-Jordan school ("they will be unto the world like a thousand Jalen Roses"); in this, however, dude's also the only one who has managed to recapture what it meant to play this way with a cold-blooded purpose. As I think I've said already this month, over the next couple of season Kobe will determine if he dies a clown or strides into the future as the sole, and most worthy, bearer of the Jordan legacy, the only one who could take it into the smarter, prouder, refined years ahead without falling victim to its temptations or self-imposed ruinage. Jordan nearly destroyed a generation, while at the same time giving life to another, which had his shining example and their exaggerated, cautionary brilliance to guide them; Kobe is a triptych of destiny, even if his dynasty (like the Nets, who, believe it or not, made the Finals twice in the late nineties) now feels like a summer when work sucked.
The guards are dead; long live the guards. Wade, LeBron, and Arenas (that's right, I said it) have every bit the post-Jordan flair for the dramatic, and willingness to crush the game between their thumb and forefinger. They also make good decisions, take care of the ball, and know when to not take ten shots in a row. Jordan was unstoppable, and did everything, holding the ball a lot, as a byproduct of this deadly menace. His heirs, well, they believed you got unstoppable through stats, moves and imposing your will on the game—not that these were things you earned through the simple, thundrous quality of invincibility. AI proved it was still possible, but nearly killed himself in the process; Kobe goes through the motions, and has seen some of the same outcomes, only to get ahead of himself and lose the high-pitched hum that clears its own path.
These new kids, they see that. They play on teams. They watch Lake Placid in their spare time. They turn it on when they know it's there, not when they feel like it or when they're lucky enough to be able to get it going.
It will take time. There will be teams left in the lurch. Careers struck down before their time. Boys leading men, and vision cast aside like blankets at dawn. The torch has been turned over, not passed, and five years of smoke is but air doodles between the flame!!!!