Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011 at 5:52 pm  |  52 responses

From ’96 ‘Til Infinity…

The Class of ’96 was the best of all time. Here’s why.

This piece is an exclusive that originally ran in BUCKETS: Issue Two. Go to bucketsmag.bigcartel.com to visit the online store.— Ed.

by Brad Graham

The 1995 crop of conscripts, captained by mighty mouse Damon Stoudamire—which also included top choice Joe Smith; Antonio McDyess; UNC duo Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace; draft gem Michael Finley and the infrequently spectacular but still raw and uncut, Kevin Garnett—was an armada of serviceable war vessels, but their collective artillery, as mighty as it would prove to soon be, never quite conquered like the new-age fighter jets that were about to take off during the following summer.

June of ‘96 was more than Michael Jordan’s triumphant return to the champagne shower, following his record-setting 72 regular-season victories. It was also a platform for the NBA’s 50th recruitment drive wherein the Philadelphia 76ers, holders of the No. 1 pick, attempted to correct their horrid 18-64 campaign.

Echoes from Jordan’s now perfect return served as fitting background noise to a night which ushered in both the signifier of his mortality—the Sixers’ new dynamic, lightening quick, barely 6-foot prize, Allen Iverson—and true heir to his vast fortune—Lower Merion ace, Kobe Bryant. Of course it’s unfair to only credit those two when the ‘96 Draft is widely viewed as a game-changing tsunami but it’s also impossible to supplant The Answer and Black Mamba as towers along the NBA’s growing skyline.

Conveyor of the stance that ‘size is highly overrated,’ Iverson did more than simply cross-up his Airness during that transformative ‘97 season, he also and instantly brought about discussions of age, establishment and evolution but none of it could’ve been possible had the Sixers not dropped their confident young gunner straight into the war zone (where he was forced to learn on the job in a backcourt operation that was kamikaze). Contrastingly, Bryant’s early interactions with Jordan and the NBA brought about a much quieter discourse with far less fan applause before taking on a vastly different, almost perverse line of conversation.

As previously mentioned, the early rumblings of the ‘96 Ronin weren’t limited to the brashness of Iverson or the preciousness of Bryant. Elsewhere, because NBA law states that an expansion franchise can not land the top lottery pick during its first three seasons, the Vancouver Grizzlies, owners of a league worst 15-67 record, went from favorite for No. 2 to having to settle for bronze (as they were leap frogged by fellow Canadian bacon, the Toronto Raptors—who ended their own first term with an equally embarrassing standing of 21-61).

While Iverson hogged the national spotlight, as the fish who could save Philly, the Raps nabbed NCAA Player of the Year, Marcus Camby—to complement Stoudamire—before the Grizz opted to secure the services of one-and-done phenom, Shareef Abdur-Rahim (in an attempt to make us all forget about instant flameout, Bryant ‘Big Country’ Reeves).

On draft night, the 25-57 Milwaukee Bucks were forced to select fourth after their 20 percent chance of landing pole position in the lottery failed. Calling out Stephon Marbury’s name, they promptly exchanged his rights with the team going fifth, the Minnesota Timberwolves, who grabbed UConn darling, Ray Allen. Now Minny had a shiny new ball-handler to fuse with its frontcourt sensation, teenager Kevin Garnett—a promising modernism, who skipped the mandatory retail sector, advancing directly from warehouse pallet to consumer cupboard for the first time in decades.

Foolishly giving up their first round picks in both ‘96 and ‘97 (to the Boston Celtics) for cumbersome center Eric Montross (the C’s first rounder in ‘94), the Dallas Mavericks should’ve enjoyed the sixth selection but instead had to watch their pick default to Beantown. Boston quickly acquired Antoine Walker and sent the Mavs a bottle of vintage red. From there, another six players, mostly unavailing, faulty clunkers, as it would later appear, where all drafted before the 41-41 Charlotte Hornets were put on the clock.

When Kobe Bryant’s name was announced by Commissioner David Stern, it was a watershed moment that changed perceptions forever. All of a sudden it was skill, not size, deciding if teenagers could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with grown men. In a move orchestrated by league logo Jerry West, the Lakers sent established Euro center Vlade Divac thousands of miles across the US for the rights to Bryant. With Shaquille O’Neal also arriving in Hollywood that same summer, courtesy of free agency, the fate of a dozen franchises changed trajectory as the weight of power shifted from East Coast to Wild West.

On the flip side to that same high school coin, the Portland Trail Blazers’ choice, Jermaine O’Neal (taken 17th) had seemingly found himself with little-to-no choice but to throw his name into the draft hat (because his senior grades stunk). What made Kobe’s defiance (of the standard NCAA procedure) so startling was the fact that his test scores were exceptional. Unlike the highly publicized journey of Garnett one year earlier, who opted against attending JuCo, Bryant excelled in the classroom and could’ve collected his college degree at any number of the nation’s blue-ribbon campuses and yet, given every possible option, he chose to do what no one dared, what no one thought possible—he declared, as a shooting guard, for the NBA. The notion that a loud, cocky, trigger happy, attention seeking teenager could seamlessly progress from schoolyard bully to boardroom businessman, on his own terms, was laughable, at least at the time. What KG trashed in ‘95, and what the two ‘96 teens exploited that following summer, was the idea that apprenticeships couldn’t succeed in the NBA workplace. Thanks to these oversighted gambles, isolated cases quickly opened the gateway for basketball’s decision makers to trial, and eventually implement, a rogue custom as vogue.

At season’s end, without the same first-year restrictions as his brethren, and with his brash, individual dexterity towing instant cult-status, Iverson was made numero uno in Rookie of the Year voting, even though his team chalked up a cheerless 22-60 record. He was followed in the final tally by Stephon Marbury, who posted impressive averages of 15.8 points and 7.8 dimes; while Abdur-Rahim, third, joined them on the podium (despite the Grizzlies’ league-worst 14 victories).

Expected to be an instant franchise savior—after setting the ‘95-96 NCAA season ablaze as a member of Rick Pitino’s University of Kentucky Wildcats; a squad which has since been widely viewed as on par with the ‘91 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels because of their depth and dominance in the Tournament—Antoine Walker, could only lead his hapless Celtics to 15 wins, a new low-point in Shamrock history. Despite the deplorable team ranking, Walker did enough to impress the Association’s coaches, who collectively decided he should join Iverson, Starbury and Abdur-Rahim on the All-Rookie First-Team. Rounding out the first year’s top starting unit was Camby, who tallied 14.8 points (his career high), 2.1 swats and 6.3 boards per game for the teething dinosaurs.

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  • http://Slamonline.com nbk

    This was really really good.

  • MikeC.

    ’96 was loaded!

  • http://slamonline.com LakeShow

    Wow took me all day to finally get through it, but what a great read! Thank you!

  • http://www.kb24.com The Seed

    Great article. The Class of 1996, is still writing their story. BOOK IT!!!

  • add

    nice article, shout out to my man Eddie Jones

  • http://www.facebook.com/joe.l.brewer3 BlackPhantom

    Freakin’ amazing article.

  • gokill

    Truly the best class!!!

  • brandon

    wow i thought that 03 was the greatest but then i saw that class lose to the mavs, so…

  • robb

    thank you very much for posting this.

  • Hubert

    you totally forgot about mark pope & priest lauderdale!

  • http://www.courtsidebasketball.blogspot.com Hank McCoy

    Another great read. Great to see SLAM showing Aussie Hoop Heads some love!

    For those interested you can catch more of BG’s thoughts and 90′s NBA down at the Courtside Podcast, http://courtsidebasketball.blogspot.com/2011/07/courtside-podcast-episode-18-throwbacks.html

    or jump online and grab yourself a copy of Buckets Magazine, http://bucketsmag.bigcartel.com/category/magazine

  • jonny

    Yes, and 1995 McDonald’s All-American Game was deepest of all time. Whoa.

  • http://www.slamonline.com spit hot fiyah

    crazy how camby’s career high in points was in his rookie year

  • marc

    Marcus Camby was my one of my favorite knicks player.

  • http://www.slamonline.com spit hot fiyah

    also, no mention of kerry kittles, he was real nice b4 injuries caught up to him, and john wallace too

  • http://www.slamonline.com/ 1982

    Thanks, this was probably the best article I’ve read in a while on basketball. I still have that 96′ draft class fold out cover.

  • Pic

    “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.” So the 2006 Miami Heat won because of Antoine Walker? That’s almost like saying the 2011 Dallas Mavericks won the championship because of Deshawn Stevenson.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Slick Ric

    please, when you got four legitimate legends who were arguably the best the at their positions, nothing else compares.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Slick Ric

    im not sure if d-fish deserves to be on that list.

  • http://cnbc.com JTaylor21

    Sorry but the ’84 class with Hakeem, MJ, Barkley and Stock is the best of all-time. What they lacked in depth was made in those 4 guys’ individual greatness.

  • LA Huey

    Great article. Not going to say ’96 is still not as good as ’84 but it has an argument.

  • Double J

    D-Fish doesn’t deserve to be on that list?!?! holy crap man…

  • bike

    I have always thought that AI was the most entertaining and exiting player to watch…ever. No, he did not win championships and yes, he was no doubt a pain to coach and a problem in the locker room. But, man oh man oh man…the crossover and the way he seemed to score at will over, around, and under guys who were almost a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier….and watching him slam into the floor over and over and over again. Used to make me ache after watching one of his games. I really loved that guy.

  • http://slamonline.com LakeShow

    Bike agree that dude was incredible, but for me the precision style and skill set of MJ, and Kobe, makes me like watching them more. And as far as just being excited while watching someone play ball, Dennis Rodman takes the cake for me.

  • Kyle

    C- Ben Wallace – in his prime was a defensive, rebounding monster
    PF – Jermaine O’Neal – 13 ppg, 9.8, 2.8 bpg starting in 2000
    SF – Kobe – 28.5 ppg in 2000
    SG – Ray Allen – 22 ppg in 2000
    PG – Steve Nash – 15.6, 7.3 apg in 2000

    6th man – Peja and Iverson
    rest of the bench – Marcus Camby(would switch as starter with Wallace), Shareef, Malik Rose

    Against the 1984 team(mind you, the team has to make sense)
    C – Hakeem Olajuwon
    PF – Charles Barkley
    SF – Jerome Kersey
    SG – Michael Jordan
    PG – John Stockton

    6th man – Sam Perkins
    rest of the bench – Otis Thorpe, Rick Carlisle, Vern Fleming, Jeff Turner(no 3 point shooters and not much else aside from the big 4 to choose from.

    Which team do you think would win considering the class of 96 with everyone in his prime? One team could combine pure 3 point shooters who can pile on the points with defensive monsters.

  • Ken

    The belabored metaphors and awkward writing made me stop after one page.

  • Brock

    Very true indeed

  • Will Lee

    what about Peja winning a title this year? Antoine also won title with Miami.

  • http://slamonline.com Ugh

    “Narcissistic playmaking”? Do you actually know what narcissistic means?
    Also: plural apostrophe.
    Also: terrible roads metaphor. Terrrrible.

  • http://slamonline.com Ugh

    “his diverse pack of color pencils also includes the much darker shades”. YIKES!
    Also: “dangly teenager” You mean gangly.
    Also: Where you had ‘loath’ you mean ‘loathed’.
    Also: too much alliteration.

    Can I get a job as a sub-editor, Slam? It’s pretty obvious nobody else is doing it.

  • Ivan

    Now NBA articles are just bittersweet memories..

  • Ali

    Great read SLAM!

  • http://slamonline.com #kiwiinlondon

    this was a golden issue! my cousin still has that poster on the wall. kobe turned into an absolute machine.


    Bryant Reeves went 13 & 7 in his rookie year, not great but hardly ‘instant flame out’… Reeves wasn’t half as bad a basketball player as his physical appearance (apparently) suggests.

  • Tobiath

    Brilliant article, excellently written and executed. A great way to spend my lunch break. Kudos Mr. Author.

  • Armando

    Kyle: Why 2000?

  • http://thetroyblog.com Teddy-the-Bear

    School’s in session when I’m fresh’n–RAPPING–so I take time off to never rhyme soft…

  • MLK4Life

    You can’t possibly have AI coming off the bench behind Ray Allen. Compare the two in their primes? Ray was good, AI was great.

  • http://www.blogabull.com/ CheecaagoMayne

    read this while listening to 93 til infinity

  • Waskito

    Good story.. Worth to mentioned, shandon Anderson (solid player, 2 NBA final), malik rose,samaki walker ( eat something),

  • Zabba

    “As the sun set on the ‘96-97 season, Michael Jordan claimed yet another title but when the night sky became visible, what emerged wasn’t complete darkness but a nebula creating bright new stars.” I can’t waste my team reading crappy writing like this, no matter how informative the article is.

  • shomilocdee

    check SLAM 96

  • shomilocdee

    AI cover

  • shomilocdee

    96 is just too deep 4 84 to compete.

  • http://www.twitter.com/JoshElam JE

    Which draft class has produced the most regular-season MVPs? Not trying to make a point, I really don’t know the answer.

  • Jamaal87

    @ JE

    It has too be 84′

    MJ had like 5.
    Barkley had 1.
    Hakeem a couple?

  • Armando

    MVPs, has to be 84.
    MJ: 5, Barkley and Olajuwon 1 apiece.

    The DT mixed up their starting lineup, but assuming their olympics finals starting five it would be:
    PG – Magic 8ppg, 5.5apg
    SG – Jordan 14.9ppg 4.8apg
    SF – Pippen 9ppg, 5.9apg (leading the team)
    PF – Malone 13ppg, 5.3rpg
    C – Ewing 9.5ppg, 5.3rpg
    Barkley is the 6th man, the tournament’s best player and USA’s leading scorer at 18 per game. People tend to forget Mullin’s significance on the team, 12.9 ppg, 3.6 apg and 54% from three. The two players playing the least were Stockton and Laettner. Drexler and Bird started 3 games each as well and chipped in 11 and 8ppg respectively. Robinson essentially split the time at center 50/50 with Ewing, posting 9 and 4 per game.

    Match ups position by position:
    PG: Magic would post up any of the Redeem Team PGs except maybe Kidd, he wouldn’t be able to stop Paul or Williams though, but with Robinson/Ewing behind him that wouldn’t be a problem. Stockton was better than any of the Redeem Team PGs at this point in his career, top three passer of all time, excellent shooter, great defender and a tough nail (put up 16ppg 14apg and 3spg for the Jazz in 91-92):
    EDGE: DT
    SG: Jordan vs. Kobe – Skills wise a wash, but MJ’s the best ever because of his determination and mindset. Drexler vs. Wade: Again very even, Wade’s probably got the upper hand here, but only slightly (I’ll rank these 5th and 4th all time at the 2). Redd could get some time, probably matched up against Mullin, but that’s a duel he’s bound to lose anyway.
    EDGE: DT
    SF: Pippen vs. James: James would have to work against Pippen and vice versa. Mullin and Bird vs. Anthony (who primarily has played the four internationally, but will see time at the three as well) and Prince: Prince is a very good defender, but he’s never been anywhere near the player Mullin was. Anthony is arguably better than Bird at this point, but without the intangibles. Anyway…
    EDGE: Almost EVEN, but i’ll give this one to the Dream Team as well unless Anthony sees a lot of time at the SF, in which case it tips the other way (slightly).
    PF: Malone vs. Anthony: Malone could possibly struggle against Melo on the perimeter, but come on, Anthony doesn’t hold a candle to the Mailman. Boozer would surve nicely as Barkley’s halftime snack. Laettner would only get garbage minutes.
    EDGE: DT
    C: I believe DH could end up being the better player of all the centers on these teams, but at their respective points in their careers this is pretty even. Howard would probably do alot of damage, but it’s basically two against one and a half (Bosh).
    EDGE: DT.

    Dream Team would win it.

  • Kyle

    2000 had them all just hitting their real primes… and a few weren’t all star caliber players before that(Nash, O’Neal, Wallace.) I was being weird by saying 2000, but in 1998, they’d have been murdered… but from 2000 to 2005… deadly.

  • Armando

    F**k, posted in the wrong tab. Sorry.

  • phamie

    Steve Nash is one of the batch ’96. Look how far he is now, So i definitely Agree that ’96 batch is the best really.

  • washtub

    1996 is not even the best draft of the 90s.
    1992 is.

  • andre anglais

    1992? Shaq and Zo and …?
    Oliver Miller?