When The Stars Go Out
Icons of the ’90s NBA are mortal again, and the game moves on.
by Allen Powell II
Old age steals upon us. Quietly, with a deft hand and light step, it creeps into bones. It is a jangling in the joints and a dull ache in muscles. It takes up residence in lungs, camps out in our brains and ultimately, it controls lives.
Charles Barkley often opines in his famously uncouth way that Father Time has never lost a battle. Chuck’s right. Looking across the NBA landscape it’s obvious that the undefeated streak continues, and that should bring a touch of sadness to true hoops fans.
An era is ending.
Kevin Garnett still looks the same. Sure there are a few more wrinkles, and the bones in his face seem a tad more defined compared to when his effervescent personality first burst upon the NBA scene, but honestly a quick glance at him shows few obvious physical deficiencies. He’s still as lean as a whippet and still so impassioned that he’s the player opponents love to hate.
But, he’s not the same. Where he was once “Da Kid” who famously broke the NBA bank with a $128 million contract, Garnett is now the grizzled warrior trying to dig deep for one more ride to the mountaintop. When he burst on the scene he seemed to grab alley-oops thrown to the moon, now he’s known for the arc on the jumpshots he takes on 90 percent of his scoring possessions. Da Kid became “The Man” and then became the “Old Man”, and it happened right in front of our eyes.
This is not a new lament, nor is it one confined solely to Garnett. Tim Duncan has become a shadow of the two-way terror that fended off Shaq, Kobe and Iverson for the title of best of his era. Jason Kidd is a role player, Steve Nash is being held together by magic and desert sands. Allen Iverson is gone, T-Mac is a bit player and Vince Carter is Half Man-Half Dead. While Dirk and Kobe are still keeping Father Time at bay, they soon will give up the ghost. An era of greats, an era of characters, stars and supernovas will be confined to the dim halls of memory and the NBA’s Circle of Life will move on… Cue the hyenas.
It’s always been like this. Old school basketball fans no doubt mourned the time when Dr. J stopped scooping and George Gervin could no longer finger roll. Wilt’s decline must have seemed like a sure sign of the Apocalypse given the hallowed space he once occupied, and even the mighty, mighty Michael Jordan finally met a retirement he could not come back from.
The NBA is the NBA because the game endures and because there will always be a new rookie, a new star and a new supernova to behold. No player is bigger than the game no matter what their egos and fans tell them. No player is irreplaceable—that is the trump card David Stern has always kept barely concealed. The game moves on, life moves on, and the cheers stop.
But it is a painful silence.
NBA players often occupy a sacred space, a space filled with our imaginations and longings. Although they are only playing a game, they come to represent something more because of our enjoyment of them. The way we appreciate them and the game they play is often tied to who we are as people when we watch.
A teenager’s mimicry of and obsession with Hakeem Olajuwon might be slightly confusing to that child’s adult self. The fervor a college student showed in defending Allen Iverson against all comers is almost comical unless you consider time, place and mindset. All that angst over Iverson’s foibles and partial successes may appear ridiculous through the lens of full adulthood, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth it. Those feelings have heft and provoke nostalgia because there was something behind them that mattered. Something about what we were and who we have become.
It is difficult to be a certain type of adult, and be a fanatic. Becoming an informed observer of the world, which should be one of the prerequisites for your adult license, makes it almost impossible to lose yourself as a fan in the same way. The accomplishments and legacies of random adults playing a game should become much less important when stacked next to marriage, children, bills and goals. While a love for the beauty of the game may endure, that visceral connection that drives fandom in the young typically evaporates. Real life won’t allow it anymore.
While that change is largely inevitable, it is still a loss. When the icons of our youth become mortal again, it is humbling and more than a little scary. What is the world if these people are not what they’ve always been? What does that make us?
It makes us, all of us, simply human.