The Ring Chase

by April 03, 2008
2

By Vincent Thomas

Phew. That was close. I didn’t wanna see my man Webb hobbling up the court, as Jax, Baron, Monte and another freewheelin’ gazelle in a gold-navy-red jersey zipped by. The Golden State Warriors are the world’s most beautiful and compelling circus. But, it’s more like Cirque Du Soleil and Webb, sadly, looked like a clown.  I just didn’t want to see my dude subjected to that kind of marginalization. So when he called it quits last week, it was more sweet than bitter. The only sad part about the whole thing for me — because I’m selfish — is the void that nostalgia highlighted. Other than that, I guess we can say it was all good.

The basketball world has enjoyed thinking too little of Chris Webber for too long. It was cool, to most folks, to trivialize him as a player and human being. It was always a wack exercise, to me. So, I didn’t want to see Webb making like a slew of previous stars and hopping from contender to contender to contender, chasing a career-validating ring on bum knees or bad ankles, etc. 

Webb said, both eloquently and profoundly: “I just felt it was time to let the game go and be able to be happy about what I accomplished without trying to keep coming back.”

My man. Check that out. I’m not an elite athlete, but I can empathize with the pull of elusive goals and the battle we all wage with our egos. We all have our “I should be this” or “I could have been that” or “If I can just reach this” kind of moments. For those of us that are ambitious and pursue dreams, the notion of possibility dictates a lot of what we do.

Athletes experience this in a very acute way.  Not all Generation Stars are on the same level. Generation Stars are the guys that you think about when you bring up an era and not all of them are first ballot Hall of Famers. ‘Nique was a Generation Star, but it took him multiple ballots to get in. For some, there are certain things that keep them from immortal and pantheon status and whatever it is — an MVP award, a better reputation, often a championship or two — motivates them to prolong careers past the last appropriate stage. There’s the Beautiful Youth stage (when it’s about athleticism and gifts), The Prime (when it’s about skill) and finally the OG stage (when it’s about smarts and respect). After the OG stage it can get embarrassing — I call it the Chase Stage. Either they’re chasing rings or dough — usually rings.

Patrick Ewing went to Orlando thinking he was the last piece of a possible championship squad lead by newly acquired T-Mac and Grant Hill. Didn’t work. Karl Malone left Mormons for Models and tried to snag a ring with a bickering Kobe-Shaq tandem. No dice. Barkley was a year-too-late in Houston.

They all think that getting that ring is going to cement their legacies. Sometimes — like Shaq to Miami and then Phoenix or Pippen to Houston and then Portland — it’s about adding a ring at stops that don’t feature a shadowy partner like MJ or Kobe. For Pippen it was, “If I can just win one without Michael, then maybe I can establish my own identity/legend.” For Shaq it’s “If I can bring a championship to Phoenix then I’m truly the quintessential King Maker of league history.”

And they may be right. But, for all the uncomfortable career-prolonging — the kind that makes fans wince at the sight of a depleted star/legend — it’s important to note that there’s a fine line. Impact is a nuanced idea. Ask yourself: Did GP add anything to his legacy, whatsoever, by winning the championship with the Heat? I say, no. I say that we usually stop assessing a player’s impact after a certain point. I say that the years we use to determine a player’s place in history stop not more than a few years after his prime.

I had an argument about this with my dude Tony last season, when it seemed clear that Detroit was gonna be battling for a chip in the Finals (this, obviously, was before LeBron lifted their skirts in the Eastern Conference Finals). He thought that Chris Webber would be judged differently if he won a championship with the Pistons. I asserted that Webb’s legacy was set, that nothing he did as a hobbling cog in the Pistons Machine was going to considerably alter how he was remembered, unless it was a “And he definitely helped the Pistons as a cagey veteran in the ’06-’07 season” kind of thing. Webber was past the point where his genius/will/impact was one of the major determining factors of a team’s success. Same thing for this season. What exactly was he gaining by playing for comparative pennies on a team that didn’t need him?

Webb’s decision to call it quits — now — was one of the more self-aware career decisions of any athlete I can remember in a similar position. I think his last chance to seriously re-image whatever will be his lasting impression was his time in Philly. In his first (and last) full season with the Sixers, he averaged 20-10. If he and AI, for some reason, were able to pull off a title, he’d have jumped a level in his generation, probably past KG and under Duncan. But by the next season, his play and his roles were in a descent too steep to impact his career legacy.

As these playoffs approach, we have four players that all have one of their final opportunities to change the scope of their careers: AI, Kidd, Shaq and KG. All four are on the other side of their primes, very close to that moment when their impact on games will dwindle down to the level of a role player (Shaq, in fact, is already there, but his impact is more abstract). If Denver or Dallas miraculously get their teams to the Finals against, what seems to be, incredible odds (but not impossible odds) and beat the Eastern opponent, it will be largely because of whatever AI and Kidd do on the court and in the locker room. For Kidd, this looks like his last season of true relevance. By next March, I predict he’ll either be injured or languishing. AI, like Kidd, is an ageless marvel, but he has maybe two more years before he hits the same wall closing in on Kidd. Based on what he did in Philly (especially 2001), he’s still at the level (third in the league in scoring) where adding a Denver-championship to his resume is putting him in Top 20 All-Time discussions and rubbing elbows with Shaq, Kobe and Duncan as the preeminent figures of his generation. If Shaq gets the Suns over the hump, then we can mention him in MJ/Magic/Russ discussions of the league’s great winners.

If you haven’t noticed, KG and Duncan are slowing down ever so slightly. They’re at their 2005 Shaq stage. Before you know it, we will look up and both will be laboring down the court and falling all the time. KG has a chance this season, and maybe next year, to be That Dude on a championship squad. Those are the stakes, this year. Win the whole thing and he, too, is up there with the Kobe-Shaq-Duncan trio. But, let’s say he stays in the league for four more years, pushes a trade to Cleveland (or wherever LeBron is playing) and wins a ‘chip averaging 12 and 7 as a third-wheel. What exactly will that do for his career? Not much.

The time is now for these guys. Either get it done now or bounce. Don’t spend 2010-2013 contender-hopping, chasing some type of validation that is not to be found at that stage of an athlete’s career.

I’d love to see all these ringless Generation Stars (KG, Pierce, T-Mac, Kidd, AI, Ray) get some jewelery while in their Prime and/or OG Stages. Chances are they won’t. Hopefully, they’ll take a cue from Webb and call it quits before they get caught on a switch and some scrub-rookie is calling them Pops and shouting “ISO! ISO!”

Vincent Thomas is a SLAMOnline columnist and SLAM Magazine contributing writer.  He can be reached at vincethomas79@gmail.com.