Sit and Think with a Drink about How We've Won

In no way does this make me exceptional, but I’ve reached a point in life during which I am consistently reminded about my age. (To be exceptional, I’d have to be able to fondly recall Adrian Dantley with Yasser Arafat while in an Upper West Side synagogue.)

I refer to childhood touchstones that elicit blank stares from my law-school classmates, among whom important things such as Voltron do not resonate. Playing sports for too long makes my right knee hurt. My favorite music was released about fifteen years ago, when I was in high school. Prospective employers ask me why I’ve already switched careers twice. (To become NBA commissioner. Duh.) Almost all of my long-time friends have recently gotten engaged, married, gay, or gay and married. I am 28 years old.

My early and mid twenties were spent obstinately trying to prevent this time from arriving. I would bristle if anyone referred to me as an adult and cite adolescent children as my emotional peers. A birthday was the most depressing moment of any year. All the while, I quietly conceded the inevitability of aging, and even regarded myself as magnanimous when I realized, early last fall, that upon leaving behind a developed adult life in New York for a second try at high school in Missouri, I was happy to be a grown-ass man. It was the sort of calm revelation that surprises before instantly settling as obvious. I parked a car which I leased in my own name, walked into an apartment fully decorated with furniture I assembled on my own, and willingly opened a book about contracts so that I might get ahead. Measured risk, self-sufficiency, responsible choices--I had arrived.

It’s not all cardigan sweaters, warm milk, and world weariness, of course. I exuberantly run around school in a unicorn shirt on days when my flag football team has a game. I like going to Olive Garden’s never-ending-pasta-bowl nights and telling dirty jokes with the waitresses. The flag of piracy still flies from my mast. And let’s be real: 28 isn’t 78; that’s a destination not even on the horizon.

Romanticizing youth and mourning age are equally easy. Appreciating an ongoing transformation is somewhat harder. That’s why I am taking this moment to welcome back our beloved Association with my enthusiasm, normally so loudly pronounced, somewhat muted by reflection.

The build up to this season has been a quiet time for me. Entrenched stars of the new establishment--LeBron, and Dwyane, and Chris, and Dwight--are thrilling. For a number of them, the questions focus on when they will cross the threshold of all-time greatness. The excitement they’ll offer is assured. Yet the ascendancy (if they even remain ascendant) of these post post-Jordan saviors necessarily implies that they have passed by their predecessors. Predecessors with whose legacy the public remains uneasy, and who will collectively be remembered by history for having carried the burden of redemption after Michael. With this class of tortured heroes in mind, opening night is shaping up to resemble a reunion down the line more than a first day of classes. A generation that defined not only the NBA’s post-Jordan growth but also my own personal transition is coming to its end. This year feels like a gathering valedictory.

There are the accomplished folks, those who adhered to their stated intentions and are celebrated for making it: Tim, now hobbling more noticeably but not quite ready to submit; Kevin, whose protestations to the contrary cannot fully mask the wear and tear; Kobe, with nothing left to prove; Jason, timeless in his own way. Perhaps Shaq (though as the years accumulate, he increasingly seems like his own era, in some ways, both for chronological and stylistic reasons). There are the fuck ups, too. The kids who squandered their potential or never really had any. Some of them won’t even show: Glenn, Keith, Tim, Ron, Steph.

And then there are so many others whose stories defy neat categorization and whose appearances at the function engender polite admiration but also unavoidable disappointment. Think of the ambivalence, the confusion, the mixtures of conditional praise we’ll conjure as we see Ray Ray, Tracy, and Paul again. Or Grant, Sheed, J.O., Vince, and Chauncey. Anyone know if Antoine and Stack are coming? And, of course, Allen. A.I. will be the dude who could show up in any condition, and it wouldn’t be surprising after all that’s been done, seen, and heard.

We are about to embark upon an era’s denouement. Preseason forecasts have made a similar declaration in recent years, but this season is different. To start, the 2009 playoffs were almost exclusively owned by the next generation. Even the old-NBA Celtics were dominated by their emerging point guard, he of this burgeoning oligarchy. Old-NBA Kobe Bryant won, but he played for history. What greater validation could there have been than the immediate, reflexive glances backwards? The Lakers’ title, won with Pau and Bynum, may have portended continued success, but more than anything, it was about Bryant’s legacy.

Moreover, the NBA players drafted in the mid and late nineties have themselves conceded that this will be the end. Roscoe went to Boston to mount a final championship push before KG’s knee fully gives out and injuries and age weather Ray and Paul Pierce to the point of dullness. The Spurs added Richard Jefferson because biding time and playing for the tomorrow of 2010 is apparently not a luxury which Tim Duncan can afford. Vince has embraced third-option status on a Magic team that is almost entirely powered by an engine of the new NBA. Allen Iverson has devolved into a Memphis sideshow attraction. Elsewhere, older stars of the soon bygone era are reliant upon their younger teammates: Chauncey needs Carmelo; Nash and Grant Hill need Amare; Jermaine needs Dwyane; Tracy needs to retire; Shawn Respert needs food. Even Shaq--Shaquille O’Neal!--needs no less than LeBron James.

So I have reached yet another reminder of my age. The suddenly old guard begins to fade along with my youth; the league evolves along with my fan perspective.

Kevin Garnett was drafted during the summer before I entered ninth grade. I was thirteen, and I vividly remember running to the telephone at summer camp to discuss the draft with my father. As any barely pubescent, aspiring NBA savant might have, I diligently regurgitated everything I’d read in the newspaper as though they were my own opinions. “Garnett’s supposed to be really good, and really versatile,” I said. “He’s straight from high school, too. That’s young!” I exclaimed, a full four years away from being draft eligible myself (you know, had I been a better player). I didn’t know it at the time, but Garnett’s arc as a player, like the larger narrative about his generation, would go on to mirror my fan identity.

Weaned on an Association dominated by Jordan and populated by the legendary bumper crop of hall-of-fame players who debuted in the middle and late 80s, as an adolescent I greeted the NBA with wonderment and an expectation of excellence. I assumed that the league’s trajectory would remain on the growth course it enjoyed as my fan consciousness emerged during my formative years.

Over time, my evergreen enthusiasm for the sport mixed with an understanding of the athletic, social, cultural, and market forces surrounding the league. It was natural; I grew up. I remained committed, but I steadily understood a much larger experience that accounted for everything else in the basketball realm. For instance, adoring the NBA was not universal, I learned. Plenty of fans were disenchanted, frustrated, indifferent. Likewise, my take on player transactions, the sport’s mechanics (don’t bring the ball down, big man!), and the business of basketball all grew deeper, adding layers sometimes in conflict.

The NBA is no less fun for me now. I continue to hoot and holler at my television, or evangelize on Twitter about the glory of Chris Douglas-Roberts. But I also see a broader image than the one to which I clung as a child. The officiating can be awful. The sneakers aren’t what they once were. The access to players is much better. And so forth. A panoramic approach affords the opportunity to dwell upon what’s passing while still being excited about what remains going forward.

It has been no different for the generation we will soon lose. Folks looked to Garnett and his peers to continue the work Michael et al. started, growing the sport’s popularity and elevating its execution. The “Next Jordan” basketball hype that seemed to swirl endlessly alongside the manic search for expanding revenue asked this new class of NBA players to meet an unrealistic standard. When stories about prep-to-pros players and increasing athleticism grew stale, when it became clear that Michael was an exception and not a new rule, the narrative twisted. Over time, it cast KG and those of his era as inadequate, no matter how intrinsically great the accomplishments.

Arguing about whether the characterization of inadequacy is just or not has grown tedious. Without judgment, we can likely all agree that the Kevins, the Tims, and also the Mercers, came to the NBA under the weight of great expectations, carved out an epoch with many more shades of gray than expected, and now begin their departure worn by highs and lows. As I said, this progression isn’t so different from that of the innocent fan whose appreciation and cynicism both grow over time, leaving him free to relish the good and understand the bad.

But, for being a vessel; for being a companion; for living our progress--for these things, this group of departing players deserves our attention. These players facilitated growth, served as reliable friends in a way, and were, in part, projections of fandom. They are less heroic but more human. Accordingly, those of my age group surely must take a moment as the NBA again approaches to consider fully what it means for the era of our definition to be winding down. The trumpets heralding a new regal class will still be echoing when we finish.

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At 10/22/2009 3:48 AM, Blogger milaz said...

"when it became clear that Michael was an exception and not a new rule, the narrative twisted."

I'm almost two years older, but what you describe feels close enough to what I see and feel. And the up and down feeling of seeing the NBA as heaven, then cooling off, then discovering the marketing, that players are not demi-gods.... growing up I guess...
but as LeBron slowly earns his nickname and our own childhood heroes move into the "legends of the game" category, "The NBA is no less fun for me".... at least at this point in time.

At 10/22/2009 7:36 AM, Blogger daniel vincent john said...

well done.

At 10/22/2009 9:05 AM, Blogger Pardeep said...

Great reflection.

I was devestated when I found out Timmy D was going to wear a knee brace all year. Psychologically, that's going to mess with my mind all year. It's like a crutch, only permanently attached to his leg every time I see him on the court.

I hope he rips it off come playoff time ala' Hulk Hogan ripping off his yellow-tee.

Cheers to the good ole' days, the days where Timmy didn't need extra support.

At 10/22/2009 9:47 AM, Blogger John said...

Interesting using the tone of the end to mark the beginning of a season.

At 10/22/2009 10:28 AM, Blogger caleb said...

Thank you for thinking upon our great league like we do.

At 10/22/2009 10:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post, being almost exactly the same age I've noticed and felt many of the same things. Who would have ever guessed that getting excited over a Shawn Respert reference would date me, and actually put an end to my lifelong quest of a ten day contract haha.

At 10/22/2009 11:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"These players facilitated growth, served as reliable friends in a way, and were, in part, projections of fandom."

I recall travelling in Bolivia, getting my shit stolen, being very far away from home in the wake of 9/11 and feeling most comforted sitting in an internet cafe reading about the prospect of Jerome Moiso actually contributing to the C's.

Tip off the cap to the next wave. Bring on more glorious gray.

At 10/22/2009 12:07 PM, Blogger Fat Contradiction said...

Superb, Joey. I came into hockey as Mario & Gretzky were on their last legs; my icons Joey Sakic and Patrick Roy have finally both gone, Sakic to retirement, Roy eclipsed by Brodeur. It's not so bad; the new kids aren't worse, or better. They're just different.

At 10/22/2009 12:37 PM, Blogger spanish bombs said...

I think that this is, by far, your best post.

My only quibbles are that your attempt to deal with the Lakers' championship was a massive reach (for example, in what way was Bynum a major factor?), and some of the "older stars...reliant upon...younger teammates" list wasn't exactly true. Nash wasn't a star before pre-Amare; he is of the James, Wade, Amare class of stars, although freaking old. Jermaine O'Neal was never actually good.

At 10/22/2009 1:27 PM, Blogger Tony Christopher said...

This one really rings out. Great job. As a Warriors fan, I am left feeling weary as the season approaches, but mercifully places like this exist and the FD philosophy on fandom helps to keep the fire stoked. Thanks.

At 10/22/2009 1:44 PM, Blogger no j mayo said...

For a man that just turned 30 and fell in love with the league at age 9, it's as if you stole the words straight out my soul. Before FD came along, I wondered if I was the only cat who could hold down conversations about Bill Russell as easily as I could preach the gospel according to Bertrand Russell...
"Fd, Where Philosphy and NBA happens."

At 10/22/2009 6:24 PM, Blogger Teach said...

This feels especially timely. I turned 26 yesterday.

And I've been viewing the passing of Tim and KG with some trepidation because I know that it means I'm getting older and that the players I grew up idolizing are all but done. While I will always love the NBA, the last group of players that I felt obligated to admire and look up to are just about done. And the stars of today are my peers, or younger, in terms of age, which thins the layers of mystique.

Anyway, great post.

At 10/22/2009 6:33 PM, Blogger MonsieurKovacs said...

Can't really imagine a better summary of the season to be, or the era that was, than this here. Thank you.

At 10/22/2009 8:00 PM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

Shorter Joey: I'm getting older. Basketball players the same age as me are getting older. It makes me nostalgic.

The execution was tremendous, though. (Seriously.)

At 10/22/2009 8:52 PM, Blogger Ben said...

A great ode to the old.

I think more than the players, though, the style of the game is also changing. I don't want to sound old, myself, by saying that there's a lack of fundamentals with the new class, but for now it seems like that's the case - at least until the new era of players develop. I know I foresaw the end of the age that you wrote about when Reggie Miller retired several years ago. It suddenly felt like an aura of wisdom and precision, a unique attitude - combined with the modesty of hard work and occasional ostentatious displays of skill (in Reggie's case, his ability to shoot), had left the game. Another indication, perhaps more obvious, was the addition of Lebron and his draft class. Plus, the Oklahoma City Thunder serve as a prominent example of how the tide is turning.

Regardless, the post made for an interesting read. Thanks, Joey.

At 10/23/2009 12:44 PM, Blogger Deckfight said...

do you think history will look at this as a 'lost decade' in the nba? the post-jordan, pre-Lebron rise? Filled with huge contract squabbles, huge player disagreements, inter-team backstabbing?

Wait, I just described Shaq's career.

At 10/24/2009 10:17 PM, Blogger The Other Van Gundy said...

Very strange to refer to NBA players by first name.

At 10/25/2009 5:49 PM, Blogger Teach said...

very strange to claim allegiance to the van gundy family

At 10/26/2009 12:14 AM, Blogger The Other Van Gundy said...

Very strange to identify as a verb, Teach.

Don't worry about Joey (sorry, I don't know his last name) -- he can handle it.

At 10/26/2009 12:15 PM, Blogger James said...

Great column. I've been trying to sort out these thoughts myself and you beat me to it. The one thing that has me most worried that you didn't seem to touch on is the idea that there might be a new "Great One" emerging just as I'm on my way out (as a 70 year old fan might feel regarding Lebron right now), wondering if I'll get to see the potential realized or miss out on the best career yet by just a couple years. It's weird to think that these are the guys we're matched with for life- Lebron being about the same age, we probably won't experience his tragedy death, instead it will be witnessed by kids who only know him from old TV clips when video entertainment was still 2D, or whatever. The way I feel about watching old J. West or Wilt footage. It doesn't quite mean as much to me as I know it would had I been born 30 years earlier, so I when those guys pass on, they don't go with the fanfare they deserve, the fanfare that could only be delivered by their contemporaries.

At 10/29/2009 1:20 PM, Blogger rich said...

Great post. Although very different in style, it reminded me strongly of my favourite of Billups's posts here, back in 2007:


Which, judging by the comment you left on that post, Joey, you will take as the compliment that it is intended to be.


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