I Want to Party Like it’s 1998
I would like to first state that I started to write this BEFORE the Celtics fell behind the Heat 2-0.
I don’t feel like I’m old enough to recall the “Glory Days” of anything without being laughed at. Born in 1984 I suppose it’s fair to say that as a (somewhat) knowledgeable sports fan, I am young. Now that I’ve got that out of the way, this NBA season has made me turn back the clock. The 2010-2011 Association has prompted me to dig through the file cabinet in my head and try to recall the last time that I truly enjoyed the NBA. It has forced me to go back to a time when bowl cuts with the part in the middle were cool. When Harlem World by Ma$e was the most popular rap album in the suburbs of New Hampshire. When South Park was new and boy bands were just beginning to burn up the Billboard charts, that’s right, I’m talking about 1997-98.
Why that season? What happened to the league I used to love? What’s wrong with the league today? Some of these answers are simple and obvious. Yet, even as I sit and type, I’m amazed at how easily the reasons for my disdain towards David Stern and my disowning of what used to be my favorite pro league to follow are coming to mind. I can tell you the night it began.
June 24, 1998
Ironically, though it wouldn’t pay off for another 10 years, this would be a great night in the illustrious history of my favorite franchise, the Boston Celtics. I was 14 years old sitting in front of the television with my father and my Boston Globe mock draft. The Celtics, picking 10th, were projected to get Pat Garrity, but somehow, Paul Pierce, projected as high as 2 in some mocks slid all the way to the Green. I’m getting sidetracked. The downward spiral for the NBA began on this night, and it began with the words…
“With the first pick in the 1998 NBA draft, the Los Angeles Clippers select, Michael Olowokandi, center, University of the Pacific”
Don’t get me wrong. I had no idea at this very moment that the league I love was about to decline faster than Bill Clinton’s reputation in the coming months. I don’t even have anything against Michael Olowokandi. Let’s call it a bad omen. Probably won’t get too many arguments about the following statement: It was the worst franchise in league history making one of the worst number one picks in league history. The Kandi Man is on a short list of TRULY epic draft failures. Looking back, I can’t help but think of it as the precursor to the death of my favorite professional league.
Before I present my argument, I’ll take just a moment to address two likely counter arguments to what you have begun to and will hopefully continue to read.
#1. “The Celtics sucked. Of course you stopped liking the NBA, because your favorite team was a doormat.” IRRELEVANT – The Celtics downward spiral began in the early 90s. My NBA interest peaked in those dreadful M.L. Carr days.
#2. “You were barely a teenager when you started to lose interest. Youthful ignorance fueled your love for the NBA. It hasn’t changed that much.” Might #2 hold water? Read on and you be the judge.
The more obvious reason for my discontent than that 1998 draft happened exactly one week later. The owners locked out the players. The lockout lasted from July 1, 1998 until January 20, 1999. Apparently 204 days is more than enough time for hundreds of professional athletes to collectively add 20-30 pounds of beer muscles. Seriously, do you remember how fat Shawn Kemp managed to get in 29 weeks? It was kind of pathetic.
It took baseball a few years to recover from the strike of 1994. Fortunately, they had a couple of superstars like McGwire and Sosa, plenty of steroids and a historic home run chase to pull them out from the abyss. At least the NBA still had Michael…nope…January 13, 1999…retired…again.
Sure the league has had some nice moments in the last 11 years. It was nice to see David Robinson win a championship in 1999. One of the league’s class acts. I’m sure New York City was a great place to be when the 8 seed underdog Knicks found their way to the NBA finals, but after a lockout, the league needed a good, competitive championship series. Spurs rolled, 4 games to 1. The Knicks averaged under 80 points a game for the series. The league didn’t get to enjoy other decent NBA finals until the Pistons upset the Lakers 4-1 in 2004. Frankly it wasn’t even a great series, but it gets points for being a big upset. In moments when the NBA needed to shine, it didn’t.
The next reason I fell out of love with the NBA may be a product of my age and generation; the stars I loved to watch got old. The superstars from the Dream Team Era faded into their twilight years, and the new generation of young studs just wasn’t as likable. From 1999 until that amazing draft class of 2003 the league lacked star power. Guys like Olajuwon, Ewing, Robinson, Mullin, Drexler and Barkley were either old or retired. After Shaq, Kobe and Iverson who was Must See TV for the game of the week? Antoine Walker was one of the league’s most prolific scorers from 1999 to 2003! Jerry Stackhouse actually won a scoring title! This was a league badly in need of an identity. But back to Shaq and Kobe, I suppose these are two guys that David Stern can base hit foundation on, right?
Summer of 2003: Kobe Bryant accused of raping a 19 year old hotel employee. Bryant and Shaq bicker like adolescent girls, Shaq leaves town, so much for that. However, by 2004, the league seems to have solved the superstar crisis with the Lebron/Melo/Wade/Bosh draft class. The league got a much needed personnel face lift. Unfortunately that was just a band aid when the league really needed stitches.
To this point I’ve been able to give a pretty good timeline of events, but the thing that happened next developed over a longer period of time. I don’t know exactly when it started, and I don’t know exactly when it got so noticeably bad, but it was a process. With the conclusion of The Dream Team Era began the Prima Donna Era. More players, even better players on bad teams expected the star treatment that Michael Jordan used to get from officials. The complaining and moaning that has always been somewhat a part of the game got significantly worse. Flopping used to be a practice reserved for guys like Rik Smits and Vlade Divac. Now everybody was flopping and embellishing as if they were playing for the World Cup instead of the NBA Championship. If I wanted to see Oscar Worthy acting, I would spend $10 on a movie ticket, not $50 to go to basketball game.
The NBA’s response was to clamp down. Quicker technicals. Frequent flagrants. If Charles Oakley played in today’s NBA he would pick up a flagrant 2 every week. When did basketball become a pansy sport? Why did it suddenly come to be that a clean hard foul was not to be tolerated? When you learn to play the game as a kid, coaches tell you that if you’re going to foul somebody taking a shot, you better make sure the shot doesn’t go in. Tough to do when they give out suspensions and fines for hard fouls like candy on Halloween. I wish I appreciated the Knicks and Pistons style of play when I started following the NBA back in the early to mid 90s. Now I miss it.
July 20, 2007 – The day Tim Donaghy effectively murdered the NBA in my eyes.
9 years and 20 days after the lockout that started it all, Murray Weiss of the New York Post reported the investigation of the Tim Donaghy betting scandal. I’m too big of a sports fan to completely ignore one of the four major professional sports leagues in America. Basketball is still my favorite sport to play and the college hoop season is one that I start to look forward to each yeah right around the time the Patriots kick off their season. I will casually follow the NBA, I may go to a couple games, and when the Celtics are on I will watch and root for them. That being said, this scandal killed any chance I ever have of feeling about the NBA like I did in 1998 before I knew Shawn Kemp had an alcohol problem and 27 illegitimate children.
I would love to love the NBA sometime in the future like I used to when the Wizards were the Bullets and Karl Malone wore LA Lights. Not possible. My love for the league was permanently damaged. The Donaghy scandal was a complete and utter catastrophe, but the way that the league and the media handled it magnified the problem. Instead of attacking the problem and actively trying to gain back the trust of NBA fans, the league tried to sweep it under the rug. It was just a rogue official they said. There was absolutely no lingering problem with any other officials. Donaghy acted alone they told us, but no matter how badly the most diehard NBA fans tried to ignore it, foul play was in the back of every observers head anytime a questionable call was made. Four years later that hasn’t changed.
The NBA created this problem without any help, but the media is making it even worse. In the spring and summer of 2008 I watched the Celtics championship run. One of the great things about watching games on TV is that you see everything. Especially in this age of technology, you get reactions in high definition; close ups and replays from seemingly infinite angles…unless the network doesn’t play them. All season long, ESPN, ABC and TNT neglected to show replays of possibly missed calls. I understand that these networks are trying to draw viewers and they don’t want to call attention to the fact that we may be watching corruption at work, but by ignoring poor officiating and refusing to indentify bad calls, the networks are only making the audience more paranoid.
Just when I think the league can’t get any worse in my eyes, the best player in the league quits on his team in a playoff series, complaints that he has spoiled his fan base with his play, holds a one hour special to stab a city in the back and announce to the world that he’s taking his talents to combine forces with two other superstars in Miami.
I set out to write this with the intention of staying away from hockey/basketball player comparisons. I failed. There is no blanket statement or characterization that will hold true for every NHL or every NBA player, but by and large hockey players, are humble, unassuming, down to earth guys who realize the name on the front of the jersey is more important than the one on the back. Many NBA players are the exact opposite.
Has anybody watched the NHL playoffs? They’ve been amazing!! Fast paced up and down action for 60 minutes and often times more (19 overtime games in 59 playoff games). There is nothing more intense or exciting than sudden death overtime in a playoff hockey game. I remember watching Anaheim beat Dallas in four overtimes when I was a freshman in college with the lights off and the sound barely audible so that my roommate could sleep. The most amazing this is when a hockey team gets knocked out of the playoffs you hear about all the injuries that guys had played through and the upcoming surgeries it will take to repair them. Ok, I’m sorry…no more hockey talk, but if you haven’t watched any of these playoffs, check game 3 of the Flyers and Bruins tonight.
Back to hoops…maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe I was too young to realize some of the problems that the league had when I was 14. Maybe some people think today the league is bigger and better than it ever was. I disagree. I cherish memories of Karl Malone and Dennis Rodman almost literally wrestling each other as they tried to run up the floor in the NBA finals. I know I already alluded to the Knicks bruising style of play in the 90’s but I’ll say it again. Not only do I miss Starks, and Oakley, and Ewing, and Charles Smith; I miss when the Knicks were good. I hated the Knicks, but I loved to hate the Knicks. Only this year after nearly a decade of being a laughing stock did they get back to being decent.
At the risk of running over 3,000 words I’ll list a few more reasons the NBA just isn’t as good as it was before July of 1998.
In no particular order…
-No more NBA on NBC…I don’t even miss the network. I miss the Roundball Rock theme song. John Tesh’s greatest musical contribution to society
-No more Seattle Supersonics…, not trying to blatantly plagiarize Bill Simmons, but it cannot be ignored.
-“20 second timeouts” – Notice the quotations…when did 20 second timeouts become 3 minute timeouts? I don’t’ know exactly when it happened, but it was definitely sometime between July 1, 1998 and now.
-Craig Sager…no explanation needed
-The following guys no longer play…and that sucks…Cedric Ceballos, Dan Majerle, Nate McMillan, Horace Grant, John Stockton, Glen Rice, Anthony Mason, Grant Hill, Otis Thorpe, Avery Johnson, Fat Lever, Larry Nance, Penny Hardaway, L’il Penny, Sean Elliott, Muggsy Bogues, and one of my all time favorites…Mitch Richmond
-Card collecting is basically a lost art…this could be another article in itself, and goes beyond basketball, but it’s not the same anymore.
-Players can no longer leave the bench during an altercation, or it’s an automatic suspension. Ok, fine, probably a good rule, but how awesome was this?
-I think we were all better off before Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson were in the league
So here I am, 27 years old and already talking about the good ole days that I’ll never get back. The days when I could get geared up for a game in January between the Sonics and the Rockets. Maybe a new wave of players like Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose will help make the league a little more fun to watch. Unfortunately I know it will never really be the same, but if I ever want to take a trip down memory lane, at least I can still turn on a Jazz game and watch Jerry Sloan…oh wait