Saturday, March 15, 2008

A Thought

I can't claim to know where Michael thought the NBA would go when he retired. But it's interesting to wonder: when he said the game would be in good hands, was he thinking about guys like his opponent that night, Allen Iverson? Solo studs whose accomplishments were ultimately inferior in the span of history to the game's greatest winners like Russell and Kareem and Michael himself? Or did he accurately foresee the renaissance of the little man, the high screen, the team defense that would arise from his absence?

I think about the time passed between his last game and now and I think the NBA has weathered some incredible obstacles. Kobe Bryant, arguably the next face of the league in the post-Michael era, was embroiled in a rape trial during the summer of 2003. I remember waking up in Taos, New Mexico of all places on a hot July morning and having Michael Lemmons drop that morning's edition of the Albuquerque Journal in my lap. I saw Kobe sitting beside his wife in front of a dozen microphones, his head drooped low in shame and guilt.

I remember sitting in my basement on what was otherwise a regular Friday night in November. The Pistons and Pacers, by far the two best teams in the Eastern Conference that year, met in Detroit for a possible preview of an Eastern Conference Finals rematch. One of the most talented players in the league that year was the Pacers' small forward, Ron Artest. Artest had made a name for himself during the past two seasons as somewhat of a psychopath--but a damn talented one. Then, in the waning moments of the fourth quarter, I bore witness--live--to the type of event that happens once in a lifetime.

I had absolutely no idea how to react. I just sat there and watched gallon after gallon of beer and popcorn rain down on the professional athletes scurrying for their lives. It was as if 28 Days Later had become real and manifested itself in the Palace of Auburn Hills.

But surely that moment was not what Michael meant when he said the game was in good hands. After the two catastrophes of Kobe's rape case and the brawl at the Palace, things didn't actually improve. The Knicks and the Nuggets got in a fight. David Stern implemented a new microfiber ball that lasted less than a season. A new dress code was put in place that many believed was racially motivated, that Stern was simply trying to whiten his product for easier consumption.

But finally, finally, after almost five years, the league is indeed in good hands. Kobe's reputation is restored, Ron Artest is safely medicated in Sacramento, and all is well.

But it's beautiful to see what basketball itself has become since Michael stepped away. That game in Philadelphia was iconic because we thought we were seeing a battle of the generations. We though Allen Iverson represented the best of the NBA for the next twenty years. But, though I respect Iverson greatly, we were blessedly wrong. Suddenly, the league did not reward teams staffed by flashy individuals who could fill it up as if on command. Four of the past five champions are fundamentally sound teams with pass-first point guards and old-school big men. We've seen a short, mulleted Canadian win back-to-back MVP awards. We've seen the drool-worthy emergence of some of the most gifted young players in a generation at every position (specifically, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, who might one day be considered the best--yes, the very best--at their respective spots on the floor).

So what I'm saying is that Michael was absolutely right. The game is in damn good hands. I just wonder if he knew to whose hands he was giving it. I assume that he did. He was Michael, after all. There wasn't much about basketball that escaped him.

And, of course, if you're still convinced that the NBA is a league solely reliant upon individual stardom, there's always this 23-year-old named LeBron.

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