From ’96 ‘Til Infinity…
The Class of ’96 was the best of all time. Here’s why.
After their debuts played out behind real talent (Eddie Jones) or completely off the pre-internet radar (Milwaukee), both Kobe and Ray Allen, respectively, could only manage All-Rookie Second-Team call-ups. Kobe’s Lake Show finished 56-26 while his draft day franchise, the Hornets, finished just two losses back, 54-28 (good enough for sixth in the East). As for Allen, he went hunting under Chris Ford’s watch but couldn’t carry the limping Bucks above 30 wins.
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. Understandably, it took another full season before this miscellaneous cluster would evolve but once they all acclimatized, their gravitational pulls created an unamicable, operatic tempest.
While ‘84 is renowned for its excellence, thanks in large to headliners Hakeem Olajuwon (selected first), Michael Jordan (third), Charles Barkley (fifth) and John Stockton (16th)—and to a lesser extent, Sam Perkins, Kevin Willis and Michael Cage—we’ve also always been drawn, moth to flame, to the ‘96 class because of how this fluke flotilla has patrolled the modern NBA fishbowl.
To gain a firmer grip, we approached SLAM’s Editor-in-Chief Ben Osborne for insight on why ’96 matters. He offered, “The only other draft, over the past 15 years, that even comes to ‘96 is 2003 when LeBron, Wade, Bosh, Melo (even Darko for all the wrong reasons) were chosen. That’s a really memorable class, filled with guys who have sold a lot of shoes and become world-famous superstars, but none of them have had the basketball impact of Kobe or the cultural impact of Iverson. Of course the Class of ‘03 is still writing its story, but it’s hard to imagine people ever viewing that group like they do ‘96. Other than ’03, no other draft even comes close.”
As the discussion advanced, Osborne added, “It’s not just the depth of pure basketball talent or the cultural impact but the global popularity of players like Kobe, Iverson and Nash. The first is the most polarizing—and, if SLAM cover sales are any indication, most popular—player since MJ. Kobe’s presence alone makes it a memorable class.” But Ben quickly reminds BUCKETS that, “Iverson’s impact has been dulled a little of late but his incredibly average physical build and me-against-the-world mentality made him an absolute hero to young people all around the globe (which was substantial)!”
As for Nash, the Osborne had this to say: “Steve is another guy whose size (small), race (white), nationality (technically Canadian but with England and South Africa ties), achievements (back-to-back MVPs) and public persona (intelligent, willing to take a stand on social/political issues) make him one of the most compelling figures in the NBA to this day.”
The ‘96 Draft has served SLAM well, as Osborne notes, “One draft brought us Iverson, Kobe and Nash. That’s really amazing.” But as we all now know, it doesn’t stop there. What makes the ‘96 phalanx a singularity isn’t just the discovery of a profound periodic element like Kobe but the fact that Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, Ray Allen, Ben Wallace, Antoine Walker, Marcus Camby, Stephon Marbury, Jermaine O’Neal and Shareef-Abdur-Rahim, among others, all converged from different laboratories at the exact same time.