Wednesday, June 1, 2011


As a nation we are into the new, always eager to declare the latest to be the greatest. The annual antidote to this error is the NBA playoffs, the current edition of which now is entering its final stage.

When the playoffs began some weeks ago many believed they would signal a changing of the guard in our basketball major league. The best record in the regular season was earned by the Chicago Bulls, led by their whirling dervish guard Derrick Rose, at age 22 the league’s youngest-ever MVP. In the West the up and comers were the Oklahoma City Thunder and their duo of precocious 22 year olds, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

The notion that a new age was aborning was underscored when the two best teams of the last decade—the L.A. Lakers and S.A. Spurs-- were shoved aside rudely in preliminary rounds.

But here we are at finals time and who’s still standing? The Dallas Mavericks, surely one of the oldest aggregates ever, and the Miami Heat, a younger but still solidly veteran crew. As I’ve been noting for years, the NBA victory stand is no place for young men. Another name for a “good, young” NBA team is “also ran.”

This state of affairs stems in large part from basketball’s status as our best-played sport. Those of us with memories of times long past can only marvel at the skills and athleticism of today’s players, which dwarf those of previous eras. High-school teams today would beat top college teams from my younger days, and the wonders the pros perform routinely surpass understanding.

Television has spurred basketball’s growth by turning every game into a clinic for young players, but I think that by scaling it down to screen size the medium also diminishes the sport. Only when viewed “live” from courtside can the size, speed and strength of NBA players be fully appreciated. I know that such seats are expensive (us press got ‘em free), but sitting in one once is worth a place on every sports fan’s bucket list.

If you play in the NBA you almost certainly have the combination of agility and spring the players call “hops”—at least initially-- but the game has evolved far past the point where that alone suffices for success. A range of skills must be cultivated, along with judgment, which translates roughly into the ability to know when to do what. They take time to acquire.

Michael Jordan, the best basketball player (and maybe the best athlete) ever, was in his seventh season in the league before he hoisted a championship trophy. The Heat’s LeBron James, the current best, already has played in eight without earning the privilege. Dirk Nowitzki, the Mav’s ace and one of the all-time most-versatile offensive big men, is a 13-season vet still vying for his first ring.

Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, All-Pros all, put in a total of 36 seasons before the basketball gods allowed them to combine to win in 2008 in Boston. Lakers’ great Kobe Bryant won his first championship in his fourth pro campaign, but he had help from guys like Shaquille O’Neal, Glen Rice, Ron Harper and A.C. Green, who’d been around the block a time or three.

It’s not just a team’s starters who require seasoning; when a coach peers down his bench late in a playoff game he’s not looking for dewy youth but for the grizzled likes of Robert Horry, who could sit on his butt for two hours, then step on court and immediately nail a three, grab an offensive rebound or plant a strategic elbow. Horry collected seven NBA rings with three different teams over a 16-year career, most of them in latter-day supporting roles.

It’s often asked around Chicago how new-hero Rose stacks up against old-hero Jordan at the same, early stage of Rose’s development. Pretty evenly, I’d say. Both came into the league with hops a mundo and the ability to see openings and angles to the hoop invisible to lesser basketball intellects. Jordan went on to improve his straight-on shooting ability, as has Rose, although so far to a lesser extent.

But six or seven years into his career Jordan developed the fade-away jump shot that rounded out his game by making him lethal from mid-range—the same shot, by the way, that has sustained Nowitzky and Bryant in productive hoops maturity. Young Derrick ought to give the shot a try while he’s sweating through his summer drills. Like many a good young baseball pitcher, he’ll soon be realizing that his fastball alone won’t get him and his mates where they want to go.

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