By Myles Brown and Russ Bengtson
If the ever lasting craze of reality game shows has shown us anything, its that people like judging, ranking and eliminating things. Models, musicians, crackheads, p0rn stars, whatever. So do we. But there’s not enough lists in basketball for our liking so Russ and I decided to do something about that. Frequently. Lists Are Bourgeois, but we’re doing them anyway. Our opinions don’t necessarily reflect those of the rest of the SLAM staff, but they should. Otherwise those f*ckers are just plain wrong. Enjoy.
This week: Best Seasons EVAR.
This season was supposed to be done before things even started. The July 24th avalanche of accusations against Tim Donaghy buried what was left of the leagues credibility after record low Finals ratings. Hope for saviors in an esteemed rookie class was soon to be abandoned and the games premier player was having radio trouble. Video too. But just as suddenly as panic set in, the cavalry began to arrive. A call to duty was issued by a determined Boston trio, Detroit continued to deliver, and the yeoman’s effort from their brawny Central Division rival was a sight to behold. The lines of communication were clear again in L.A. and a talented young point was tearing through the West for Utah. (And New Orleans?) Before we knew it, the league was not only rescued from the debris of past summers events alive and kicking, a modern renaissance was unearthed.
The theatrics of the 2004 NBA season dispensed a glossary of literary terms. Static character/defending scoring champ Tracy McGrady continued to amaze-and disappoint-with a bevy of highlights and a paucity of spring performances. Unlike his Eastern counterpart, MVP Kevin Garnett finally had a supporting cast to get past the post seasons first act. But only once. Already a sympathetic character, he became some sort of tragic chiasmus. Blessed with an interminable longing to win, yet he wouldn’t win too long. Then there was the L.A. story. The events of a tumultuous off-season thrust him onto the front page as he found himself the protagonist of this hardwood drama. A life altering accusation. A beleaguering public. A scorned(ful?) teammate. Through it all, he balled. However it wasn’t until the curtain closed in Detroit after Game Two’s anticlimactic events that Kobe Bryant realized he was the anti-hero. Enter LeBron James….
The counterculture came late to the NBA. A generation removed from the Summer of Love, the NBA and ABA merged, leading to a lague wide spike in afros and bell-bottoms. Floppy socked magician “Pistol” Pete Maravich led the League in scoring at 31.6 per (and dropped 68 on the Knicks) and the ABA’s finest, Julius “Dr.J” Errrrrr-ving, was named All-Star MVP (following a one-point East victory) and led the Philadephia 76ers to the East’s best record. Out West, UCLA centers reigned supreme, as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made his Lakers the best in the West (and earned the MVP in the process), beating out the ponytailed Bill Walton and his Portland Trail Blazers. Yet in the end, Grateful Red would win out. Walton’s Blazers faced Erving’s Sixers in the Finals, and, despite losing the first two games, the Blazers won their first (and only) NBA championship. What a long, strange trip it was.
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In a League loaded with future Hall of Famers, a rookie was king. Westley Sissel Unseld, a 6-7 load from Louisville, turned around the then-Baltimore Bullets with his strong rebounding and laser outlet passes and was named both Rookie of the Year and MVP. (His Bullets won a League-leading 57 games before being swept in the first round of the playoffs—so get over it, Dirk.) Over the previous summer, Wilt Chamberlain was traded to the Lakers, joining All-Stars Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. And then there were the Celtics, led by the seemingly ageless Bill Russell, who had also become the L’s first African-American coach. The Celtics and Lakers met in the Finals—Russell v. Chamberlain one last time—and the series came down to Game Seven in Los Angeles. Enraged by presumptuous celebratory balloons suspended in the Forum rafters, the Celtics reached deep one last time. Jerry West would win the first-ever Finals MVP award, but Russell would earn his 11th ring.
It was a year of lamentable last looks and exciting glimpses into the future. Julius Erving announced it would be his final year in the operating room and fans filled sold out arenas across the country for one last visit with the Doctor. If only Michael Jordan had announced he was about to start raising hell. A season removed from a broken foot, Jordan (37.1 PPG) walked-better yet flew-his way to unimaginable heights, becoming the first player since Wilt Chamberlain to score 3,000 points. And opponents was illin’ if they thought Money would rest on defense as he also became the first guard ever to record 200 steals and 100 blocks in a season. The defending champion Celtics swept Jordan and stole the Eastern Conference Finals from an upstart Piston squad, however Magic Johnson (+5 PPG) would take both MVP honors after leading Showtime to 65 wins and another title in their last Finals showdown with Boston.
Three things were introduced in the 1979-80 NBA season that would change the League forever: Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and the three-point shot. Throw in Michael Ray Richardson leading the L in assists and steals, Darryl Dawkins shattering two backboards in less than a month (leading to the overdue introduction of breakaway rims), and the first cable TV contract, and you’ve got the makings of a hell of a season. And it was. Bird, whom Red Auerbach had cannily drafted the previous summer, was the Rookie of the Year, leading the Celtics to the biggest single-season turnaround in League history. As for Magic, he went from hugging MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar after the first game to replacing him in the last, starting at center in Game Six of the Finals and piling up 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, and three steals in a 123-107 win over the Sixers. Title won, rivalry born, League saved.
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He walked away from the game with nothing left to prove, but once he came back he’d have to prove it all over again. Michael Jordan returned to the NBA in 1995 due to his well chronicled love for the game, but in 1996 he proved to love winning more. Actually, ‘winning’ doesn’t even begin to encapsulate it, perhaps an ‘unflinching, merciless despotism‘ is more appropriate. Notoriously driven by even the most minuscule of perceived slights, the whispers of Jordan being washed up stirred a wave of motivation in him that would lift all ships in his armada and drown out the competition. The Chicago Bulls were so good in ’96 that the two other 60+ win teams (Orlando & Seattle) in the league were a complete afterthought. Actually, ‘good’ doesn’t even begin to describe it, but maybe things can be summed up with a number. 72. It’s a lot easier that way.
You know how old game film looks like it’s been sped up? Once upon a time they actually played that fast. And the numbers showed it. In 1961-62, 23-year-old Cincinnati Royal Oscar Robertson became the first (and only) player in NBA history to average a triple-double: 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and a League-leading 11.4 assists. And he didn’t win MVP. That same year, 25-year-old Philadelphia center Wilt Chamberlain became the first (and only) player in NBA history to score 4,000 points in a season, averaging 50.4 points and 25.6 rebounds in a knee-destroying 48.5 minutes per. He even dropped 100 on the Knicks. Only he didn’t win MVP either. Bill Russell did. The 27-year-old center averaged a mere 18.9 points and 23.6 boards, but led his Celtics to an NBA-best 60 wins. The Celtics won their fourth straight title despite Elgin Baylor’s Finals record 61 points-with 22 boards-in Game Five.
Has it really been 20 years since All-Star weekend in Chicago? Already? Twenty years since the best dunk contest there ever was and ever will be, 20 years since Larry Legend walked off the floor in his short sleeved warmup, index finger raised in triumph wile the red, white and blue ball still rotated lazily through the air, 20 years since Isiah fed Michael en route to 40-freeze out long over and forgiven-and Magic no looked dimes to everyone in sight?With apologies to Nas, there’s no bringin’ ’88 back. Too bad. That was the true dream team era, with Magic and Larry in their absolute primes, Jordan dominating on both ends with pure unbridled athleticism, guys like Nique and Karl Malone and Akeem Olajuwon finishing anything their point guards could start, and Isiah Thomas among them, dazzling smile firmly in place, free from the politricks that would keep him from fulfilling the Dream four years later.
It started on Saturday night, TBS, live from creaky old Chicago Stadium hosted but a still-human Craig Sager and a curmudgeonly Rick Barry. I was 16 then and quick with the tape on Saturday night, recording everything from the three-point shootout on. If I remember correctly, I was as excited to see the new Air Jordan commercial as I was to see Air Jordan himself.
I re-watched the tape just yesterday, marveling over details I’d forgotten (or blocked out)-the offensive Joe Piscopo Miller Lite commercials, the awful guitar music during the three-point shootout, Detlef Schrempf’s mini mullet, Barry’s questionable commentary during the dunk contest. But much of it remains as clear as day-Bird killing the entire second-to-last rack in the final, missing his first two on the last rack, then draining the last three shots for the win. And of course Dominique and Jordan in a dunk-off for the ages, Jordan getting robbed on his second-to-last dunk and then ‘Nique getting even more robbed on his last, setting up the inevitable finale. As Jordan paced back to the baseline for another free-throw line launch (he actually missed the first attempt and had to try again), one of the announcers presciently said “the only way he’s gonna lost the competition is if he misses this dunk.” He didn’t, and he didn’t. Arguments continue to this day.
For whatever reason, I didn’t tape the next day’s game. Watching highlights now, it’s clear that I should have. There would have been no better way to remember the best year in NBA history.
There are two types of nostalgic sporting moments: the ones that make you remember exactly where you were when they happened and the ones that make you wonder how the hell you missed them. The 1988 season was a string of the latter moments for me, and my being 10 years old is not a valid excuse. Instead of mourning the loss of the Transformers and familiarizing myself with Super Mario Bros., I should have been intently imbibing the exploits of that seasons superstars.
It would be years before I realized the significance of their accomplishments. I knew the Lakers had gone Back to Back, but not that they were the first repeat champions since the ’69 Celtics. Nor did I know that they survived three Game 7’s on their road to glory. I knew they called him Big Game James, but I couldn’t have told you the nickname was justified since he had the only Game 7 triple double in playoff history.
As a Chicagoan, all I knew of Isiah Thomas was that I wasn’t supposed to like him. I wish I knew how much I was supposed to respect him. Zeke’s Bad Boys had exercised the demons of past defeats to Boston’s green machine and found themselves thisclose to a title as Thomas put on a Game 6 show for the ages. Speaking of, Dominique Wilkins also was all too familiar with spectacular performances in harrowing playoff defeats.
Then there was Michael Jordan. I wasn’t completely oblivious, I knew who the man was, but I had no idea exactly what he was doing. To this day Money remains the only player in NBA history to capture both the scoring title and the Defensive Player of the Year. Justly, he is also the only player to pair those honors with the MVP award. I vaguely remember the disappointment in our household as the Bulls were run over by the Pistons, but as others I also remember being more preoccupied with the commercials of that day than the main event. I was 10 years old in 1988 and all I really knew was that I wanted those f*cking shoes.