Talking Bout My Generation
Generation X takes a bow.
These are exciting times in the NBA, right? A new breed is taking over. We are entering a new era of the NBA, one where new teams and new players will win the rings and awards and dominate and commandeer the culture and conversation. This should be exhilarating for all NBA fans. But I, for one, can’t escape this palpable feeling of melancholy.
The era that’s passing, the one slowly fading away — that’s my generation. For the past 15 years, I felt a special kinship with the League’s preeminent stars, the men leading the best teams, running things, so to speak. We were all part of that latter half of Generation X. When we get our “oldies” station, it will play Jheri Curl Ice Cube, Tribe and Jodeci. We played Atari and Nintendo, watched John Hughes and John Singleton flicks. We rocked high-top fades and stone wash jeans.
For the NBA, I say this era begins and ends with players drafted in the 1990s, beginning in earnest in 1991 — the year gold-toothed Larry Johnson (SLAM’s first cover star) and Kenny Anderson (perhaps the NBA’s first “street ball”-hooping virtuoso (Rod Strickland didn’t feel comfortable whipping out his flair until later)) were drafted. Shaq came the following season. It’s all relative and debatable, but, to me, 1999 was this generation/era’s last draft class — the Lamar Odom/Baron Davis class. With the two fairly irrelevant classes of 2000 and 2001, you can say the new era was conceived with Amar’e and Yao’s 2002 class and it was born with the landmark 2003 crew. KG (‘95), Ray Allen (‘96) and Paul Pierce (‘98) felt 2003’s foot up their anuses Wednesday night.
I’m sure you noticed all the era-change clues. Zach Randolph (‘01) and the young gun Grizzlies putting Duncan, Ginobili and the Spurs in the first-round trick bag. Kobe — the game’s best player from about 2003-2009 — unable to impact the Dallas series, at all (L.A.’s chief problem is that Kobe is no longer a reliable closer). LeBron blocked a KG layup with his armpit. Pierce’s shorts are now mid-thigh. And Shaq…man…Shaq.
Just like no athlete signaled the new era like Shaq did when he bumrushed the NBA — rapping, acting, break dancing, rocking Karl Kani and manhandling “more growner” men in the paint — no other athlete signals the eras end so vividly. The saddest sight of the season came in early April, when Shaq returned to the court after a two-month, injury-forced layoff and, within five minutes, limped off the court with a strained calf. He shooed away help like a proud old man who doesn’t want assistance getting to the bathroom. He practically collapsed once he was in the tunnel, out of fans’ sights.
The end is not near, I think it’s here.
The light on this era started dimming two summers ago in 2009. Within a few months, Stephon Marbury — who may not have been among the era’s greats, but exemplified much of the generation’s aesthetic in both play and demeanor — had a public meltdown on UStream that got him blacklisted. Then Allen Iverson — the era’s icon for years, but unwanted by 31 teams — took a midlevel contract with Memphis, before getting kicked off the team because he couldn’t handle not being able to wrestle the starting job from Mike effing Conley.
Shaq was traded to Cleveland that summer. His introductory press conference was at a local gymnasium. Five years earlier, when he arrived in Miami, they practically threw a parade. By the end of Shaq’s season in Cleveland, comedian Kevin Hart was cracking jokes about how how often and awkward Shaq would fall during games.
Still, the 2010 Finals featured two squads (Lakers/Celtics) led by late-Gen X stalwarts. The Cs sent Wade, LeBron AND Dwight Howard fishing for the summer. Kobe told Kevin Durant and Melo to pump their breaks. The old guard was still in control…but it was losing its grip.
And then this season happened. Marbury in China. Iverson floundering in Turkey. Shaq barely playing. A Fab Five retrospective that felt nostalgic and wistful. And the 2011 Playoffs happened, when the youngsters told the old heads to get in the backseat where the windows only come down halfway.
Check the All-NBA teams just released. You have Kobe who beat out Wade (which he shouldn’t have) and LeBron, Dwight, KD and Derrick Rose on the First Team. Generation Y kats — the new school. In fact, only three of the 15 players selected to the three All-NBA teams (Kobe, Dirk Nowitzki and Manu Ginobili) were drafted in the ‘90s. Last year there were just four. The number essentially drops every year. Soon there will be none.
And here’s what is difficult for a dude like me to admit — this new generation will be way doper than mine when it’s all said in done. The exact opposite is true in music…but as for the NBA — done deal.
My generation was always plagued with something. LJ, Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill’s careers were either slowed or ruined by injuries. Players like CWebb, Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson had top-50 talent but never reached their potential (although Webb is a borderline Hall of Famer). The two best players of our generation (Kobe and Shaq) were on the same team and they both mutually dismantled the squad due to bickering. Our other multi-ring squad was led by the third best player of the era (Duncan), who had the personality of a Payless shoe box.
We talked too much trash. We had too many tattoos. We choked coaches. We started Brawls. First we toiled under Michael Jordan’s shadow and when he finally retired, they stuck us with a league-wide lockout that led to nationwide player-backlash.
We struggled. I dug my generation’s players immensely, rode with them, identified with them, defended them (if I said, “Dwight Howard would never choke his coach,” I actually kind of mean it as a compliment and a putdown). But we came after the Golden Era and the Jordan Era and it wasn’t until this new, precocious generation started mixing in with the Gen X cats who were in or just past their primes that the NBA starting getting its legs back.
After Rose’s misty-eyed and trembly-lipped, but thoroughly heartfelt and laudable MVP speech, Commissioner David Stern called him “the whole package.” You can tell that he’s smitten with this new crew. As he should be — as everyone should be.
But I’m a hater and a growing curmudgeon at the early age of 32. You never like to see you or your generation’s time pass at the helm.
The Cs and the Lakers will be back competing next season. A Dirk/Kidd-led Mavs could win the title, but it’s a new day. Wednesday night, after LeBron annihilated Boston with 10 straight game and series-clinching points, he and Wade celebrated while KG and PP walked through the tunnel with their heads hung and without congratulating their new-gen opponents. Soon, TNT went to a split screen of LeBron/Wade hugging and KD warming up for an eventual win that put him a step closer to the Finals. It was like the visual optic for “Off That” (a song, ironically, made by Jay-Z, still amazingly relevant in hip hop, America’s most youth-obsessed entertainment).
Kobe recently had this to say about next year: “What I think about, is shutting up these (bleeps) who say I’m done.” He probably means fans and media. But for a champion like Kobe, only rings do the talking and, I don’t know, but I think the Leaders of the New School might shut him up when it’s all said and done. It’s their league now.
Vincent Thomas is a columnist and feature writer for SLAM, a contributing columnist and commentator for ESPN. You can email him your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @vincecathomas.