by Ben Collins

No, this is not the new Mitch Albom book.

Over the next five days, we’ll be going over the five things you need to read to be a decent, breathing NBA fan. You’ll get why it’s still okay to have a loathing, passionate hate for Vince Carter. You’ll learn why Stephen Jackson will never get himself out of trouble (it’s that damn rap music), and why that’s actually OK. Along those lines, you’ll get why Mark Cuban, a lot like Gnarls Barkley, is not crazy. Some days they will be columns, some days interviews, some days I’ll just let you revel at the originals because I know for a fact I couldn’t have said it any better. But, by the end of the week, you’ll be culturally caught up to date for the 2006-2007 season. Consider this an assignment.

So we’ll start with the abstract.

Chuck Klosterman: April 1990

This was the start of it all.

The 90s. The “Hip-Hop Generation.” The desensitivity. The… uh… Dennis Rodman.

But April 1990 was the calm before the storm. This was letting all the air in — the collection of years of suppressed vigor and style and personalization and anger and talent — before it all finally screamed its way out. This is the baby that grew up to be the NBA as we know it.

This is what made basketball pretty damn cool.

And with this transition — the enormous build-it-up, break-it-out-down procedure, this massive undertaking — there should have been a certain level of ominousness in 1990.

You probably could’ve known that when Tim Hardaway was driving and dishing in his rookie year that he was in the process of inventing basketball’s Moneyball, years before Billy Beane even quit baseball. Don Nelson’s smallball with Run TMC (Hardaway along with Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin) defied positions, sped up the game and made Oakland the second brightest star in California.

It was probably pretty easy to feel that the Orlando Magic were doing something right with their expansion team. Just a couple of years later, with Shaq and Penny in tow, they did, after all, go onto define ’90s basketball.

Oh, and then there was that Michael Jordan kid. The Bulls’ 55-27 campaign put Jordan on the All-NBA First Team with what was then the Dream Team of the future (with Malone, Barkley, Ewing and Magic).

You should’ve been able to guess the six NBA Championships that followed. You probably should’ve been able to guess all of the sponsorships that came with it. You probably should’ve been able to guess that all of this would eventually make this reserved, diligent black American, who came from the most modest of backgrounds, the most recognizable figure in the entire world.

It was probably easy to figure out, too, that Dennis Rodman would be just as infamous as Jordan was famous. Even before the dyed hair, even before he married himself, even before his countless Z-list celebrity appearances, Dennis Rodman flailed elbows, grabbed rebounds, brought home a defensive MVP, and helped the Pistons to a World Championship.

MTV and SLAM and pop culture eventually came along and pretty much dyed that hair for him. They pushed hip hop and rap into common basketball fare, which was begging to be brought in to begin with. NBA on NBC and that too-catchy theme song appeared in 1990 and with it came the coverage that embraced the players’ lives with ultra-personal halftime featurettes and Inside Stuff. And, eventually, two things became synonymous with the NBA: hip-hop and Michael Jordan.

Then there was the unguessable. The completely unforeseen. Because no one could’ve predicted a superhuman being more human than the rest of us. On November 7th, 1991, just a year after he won his second-straight NBA MVP, Magic Johnson was diagnosed with HIV, which effectively cut short the career of the most versatile player in the history of basketball and created a beacon for a misunderstood disease and generation through basketball.

But there should have been enough surge to figure out that there was something going on in April, 1990. Gary Payton, this point guard filled with tenacity and equipped with a game as big as his big mouth, was a mortal lock to be a high lottery pick in a couple of months. Tattoos were either starting to appear everywhere or players were stopping themselves from hiding them. Much to the dismay of John Stockton, shorts were progressively becoming longer and longer.

And there really should’ve been all of that ominousness. Everyone probably could’ve felt the rumblings if they put their ears to the ground. There probably were whispers that the voice of an entire race was going to come out through basketball and, in turn, every possible media venue possible. But was anyone listening?

And that’s what Klosterman points out. Everyone was finally beginning to be free-flowing and outspoken and no one noticed because they were too busy actually living through it.

Such a tragedy, huh?

So some form of sweeping cultural overhaul may happen in the next ten years, maybe the next five, it might even be happening right now. But it will start with basketball.

And this is why we watch. Because it’s so important and we don’t even know it. Everything that happens in the NBA is the basis of whatever culture will bring our way next.

It may all be shrouded in futility, especially if your team has no shot at a championship, and you may perpetually be pried and prodded as to why you care about such a stupid game to begin with.

But if you’re ever asked again on a Friday night why you’re staying home because you simply can’t miss this one Spurs or Pistons, or, hell, Raptors game, you look to your friend in his Chuck Taylors and his knee-high socks, his beanie and his placebo arm sleeve, and you wonder this:

Why let a generation define a sport when a sport can define a generation?