10 for 10
Five years later, a lot’s changed. Much hasn’t.
I don’t want to write too long of an intro because it’s one helluva post. But some cyber ink needs to be spilled. “10 For 10″ originally appeared as a feature in our 10th anniversary issue, #77. Five years and 50+ issues later we find ourselves staring our 15th year in the face. And while we are cookin’ up some ideas in the Dome for it, we thought that this would be a good place to start commemorating. We look back, but keep movin’ forward.—Tzvi Twersky
SLAM 10th Anniversary: 10 For 10
Before you flip the page, there’s one thing you must understand: This is not a “10 Greatest Players” list. We’ve done that before and we know better now. Nor is this a “10 Most Influential” list, or even a “10 Favorite Players” list. Nope. This is something different.
In the decade that we’ve covered the game, certain elements—streetball, dunking, jumping from high school to the NBA, sheer dominance, etc.—have arisen, or simply shown their staying power again and again. And so have we. So instead of arbitrarily picking the 10 favorite players (sorry, Isaiah) from our first 10 years, we chose 10 themes, then selected the one player who best represented each of them.
Some were difficult, some not so much. Some were hotly debated, some were as plain as on the nose on Ben Handlogten’s face. Anyway, we got our 10. See what you think.
The Streets: Rafer Alston
by Bonsu Thompson
The sight was heavenly. The motion was sweet spoken word backed by Coltrane and Vinia Mohica.The body language was that of hip-hop, so every move rhymed with the previous, flowing. It was almost enough to inspire tears of joy. But no tears necessary, the sight just brought joy like Anita Baker. The sight of a skinny kid from Queens––born to his parents as Rafer Jamel Alston but re-birthed by the streets as Skip To My Lou––dribbling, skipping against his adversary in the ’94 Rucker Tournament all-star game like nothing his generation had ever seen. Half a decade later, And1 displayed the archives: More crossovers than Sony Records, enough head-wraps to fill an Erykah Badu concert, American Idol-type embarrassment. All hand-delivered by the double-jointed wrists of the next chosen one. New York City finally had another playground god to worship.
Rafer wasn’t going to college (shit, he barely played in high school) so the NBA wasn’t even a thought for the future. He got his rep and his nick from Rucker Park (You can’t get any more pure!) so the streets hugged him, squeezed and smiled aloud, “He’s all ours!” But every parent has to let go of their child someday, in order for that child to become the best he can be. Since the world was first introduced to Skip, a lot has occurred for the pg with the R-rated game. A lot of good. Skip got his two-year degree and played a year for Tark at Fresno State before being drafted by the Bucks in ’98, all the while still summer balling at Rucker. He became one of the few to accept the gift and avoid the curse. True, he was a playground icon, but his name wasn’t going to remain in the playground.
His story consists of the ingredients legends are made of—and a few that aren’t. Due to more time spent in the parks than the classroom, Rafer only played a combined 10 games of high school ball in his junior and senior years. In those 10 games, he averaged 31.9 ppg. It’s been told that in one of those games, he didn’t arrive at the gym until halftime, with a scent of a familiar herbal essence trailing his body. He finished that game with 35 points. But the world is bigger than New York City, and there are checks to be cashed way grander than what any Rucker sponsor could give him.
Rafer Alston was finally allowed to do on an NBA level what he’d been doing to asphalt comp. Sam Cassell would later openly admit to being the victim of Alston’s vortex spin-moves in Bucks practices. For Jason Kidd, being the NBA’s version of the comic book hero Flash always worked against him when he played against Skip. Something out of the Alston arsenal would send him flying in an opposite (wrong) direction or spinning to locate the rock his “sub” opponent just faked and dispensed for a dime. “I ain’t gonna lie,” Stephon Marbury once confessed in these pages. “When you’re playing against Rafer Alston you’re liable to get embarrassed. You know it’s gonna happen.”
George Karl’s closed mind and Cassell’s star power eclipsed Rafer in Milwaukee, but last season, his fourth in the L, he finally got the chance to show the world what exactly the Skip To My Lou faithful had been fussing over all these years. As the backup floor general anointed to reverse a sliding Toronto Raptors team, he put up the best numbers of his young career. This season, he joined the Heat’s rebuilding ship. His numbers, though under the radar, are to be viewed as bright spots especially considering that it’s his first full season of consistent PT. But regardless if he’s on the floor or nailed to the bench, one key factor remains: Skip has already elevated from the level of greats like Pee Wee, Helicopter, Goat and the rest to the greater ranks of those like Tiny, Zeke and Franchise. The most beautiful part of the Rafer Alston story is that it’s just beginning. Just keep reading. And keep watching.
The Enigma: Kobe Bryant
Words Ryan Jones
“I’m not sure if anyone really understands Kobe Bryant. In fact, I’m not even sure if Kobe Bryant really understands Kobe Bryant.”
I’m cribbing those words from Russ, our editor in chief, because I can’t think of a more succinct way to make this point. Those were the first two sentences of Russ’ editor’s letter back in SLAM 66—you remember the cover, Kobe in the black Rewind joint, golden triplets lined up in front of him. You might remember the words inside. It was a Q&A, mostly, and I was feeling myself. I thought I asked some pretty good questions, and, based on his responses, I thought maybe I had Kobe figured out. I’ve since realized that the only thing I know about Kobe Bryant is that I don’t really know Kobe Bryant at all. In that, at least, I’m not alone.
Kobe Bryant—The Enigma. All signs have pointed to our collective inability to really understand this cat for a long, long time, and the events of the past nine or so months have only reinforced this reality. But this is not about a sexual assault case; this is bigger and broader and has much less to do with one isolated incident than it does with the scope of a man’s life as we know it. Even if whatever allegedly happened in that Colorado hotel room last summer had never happened in the first place, Kobe would still be one of the most strangely compelling figures in the history of the game. The only difference now is that a lot more people are paying attention.
From the start, his story was almost completely unique. Son of an NBA player. Grew up in Italy. Took friggin’ Brandy to the prom. And he was cocky—likeably so at first, but for a lot of folks (fans, coaches, Shaq) that unfadeable confidence grew real old real quick. All of which seemed to make him that much cockier. It wasn’t so much that he expected greatness of himself, but that he seemed to think it was destined. How he just knew it was coming. Mostly, though, it was how he went about it all, and how it never quite looked…authentic. Like he was always trying. Trying to be something other than who—or what—he was.
So who is Kobe? Essentially, he’s a foreigner, an immigrant not only to this country, but to the culture that has come to define the game. The fact that he has tried so hard to embrace that culture just makes it that much more obvious that he wasn’t born to it. That week-long run of throwbacks during the ’02 Finals? Did it ever seem natural? No. It came off as forced, and a lot of us saw it as such. Just like all those years he seemed to be channeling Jordan, in voice and manner and game. Or when he tried to rap. Or when he dropped “motherfuckers” all over my interview with him back in Ish 66. Or when, without warning, he got all tatted up last fall.
Throughout, SLAM has generally given Kobe the benefit of the doubt. We had nothing but love for his game (and really, anyone calling themselves a basketball fan had to feel the same), and we always had positive experiences with him in person. Of course, we heard things. Rumors from friends in the sneaker industry, from agents, from folks in the League office, whispers about ego and attitude. About a young man who didn’t have enough of the right people around him, who only seemed to know what he really wanted when he was on the basketball court.
It’s 2004. Kobe Bryant is 25 years old. He’s got three championship rings and Hall of Fame averages, and he could easily play another 10 years. Don’t forget that. Don’t think that, health-permitting, he couldn’t manage two or three more rings and another 15,000 points before he’s done. Don’t be shocked if he ends up on the cover of our 20th Anniversary issue with the line “Just Like Mike. Only Better,” only this time we’ll be right. He might be a Sun by then, or a Clipper or Grizzly or (irony of ironies) a Charlotte Bobcat. Doesn’t matter. Fact is, he’s been saying for years he wants to be the greatest of all time, and as of right now, his goals, all of them, are still attainable.
Well, all except for one. He still wants to look like he’s not trying. Like he belongs. He wants the acceptance, the embrace. He tried to tell us it didn’t matter, but we’re pretty sure it does. And at this point, even for Kobe Bryant, that might be too much to ask.
The Dunker: Vince Carter
by Ben Osborne
The thought of going to the Bay Area for NBA All-Star Weekend 2000 was exciting for me long before I gave any thought to the hype around any individual player. It was the first All-Star Game in two years (thanks to the lockout that cost fans the ’99 version), and it was the first All-Star Game I’d ever covered.
Russ and I got out there on Friday, hit a fly Nike/Def Jam party that night, and eagerly headed out to the Oakland Coliseum for Saturday’s festivities. Vince Carter was obviously a guy who we—to say nothing of the screaming teens on hand—were eager to watch in the practice and most notably the Dunk Contest, but we weren’t quite ready to anoint the guy the next Jordan, as so many others in the media seemed eager to do. And the fans seemed anxious, too, considering they elected him to the starting lineup with better than 1.9 million votes, second only to MJ’s record 1997 vote total.
But Russ and I are both cynics, and as such, we had our doubts that Vince would live up to all the hype on the mega-watt stage of the Dunk Contest. We were wrong. Keep in mind that aside from a slight burst of excitement from JR Rider, the SLAM-era Dunk Contests pre-2000 were generally lame (and didn’t even exist in ’98), and the ones since have been even worse. But the 2000 contest brought out a sick collection of high flyers: Ricky Davis, Steve Francis, Larry Hughes, Tracy McGrady, Jerry Stackhouse and VC. And Franchise put on a show that we’d probably still be talking about if it wasn’t for Vince’s exploits.
Carter started with a 360-degree windmill that neither Russ nor I had seen before. From the reaction of the fans (including Shaq), they hadn’t either. And it just didn’t stop. There was the through-the-legs throwdown off a T-Mac bounce alley-oop, the using-his-elbow-like-a-coat-hanger dunk and the two-hands-almost-from-the-free-throw line monster. At some point in the proceedings, in a quote that actually made it into the next issue of SLAM, I turned to Russ and said, “This isn’t a contest, it’s a coronation.” Russ showed me his notebook, where he had simultaneously written almost the exact same words.
For real, even though it was less than four years ago as I write this, I bet some of SLAM’s younger readers don’t remember how much hype Vince had at that time. There were sweet SLAM and Sports Illustrated covers, followed by a run to the playoffs and his international star turn in the Olympics. There were highlight-film moves so sick they created some of the best audio ever—“he jumped over his head,” shouted the normally unflappable Doug Collins after the Freddy Weis Olympic jam, while Chick Hearn calmly but impressively called his Staples Center cock-back “one of the greats.” And Vince’s Entertainer’s Classic bang in Gauchos Gym simply prompted screams of joy. All of it in turn led to lots to ads (Gatorade, Nike, etc.) and the top spot in our own 50 Greatest Dunkers of All-Time special issue in late ’01.
On the topic of dunks, and in an effort to stay true to our name, SLAM has big-upped every alleged air apparent from Jameel Pugh to Flight White to Isma’il Muhammed. But even if you ignore the fact that these cats have no shot at the all-around career Vince has, it has yet to be proven that any of them can match his dunking, at least under the spotlight in which Vince dominated.
Vince is still a big-time vote getter and a relative SLAM favorite (the cover’s waiting, playboy), but “Vinsanity” is over. Nagging injuries have lessened his lift, and he hasn’t played all 82 games or braved a Dunk Contest since that magical Y2K campaign. We doubt this is what Jet meant when he shouted “It’s Over!”—but in a way, it was.
Thankfully, I was in Oakland on February 12, 2000, and I’ll never forget.
The First: Kevin Garnett
Words Russ Bengtson
Kevin Garnett rolls shallow these days. No posse pours out when he pulls up to the photo studio (early, no less) in his immaculate silver Range—just him and his long-time rep, Michael Moore. Something else is missing, as well. The bling. Other than his thousand-watt smile, KG comes with no shine. No platinum chain, no iced-out piece, no double-digit-carat rocks in the ears.
The night before, he dropped a triple-double—with 35 points—on the visiting Dallas Mavs. Got the W. Emerging from the trainer’s room his customary 45 minutes after the game ends, striped button-down under a black sweater, he plays down his own accomplishments, choosing instead to big-up teammates Gary Trent and Oliver Miller. “I just sorta got in where I fit in, and grabbed a couple boards here and there,” KG says. “But it was off their performance.”
After nine years in this game, Kevin Garnett has gotten everything down to the essence. He’s grown—but understand, he’s still Da Kid at heart. That’s what makes him great.
“…The fact that he’s played in about…oh, let’s see, uh, zero big-time college games under the national spotlight and has likely been the largest player in nearly every high school (think about it, folks, HIGH SCHOOL) game he’s been in, leaves this soon-to-be incredibly wealthy manchild in so far over his head, you won’t even see his long arm calling for the ball for at least three seasons. If, frankly, ever.”—SLAM 7, September 1995
Those words, once repeated (SLAM 50) bear repeating again. Not for ridicule this time, but to establish perspective. We (he, and us) were both just getting started, and to be honest, he had more faith in us than we had in him. “I’m from the Dirty, obviously, South Carolina, and you had one of those kids who got his hands on SLAM, and all of a sudden everybody would be tryin’ to get his posters to put on his wall,” KG reminisces. “After certain kids start bein’ like selfish, you had to cop your own.”
In 1995, when the gangly senior from South Carolina via Chicago’s Farragut Academy decided to skip college and turn pro, no one had really done it before. Not like this. Sure, there were Moses Malone, Bill Willoughby and Darryl Dawkins in the ’70s. But Moses was a youngster in the equally young ABA, Willoughby never really caught on, and Dawkins ultimately became better known for his idiosyncrasies than his game. Kevin was headed into the void, alone. We knew him, obviously—Punk’d him with teammate Ronnie Fields—but we still didn’t believe. It wouldn’t take long.
“I was following the Chris Webbers and the Malik Sealys and the Magic Johnsons, just being a fan,” he says. “I really didn’t have anybody to sort of pattern off of. You come into the League, man, it’s on-job training.”
Garnett put up a respectable 10.4 points and 6.2 rebounds per as a rook. But it was the joy, the exuberance—the absolute love for the game that shadows all the rest of his prodigious talents—that shone through. It was that rich soil that fed his game. Love. “It comes through the pores, it comes through the heart, it goes through the blood,” he says. “You can’t front that. You can’t front love, man.”
To flip the plant metaphor, the seed KG planted blossomed quickly. Solo in ’95, Kobe and Jermaine made the leap in ’96 and kicked in the door. KG had shown that college was not necessarily the only path to the L, and others followed. “It’s built this way up to where LeBron is right now. I did it, Kob’ did it, Tracy did it, Al…DeShawn…Jermaine. So we sorta set the bar. Now, all this, if you will—not pressure, but expectations—are on LeBron to sort of, ‘Hey, they did it, what can you do with it?’ And he’s doing well. He’s handled himself really well.
“It’s almost like this, man—if you in fifth grade, and you know some kids that’s in ninth grade, you get enough stories and you see enough things that when you get to ninth grade you know how to be,” he continues. “So by the time you get to high school, you know, you might know how to talk to the girls, you might know how to dress—what book bag to have, what hat to match what kicks—and I look at LeBron as sort of being like that kid.”
The differences are many. Kevin enters the League, we assume he’s going to fail. LeBron enters the League, we not only figure him for Rookie of the Year, but we’ve already had him on the cover. Twice. This is because of LeBron’s talent, yes, but it’s also because of Kevin. Because he did it all first and showed how incredibly it could be done.
Nine years in, KG is still improving, still learning. “Nine is—to be where I’m at, to play at the level I been playin’ at, to be consistent, that’s what’s important to me, man,” he says. “Still enjoyin’ what I do.” He’s downright unstoppable already—his spin move in the low blocks is as lethal a move as there is in the L—yet he still seeks more. This is not because of the nine-figure contracts (both the one he’s on or the new one he just signed) or the adidas deal or even the quest for a championship, although that does play a major role. This is more for what comes through the pores and pumps through his heart.
“The love has only grown, because as you get older you appreciate little things,” he says. “I got Ndudi Ebi on my team, and to see him sort of watch every little move and kind of copy your style a little, it reminds you of yourself when you was young. So now I find myself as an example to somebody else. When you get some of these young guys who wanna holla at you about different things, and they look at you as being the top or whatever, it’s kind of flattering. It’s appreciation and respect. And since I’ve been in this League it’s all I’ve worked for.”
And he’s achieved it. “And I’ve achieved it. Because I gave it. And I still give it. I respect every player in this League. And at the end of the day you’ve gotta demand it, too.”
The end comes, later than requested, with hugs and pounds all around. “I’m just happy that you guys cover me.” Nah, Kev. We’re just happy that we have you to cover.
The Lost: Grant Hill
by Michael Bradley
It’s hard now to remember who he was. What he was. “Just Like Mike. Only Better.” That’s what we said, back in ’97, when the Pistons wore those ridiculous horsey uniforms, and Grant Hill was just plain above everybody else. Even Jordan. At least that’s what we thought.
Hill was doing the 20-10-5 thing, hoisting up a weak-ass Detroit team, winning games with his all-around magic and dropping jaws with his did-you-see-that moves. “Only Better.” It could have been that way for a long time. Hill had the game. Had the desire. Had the brains. Every night, he would do something that made your eyes pop. A ridiculous dunk in traffic. Or a hanging feat of Newtonian defiance. A swooping drive. A gimme-that rebound. All that. As MJ was seemingly nearing the end of his run, the NBA could rest easy. Grant Hill was ready to step up when the Great One left the stage (and finally for good, we all assumed). The line of succession was intact. Air’s heir was finally ready.
And you couldn’t dispute it. Even if Grant was battling against his squeaky-clean image (part of it self-inflicted, thanks to those Sprite ads), to the point where throwing on a pair of baggy shorts was viewed as a rebellious act, he was poised. Poised to take over. He’d fought through early pains—as if winning the Rookie of the Year award and earning All-Star berths in each of his first four years were painful—and was established. He was more than a prodigy. He was a star. A sensation. The NBA was his, or at least, it appeared ready to acquiesce. But there was that one little problem: The Pistons weren’t very good. Hill played six seasons in Detroit, reached the playoffs four times, and never saw the second round. And there it was. About 40 percent of his career gone, and nothing. Something had to be done. Motown was great, but…
Then it was Hello, Orlando. Teaming up with T-Mac. Living down the street from Tiger. The Twin Terrors. Potentially as devastating an alliance as the NBA had seen since MJ and Scottie joined forces. Hill wanted to get paid, of course. But he wanted to win. Little did he know that four years later, he would have happily settled for a pain-free trip upcourt. For Orlando is where this wonderful story turns sad. Where one of the Good Guys gets it between the eyes. Or in the ankle, for those who insist on being specific.
Grant Hill broke his left ankle late in the ’99-00 season, his last in Detroit. Hobbled through a pair of playoff games and could take no more. But it was just a broken bone, right? Put some hardware in it to stabilize the thing, slap on a cast, wait 6-8 weeks and hit the court running. That’s what he thought. Until he tried it with the Magic. Nope. Four games in ’00-01, then more surgery; 14 runs in ’01-02, then 29 in ’02-03. There was little of the spark, none of the magic. Or the Magic. Orlando has had its moments with McGrady (who grew up fast), but like in Hill’s early days, his team still hasn’t escaped the first round.
Now, as SLAM celebrates its 10th anniversary, the thought of Grant Hill as better than Jordan looks pretty silly. The only thing he has in common with MJ now is that neither is playing. But don’t blame us. Don’t blame Hill, either. In an era when few can meet—much less exceed—expectations, Grant Hill was on his way. He would’ve made it, too, if not for that broken ankle and those dreaded complications. Here’s a wish that Hill makes it all the way back. Maybe he won’t dazzle, but doesn’t he deserve the chance at a full, 82-game season and some extended playoff time? Damn right he does. Now that would be sweet. And should he return, we might just might put him on the cover.
“Grant Hill: Welcome Back.”
The Miracle: Allen Iverson
Words Khalid Salaam
As I’m talking to Allen Iverson about this magazine’s 10-year anniversary, I specifically ask him what it is about SLAM that makes us stand out. What makes people follow it? He responds with a simple and totally Iverson-esque reply: “SLAM is just real.”
It’s the same thing I said when I first saw the magazine. It’s funny how things work out.
I still remember the ’96 Draft. In the days prior, I’d been debating with my friends about who the 76ers should take with the No. 1 pick. Quite a few of them thought Ray Allen was a no-brainer. Personally, I thought Allen Iverson was the obvious choice. Their point was, while obvious that AI was going to be a great player, he was only six feet tall. Pretty hard to build a championship squad around a little guy, they reasoned. I knew they had a point, but it worked for Isiah and the Pistons, so why not? Besides, AI was too good not to take. This guy just had it—you could tell right away. On Draft Day, I was at my boy Demond’s house. We were on our way out the door, but I had to be sure. So when David Stern announced that the Sixers were taking AI with the No. 1 pick, I was like, No doubt, we can leave now. That’s all I wanted to see.
As a Philly native, that was the first time I’d felt good about the Sixers in a minute. I was a young, enthusiastic fan in the late ’80s, which, by the time ’96 rolled around, seemed like eons ago. I wasn’t crazy, but I was a little over the top when I think about it now. For instance, during the ’88-89 season (or it could’ve been ’89-90, I can’t recall for sure), the Sixers had a promo theme song that used to play on the radio. It was something to the effect of “Until the night is done! Come on and run with the Sixers…the 76ers!” I took a blank tape and recorded it and would play it in the mornings before school to get myself amped up. It seems funny now, but I used to love that song. I wish I could hear it again (holla at me Karen). Things went bad soon after that, though, as we Sixers fans were punished with the post-Charles/Shawn Bradley era. They missed the playoffs for seven straight seasons. So getting Iverson made me ecstatic. It’s been pretty good for SLAM, too.
Including this one, Iverson has been on the cover of SLAM seven times, second only to Michael Jordan. SLAM first put him on the cover as a collegian, way before he was a household name. I’ve been asked if we put AI out front so often because he moves units. Well, of course that’s part of it. The other part is that he’s one of the best and most exciting players in the game, consistently putting up huge numbers. He’s led the L in scoring three times, been a Rookie of the Year and MVP. And even with the annual influx of new talent into the game, he is still, arguably, its most popular player. Why shouldn’t he be on the cover?
The first issue of SLAM I really recall really noticing was the “Generation Nets” cover. I thought that line was ludicrous, but reading through the mag I knew it was special. So did Iverson. “The first time I saw it, I thought it was a cool magazine,” he remembers. “It kind of reminded me of a streetball magazine. It had a lot of good stuff in it.”
The first issue I ever bought was SLAM 32—AI with the blowout ’fro and Mitchell & Ness old-school Sixers jersey was too good to pass up. That cover gets a lot of props as being a catalyst of sorts for the throwback obsession. “The old-school throwback is what I think of when I see that one. I knew that was going to be something that kids would probably hold on to for a while,” AI says. But the first time I really knew SLAM was the shit was reading Issue 36. The Hype opener was all about how AI should’ve been the ’98-99 MVP. From that point on, I was converted. I tore it out and put it on my dorm room wall. That’s my word.
I started here in August ’02 and wrote my first AI story in SLAM 68, in early ’03. It was also my first cover. I was excited but not blown away. I’d seen AI in person as a spectator a couple of times, and besides, we all breathe the same air, so there was no feeling of adulation on my part. Even though I enjoy how he plays, it was just a work assignment. During the interview, I think I was most amazed by his size. It’s hard to imagine someone having the impact he’s had in the L at his size. That’s why we called this story “The Miracle.” If he just shot threes all the time, it’d be OK. But he drives to the basket like a man possessed, going up against 7-footers like they don’t matter. He takes the bumps and he keeps on. This is how he plays. And I don’t know if I can call it a miracle that he still performs with all the offcourt distractions he’s had (some his fault, I know), but it’s an accomplishment nonetheless. SLAM has been there the whole time, and he appreciates it.
“SLAM was always real with me,” he says. “This magazine let a lot of people know who I am on and off the court without me having to say a whole bunch. It gave the chance for a lot of people to understand me.”
AI says he doesn’t have a favorite cover, but that he definitely appreciates Ish 18, his first in a Sixers jersey. “In that one, I was a young boy,” he laughs. “I had just started growing my hair.”
The Phenom: LeBron James
Words Ryan Jones
You’re not surprised. It would be a surprise if you were. It’d be almost shocking, in fact, if you weren’t expecting to see this name on this list. This, as stated, is a collection of the 10 players who have in one way or another defined SLAM’s 10-year run. True, he came in on the tail end of our first decade, but he’s the most talked about cat in the game right now—how could he not be on this list?
So you can’t be surprised to see LeBron James here, even if he is only 19 years old, even if he hasn’t yet played a full NBA season, even if he hasn’t yet attained any of the tangible spoils (a ring, a scoring title, an MVP trophy) that the folks in Springfield like to tally when it’s induction time. You could argue that he might not deserve inclusion among a group of players—a group of men, mind you—who have accomplished as much as the rest of the players on this list have, but that argument misses the point. From the moment this kid entered our collective consciousness, it’s been about his promise. No, not “potential,” a word that merely implies possibility, but promise. As in certainty. History tells us there’s no such thing as a can’t-miss kid, but with LeBron, our brightest basketball minds are pretty much in agreement: This one is as close to “can’t-miss” as we’re ever likely to get.
If you’ve been paying attention, you probably know we take a fair amount of credit for announcing LeBron James to the world. Not saying we found the kid under a rock, of course, but unless you were a college coach or recruiting insider or a pretty serious basketball aficionado in Northeast Ohio at the time, you probably hadn’t heard of this kid before the spring of his sophomore year. That’s when we hit him up, taking it upon ourselves to introduce LeBron James to the basketball public at large. A trip to Akron to get a glimpse of the future, to confirm the whispers we’d been hearing. Feature-length attention in SLAM 54, his first national ink, in an article that hit just before the perfect storm of media interest and adidas-and-Nike-inspired insanity began forming above him in the summer of ’01. The Basketball Diary that followed. A cover with Bassy. A solo cover after that. In between, SI and ESPN and almost literally everyone else either got at him or tried. (Who would’ve thought The New Yorker would ever need our help?) But we were there early, earlier then most, and we take pride in that. LeBron seems to appreciate it, too (remember the headband?), but even that’s not the reason he’s here.
So why does LeBron James, just past the midway point of his first NBA season, deserve a spot on this list? Because of the promise—and because of the past that created it. Because he has quite literally changed the game. Only Jordan has had a bigger impact on the way sneaker companies do business. That’s real, no matter how many pairs of Air Zoom Generations he’s sold so far. And he created a new (un)reality in recruiting: by his junior year, the college coaches didn’t really bother anymore, and the few who did usually couldn’t get past the line of hopeful agents. He made high school athletic associations update their by-laws. He inspired allegedly respected national media types to lambaste a kid they hadn’t even met over situations they didn’t even understand. He had David Stern answering questions about a high schooler—by name—during his All-Star Weekend press conference. He had everyone shook, everyone talking, everyone wanting a closer look. And right now, he has talent scouts scouring middle school gyms looking for the next “next,” the next King.
So that’s why. It’s because LeBron was, and is, unprecedented. None like him before—not when you consider the whole saga, the good, bad and ugly of the past few years of his life—and probably none quite like him again.
The Legend: Michael Jordan
by Russ Bengtson
Picture this. Karl Malone and Gary Payton win NBA championships—in Utah and Seattle, respectively. Malone re-ups and goes on to break the scoring record with the Jazz, while Payton retires as the most celebrated Sonic ever. Shawn Kemp, who wins a ring alongside GP, re-dedicates himself, and becomes the League’s dominant power forward. Shaq teams up with a talented guard to form a superhero duo—that guard is Penny Hardaway, and that team is the Magic. They only win one title, but they reside at or near the top of the East for years. Reggie gets a ring, and so does AI. Kobe Bryant is drafted 13th overall by Charlotte—and stays there. So do the Hornets. Funny how things could have worked out if Michael Jordan had stayed on his field of dreams.
Some things, of course, would have stayed the same. Charles Barkley never would’ve gotten that ring. Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson still would’ve left Chicago. Spree still would’ve choked PJ Carlesimo. And AI would have crossed somebody his rookie year, though you probably wouldn’t have cared as much as you did.
The real interesting question, though, is whether we would’ve even been here to see it if Jordan had stayed retired the first time. When Mike (or, as we called him, MIKE!) came back the first time, SLAM was underground like Rawkus Records. Our first covers: Larry Johnson, Shawn Kemp, Shaquille O’Neal, John Starks, Latrell Sprewell with Tim Hardaway. Interesting group, but not exactly a Hall of Fame lineup. Mike made it different. Mike made us go pop, took us platinum (in magazine terms, at least).
I, for one, was thrilled when Mike came back. And it had nothing to do with the magazine, because I wasn’t even here yet. It’s that I was a Bulls fan, and I didn’t want to believe it was over. (Those Rocket championships still seem like a bad Dream.) And because I wanted to see him play again, preferably from closer seats than those in the 400 level at Madison Square Garden, which was as close as I’d gotten before.
We all know what happened next. Three more scoring titles, three more championships. I ended up here, and got my chance to see Mike play more often than most—including All-Star Games and the Finals. Even got to sit down with him twice, and would love to do so again (some help, Theresa?). Even the Wizards days—painful as they were—had moments that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
This story is probably a lot like Scoop’s piece on Mike’s influence (which you’ll find somewhere else in this, the World’s Largest SLAM™), but that’s just because it’s damn near impossible to talk about Michael Jordan without ending up here. It’s not just what he did, it’s what other people didn’t do simply because of him. And coming back to a championship level after a two-year layoff? Ridiculous. Imagine, say, Naughty By Nature coming back with not one, but three smash albums, and you’ll sort of have an idea of how hard it would be. Or Kevin Costner starring in three blockbusters in a row. (OK, it probably was easier than that.)
Coming back the first time cemented Jordan’s legend. Coming back the second time polished it. Sure, he berated the rookies, overruled the coach, and was as secretive and arrogant as ever. And yes, he relied mostly on the fall-away and less on the dunk, even missing a wide-open one in the 2002 All-Star Game. His name never even came up for a Slamadamonth (well, almost never). And the Wizards never made the playoffs.
Still, there was that 51-point game against Charlotte in 2001, and the 45 against New Jersey two nights later—not to mention the countless moments that made us all remember how things used to be. So thanks, Mike, for coming back. Just don’t do it again.
The Enemy: Reggie Miller
Words Tony Gervino
The enemy. Gee, who could it be? Let’s see…we called Riley a rat, we labeled Laettner a loser and said more derogatory things about Charlie Ward than we have fingers and toes. But, above all others, who would qualify as Public Enemy No. 1 of the punk rock-iest sports magazine in history?
From the grassy knoll of publishing, SLAM has been taking potshots at folks since the magazine was on training wheels. The first few of issues, which none of us currently on the masthead worked on, SLAM picked on easy targets like Dick Vitale and some of the more pathetic characters in the game. When we came aboard, we knew that to make a splash, to really make a name for ourselves, we’d have to take down a big name—someone everyone already thought was a dick, but was afraid to say in print. Enter Reginald Nosferatu Miller (we didn’t look it up, but we’re pretty sure that’s his middle name).
See, as a magazine, we hated Reggie Miller. Passionately. Publicly. And in the early days of the magazine, we were fueled by two things: sugar highs and hatred. But we were not alone. A lot of people agreed. Spike. Ronnie Z. Scoop. The Ben Franklin dude at the Garden. You get the point. Basically, any Knicks fan worth his (or her, in Susan’s case) salt loathed the man who tormented us with those long arms and perhaps the most accurate shot in NBA history.
(Ouch. A compliment. That hurt.)
And over the years, more than a couple of NBA players have pulled us aside to say how funny they thought the whole thing was, or even to express admiration for our relentless pursuit of No. 31’s humiliation. And the best part is, only some of them were on the Pacers and only one of them was named Mike.
Lately, the magazine has made attempts at healing a relationship that we shattered with equal parts vitriol and stubbornness. But at this point, things are just too far gone. (On the upside, so is Reggie’s game. Ha!) Maybe it was the prom picture we ran of him and his sister. Maybe it was Ed. labeling him a choke artist and a punk, offering an olive branch and then pulling it back in the same Sixth Man letter so long ago. Maybe whatever. The fact is, Reggie was never our kind of guy. And you can rest assured that SLAM was never his kind of magazine.
So we would like to take this opportunity to apologize to the future Hall of Famer (yeah, right) from the bottom of our blackened hearts. We never meant to hurt ya, Reg. We figured a guy whose own mid-career experiment in, ahem, “literature” was called I Love Being the Enemy would appreciate our efforts. Mostly, though, we just wanted to make ourselves look cool at your expense. The fact that it worked was, in Oliver Miller’s immortal words, gravy.
They say that love is fleeting, but hatred lasts forever. Which is why the future of SLAM looks so bright and the future of Reggie Miller looks so ________.
Take your best shot, folks. Trust us, it’s fun.
The Big: Shaquille O’Neal
Words Scoop Jackson
It all started with a lie. His.
“I’ve got to get in the pool after practice,” he told me. “After that we can do the interview. Gimme the number, I’ll call. Promise.” My unseasoned ass believed him. It took three weeks for Shaquille O’Neal to get out of that pool. And once he did, I still never spoke to him directly. His man, Dennis, relayed questions (and answers) over the phone to Shaq as he signed books (or basketballs) in a mall in Canada.
I felt like Craig Sager.
This was my first story for SLAM.
In the history of this magazine, there are stories that have never been told. The creed is Vegas: What goes on inside a SLAM story never makes it into a SLAM story. That said, this must be written: Before SLAM, there was Shaq. Before this magazine even came with the “In Your Face” tag line, before players started droppin’ diaries, droppin’ dimes, droppin’ promises, before the thought of bringing the Harlem culture to Caucus states, Shaq was re-Chamberlainin’—although not yet truly dominating—the game unlike anyone our generation had seen. Backboards had already been pulled down, 30 ppg had already been averaged, Blue Chips already shot. Iverson and Marbury were our future, and so was Garnett, but we didn’t know it yet. Jordan had just retired, leaving us Beyonce in a thong (you know, assed-out) for a NBA icon to make this magazine worth noticing. David Stern wasn’t close to feelin’ us, the NCAA wouldn’t acknowledge us and the shoe companies were still skeptical of whether or not our “urban-base” (translation: low circulation) was legit. All SLAM had to carry us was the game of a 7-foot, 300-plus-pound basketball god. We had to make him love us. Instead, he made us find love in him.
Shaq’s history with this magazine (and with me personally) is unlike that of any other player alive. Over the years, he’s been there whenever I (or we) have needed him and let me (or Ed.) get away with putting words in his mouth: “This Is My Team,” circa 1999. And even though he didn’t invite us (me) to the wedding, there’s still no reason to not believe that Shaquille O’Neal is not the most important athlete in the history of this franchise. A few years ago, I was thinking that to honor his retirement, I could tell all my favorite Charles Barkley stories in print. Break SLAM rule 4080. The FCC never let that happen. Instead, I extend that honor to the one called Diesel. The man who, back in 1995, saved SLAM.
April ’99. L.A. “You best not print this,” he says to me while he takes off his practice jersey, changing into his game joint for the photo shoot. “My mother doesn’t know I have it.”
“So when are you going to tell her?” I ask.
What Shaq was talking about was the graphically accurate tat of the meaning of his name that stretched across his abdomen. Exterior oblique to exterior oblique. I promised him she would never read about it in these pages. Unfortunately, there’s a statue of limitations on everything.
In the midst of photographer Bob Berg (with Laker lensman Andy Bernstein target practicing for something else) making magic with the 30 minutes “Shaq’s people” granted us for the shoot, Shaq had something else on his mind.
“Yo, Scoop, wassup with that Iverson cover?” At the time, Ish 32, the Iverson joint, the blowout joint, the throwback joint, was on the streets. Cats were feelin’ it like Braille, and Shaq was Eddie Murphy in the beginning of Trading Places.
“Sick, right?” I said.
“I want my shit to be hotter,” he said. “I want y’all to shoot me on top of the ‘HOLLYWOOD’ sign. Arms open. Like real TWISM, you know?”
“I can rent a helicopter. Go up there tomorrow.”
He was serious. We slept.
The best cover SLAM never did.
January ’00. DC. My cousin Chuck and I are inside a gift shop at the players’ hotel during NBA All-Star Weekend. We were waiting on Rasheed to come down. You know, we were waiting. Instead, in walks Jerome, Big’s guard of body. His Man. All smiles, all hugs, all love. The next thing I heard…
“Yo, why don’t you just say what you mean?”
“Why don’t you just say what you really mean!?”
At the time, Shaq and Kobe were going through the same fight, Round 3. Earlier in the week, I had been on an L.A. radio station representing SLAM, basically “alluding” to the Lakers looking elsewhere—besides Kobe—as the root of their problem. So when I heard Shaq’s voice in that gift shop, my chest swole, pride rose and I turned around and looked him in his knee.
“I did,” I shot back. “I said exactly what I meant: Until y’all get Derek Fisher back, y’all ain’t going to win shit! And that’s real!”
Shaq looked down at me. He knew I was lying. He knew that what I wanted to say was the Lakers, if given a choice between he and Kobe, should choose No. 8. He could hear the words not come out of me on the radio, could see them not come out of me in person.
My cousin stood there in silence. Han Solo. Frozen.
Then Shaq just burst out laughing. “What up, dawg?” Giving me a hug. “You a fool.”
Ten minutes later, I looked at Chuck. His words: “Family, I thought you were about to die.”
“So did I,” I didn’t say. So did I.
June ’95. Houston. It was the first time I’d seen Big since the first time, since the story that started off this story. It’s 45 minutes before Game 3 of the NBA Finals, and the Magic are down 0-2. No one in pinstripes is in a really good mood. Somehow he spots me from across the court. After only seeing me once in his life, for maybe three minutes max, Shaq walks over to me and says this: “What up, Bruh. Sorry about not really getting back to you for that story. That was a really great story. You good. Thanks Bruh.” Who knew.
Ten years later, Shaq calls. No more lies. It doesn’t take three weeks, and he doesn’t give me those one-word “expansionism”-type answers he saves for Jim Gray. Instead, we’re left with this on the answering machine for this story:
“Scoop, it’s the Deeziest man. I been callin’ you. I’ll call you back tomorrow. I called you twice but you don’t be pickin’ up. You too busy for a nigga, man. You too busy. Out.”
And just like all my other niggas who saves this mag, he forgot to leave a number to call him back.∞