A Tale of Two Guards

On the road to greatness, ‘96 has shown it all—multilane interstate highways (Bryant); main streets with massive potholes (Nash); gravel goat tracks (Todd Fuller); Suburban boulevards (Allen); Inner city laneways (Camby); Winding country roads (Walker) and Industrial avenues (O’Neal)—but when the Draft took place, it was all about the impact of standout point guards, Allen Iverson (Georgetown) and Stephon Marbury (Georgia Tech): two men who were expected to change city planning.

“Iverson’s impact may be diminished a little now but that’s just because people have such short memories,” Osborne informs BUCKETS when we shift the topic of conversation over to AI’s legacy. “I feel like he was one of the three or four most relevant and important athletes in the world from 1996 until about 2005 and that can never be taken away from him.”

Meanwhile, the unintentional master of faux pas, Starbury, hasn’t quite been as ever-lasting, as Osborne reminds us, “SLAM’s efforts at building him up notwithstanding, I’m not sure Marbury ever had any big impact or relevance. Sure, he was tied to Iverson right around the Draft, but Allen enjoyed much more success and generated far greater controversy with his style, comments, etc. and that’s what made him such a big deal. Stephon, on the other hand, never played quite well enough, nor won enough games, for all his off-court antics to really matter, good or bad.”

In a class littered with sensational perimeter players, it’s bizarre to reflect on a time when Starbury aptly received bigger billing than Kobe and Nash combined but that was his place in ‘96. Undone by hubris, both Iverson and Marbury have since seen Derek Fisher remain an NBA starter while they wait for General Manager’s to call them back. Once the life of the party, the cruel world of next has left them looking like a couple of out-of-touch talents who are lost in their own reputations, fables and forgotten productivity.

Pulp Fiction

“The amount of ways the players taken in ‘96 have influenced the NBA and pop culture (and continue to do so today, 15 years later!), is really remarkable, in fact, it’s immeasurable. I hope ESPN or HBO are working on a documentary as we speak!”

Osborne’s words hint at the depth and value of ‘96 but what exactly are these men responsible for? While they never invented walking on air or introduced the elephant print, their respective styles remain avant guard. New NBA fans might not remember Iverson’s Reebok line being the only battle axe to ever dent the Air Jordan armor but most pundits sure as hell know all about Kobe and Nash’s uninvited low-cut, light weight Swoosh overhaul. Speaking of footwear, Starburys were practically given away once up a time and for long sessions, Antoine Walker (adidas), Ray Allen (Jordan Brand) and Marcus Camby (AND 1) all provided powerful wattage to their cultural lighthouses.

It’s fair to unequivocally state that without ‘96, we’d have a far less interesting NBA universe. Subjugating the consumer spheres of advertising, broadcasting, collecting, electronic gaming, hairstyling, publishing and merchandising, just to name a few—and that’s just off the clock—the spectrum by which ‘96 has captured our collective imagination is simply staggering. On a purely indulgent and stranger than fiction level, the long running, Samson strong subplots which absorb this Tonka tough troupe are as good and titillating as it gets for hoop heads.

Anthill of Accolades

Surprisingly, it wasn’t Iverson but Antoine Walker—8 points, 0-3 outside, in 12 minutes—and Kobe—a Western Conference best 18 points in 22 minutes—who first broke into the All-Star stronghold, way back in ‘98; with the latter voted in by fans as one of four Lakers selected. Of course since then, another nine players from ‘96 have been called up, including Iverson, Nash, Sugar Ray, J.O., Starbury, Abdur-Rahim, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Peja Stojakovic. That’s 11 players in total—over one-third of the first rounders selected—and that’s without adding undrafted Thundercat, Ben Wallace, who also earned multiple All-Star badges.

They’ve netted MVPs (Iverson—’01; Nash—‘04 & ‘05, Bryant—‘08); Finals MVPs (Bryant—‘09, ‘10); Best Defensive (Wallace—‘02, ‘03, ‘05, ‘06; Camby—‘07) and Most Improved Player honors (Jermaine O’Neal—‘02), as well as other noteworthy awards from the various All-Star Weekend events but what truly separates this delegation is every chip won over the past 15 years not claimed by either Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan or Michael Jordan is because of someone from ‘96. In fact, 12 of the past 15 NBA Finals have featured ‘96 cast members in key roles (with Kobe showing up seven times).

The colossal, chart-topping finish however belongs to their 41, and counting, All-NBA Team selections—the truest measure of an individual’s worth. Like gifts under the Christmas tree, members from ‘96 can’t stop, won’t stop, amassing these honors. With no Michael Jordan in sight, the ‘99 First Team found room for Allen Iverson (his debut); while Bryant, who should’ve been a collegiate junior that year, was picked for the third unit. From there, thanks to Kobe, at least one member from ‘96 has appeared every year, including the 2003 apex when a staggering six players were deemed to be top 15. Here’s the breakdown:

1996-97. –
1997-98. –
1998-99. 1st: Iverson // 2nd: – // 3rd: Bryant
1999-00. 1st: – // 2nd: Iverson, Bryant // 3rd: Marbury
2000-01. 1st: Iverson // 2nd: Bryant // 3rd: Allen
2001-02. 1st: Bryant // 2nd: Iverson // 3rd: Wallace, O’Neal, Nash
2002-03. 1st: Bryant // 2nd: Iverson, Wallace // 3rd: O’Neal, Marbury, Nash
2003-04. 1st: Bryant // 2nd: Wallace, Stojakovic, O’Neal // 3rd: –
2004-05. 1st: Nash, Iverson // 2nd: Allen // 3rd: Bryant, Wallace
2005-06. 1st: Nash, Bryant // 2nd: Wallace // 3rd: Iverson
2006-07. 1st: Nash, Bryant // 2nd: – // 3rd: –
2007-08. 1st: Bryant // 2nd: Nash // 3rd: –
2008-09. 1st: Bryant // 2nd: – // 3rd: –
2009-10. 1st: Bryant // 2nd: Nash // 3rd: –
2010-11. 1st: Bryant // 2nd: – // 3rd: –

Happenstance? Ben Osborne clears the air, “For the most part, I think it’s a coincidence. But Kobe’s presence makes it extra, extra accomplished. It was certainly considered a strong group but I don’t think the ‘96 Draft was predicted to be as prolific as it has turned out to be. Kobe, astute and calculating, even at 17, assessed the guys he’d be with in the Draft, and knowing how good most of them were, he still entered his name, that helps makes it seem like there was more than coincidence dictating how great the players from ‘96 would turn out.”

Osborne aptly concludes, “If I had to bet, I’d say we’ll never see another class that could or will ever match it.” While this divergent class has served as necessary advancement, their redirection of franchise fate and fan misfortune has also created a paradox, and that fact should never be forgotten.

It may still be futile to challenge the cosmic forces ‘84 but for those of us who enjoy the warning of thorns, as much as we adore the various colors which flower atop the stem, it’s hard to look past the eclectic bouquet of ‘96—a class like no other.