My loving relationship with professional basketball began organically when I was pretty young—around five or six years old—ending sometime during my sophomore year in high school. Although I still played in pickup games at the local park in the summer time, I never followed professional basketball as closely as I did when I was very young. And, my fall from fandom to ho-hum was just as organic as my love for the sport, a growth largely dependent on circumstance. However, part of it is not. Professional basketball demands one’s attentions as much as any sport in the United States should today, and this is why it matters again to me.
Backtracking briefly, the reason why I began to love basketball so much as a child is largely due to circumstance. I was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, the bastion of mediocrity in football ever since the St. Louis Cardinals—yes, there was a time in which two major sports teams from the same city with the same nickname—moved here prior to the 1988 season. There was no professional baseball team in Phoenix until the 90s and the college sports teams, with the exception of the Arizona State baseball team, were largely mediocre. So, the team was here and has largely been a competitive team for nearly 20-25 years was the Phoenix Suns. I loved the Suns. I loved the Suns Gorilla. In fact, I can still remember the time my father took me to a Suns game and I was so pumped to see him only to find out that he would be absent that night because he ate too many bananas the day before. As an adult, I cannot help but wonder if that was a euphemism for having a bit too much to drink the day before and he was hung-over. Subsequently, all of my friends and the youth around the area were all basketball crazy. If you did not have skills, you were not cool. We hooped at school. We hooped after-school. We played on all-star teams. We played in over one hundred-degree heat. Indoors, outdoors and on carpeted basketball floors we were there, ready to hoop. All of this attracted me to basketball in the first place, but what made me stay, like all good relationships, were the personalities and abilities of the players.
The Suns were a looking glass into arguably one of the best ten years in the history of basketball: the 90s. What made it one of the greatest periods were the number of active players, immensely talented in their own right, with personalities that motivated their teammates to play at a higher level*; not only did they motivate their team to play on another level, but they fueled the other great players of the time. I’ve seen the greatest basketball players of my generation compete against each other for championships and a team win six of them over 4-5 of the best to ever play the game.
But, alas, my love was too good to be true; much like the rest of the sports-watching public, I broke up with basketball during the early 2000s but perhaps not for the same reasons that the public Rip VanWinkle’d their way through, say eight years of basketball. People lost interest when the superstars slowly started to fade into retirement. With Michael Jordan and the super friends gone, we constantly wanted to know who was next and who would usher basketball into the new age. Say what you will about Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs, they were no replacement for what was lost. Kobe Bryant was not mature enough to be what every basketball fan needed then. And Allen Iverson, despite his perceived talents, amounted to only a scorer and really nothing more. The competition was not the same, and even if it was, it didn’t have the je ne sais quois the 90s super friends. As Americans’ hangover from the pinnacle of play in the 90s continued, they got tired of waiting for Superman. As for me, I became so wrapped in college and then in grad school to not care a bit about basketball. After all, I had no reason to; the supermen left us to fend for ourselves. That is, up until two years ago, when basketball and I kissed and made up. I was a fool for leaving and I promise never to stray again. I felt like a kid again, watching the greatest players in the world to their thing.
Professional basketball has yet again amassed a group of limitlessly talented basketball players that thing-that-was-lacking-in-the-early-2000s, which seems to be the win-at-any-cost mentality (see LeBron James) and the kind of personalities that make teammates want to play with them and opponents to play their hardest against them**. What’s been increasingly interesting is that the game has become more of an international game than before, creating a broader talent pool from which to draft and build teams, similar to international soccer. As these young players continue to mature, they will no doubt continue to amaze. The game might not be the same one you left. It has changed. It is more of an open court and a bit faster than it used to be.
It’s safe to come back to the court, America. Superman is back and it would be impolite to turn away.
*Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen, John Stockton, Larry Bird (to a shorter extent), Isaiah Thomas, Clyde Drexler, Magic Johnson (before he left due to AIDS), Hakeem Olajuwon, and Patrick Ewing. I’m sure I’m missing a few.
**LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant, Dwayne Wade, Steve Nash, Tony Parker, Dirk Nowitzski, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard. There are more, but most are very young.