As great as it is that we’re even getting an NBA season this year, something about it hasn’t felt right to me. Despite the fact that there’s been some truly great games and moments, everything’s felt a little off. No matter how great the dunk, how clutch the buzzer beater or slick the crossover, nothing that’s happened this season has made me feel the same way a similar play did last year. Even Blake Griffin’s ridiculous dunk on Kendrick Perkins failed to top the sheer glee I felt watching a play like this from last year:
There are some things that once known, cannot be forgotten no matter how hard you try. The lockout brought a lot of these things to light. Like watching your parents go through a divorce, the lockout has forever changed the way I view the NBA as an institution. Before I was able to block out all the horrible behind the scenes going ons, but now I can’t ignore them. Whenever I watch CP3 toss a lob to Blake Griffin all I can think of is a frog-faced David Stern vetoing the trade to the Lakers. Every incredible Dwayne Wade to LeBron James cross-court oop brings up images of offseason tampering. Hell, I can’t even watch Brandon Jennings without thinking of large market/small market bullshit. Even the truly remarkable stories, like Jeremy Lin’s rise to superstardom, get drowned out in sheer annoyance at the media coverage and the bad puns.
Enter: John Wall and Kyrie Irving.
The BBVA Rising Stars Challenge was, by no means, a great game in the traditional sense. Being an exhibition game, there was obviously no defense played, shot selection was questionable at best, and turnovers were abound. That said, it was easily one of the most fun games I’ve ever watched. Period.
We’re living in an era with some of the most talented young point guards ever. Guys like Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo. And then there’s the Hall of Fame bound veterans like Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Tony Parker. While I used to be able to watch these guys play and soak in the greatness, I can’t anymore. All I can think of is whether or not Boozer has doomed Rose to go ringless, whether Durant and Westbrook can co-exist (for the last fucking time, YES!), if Rondo is happy playing for the aging Celtics, the nixed CP3 for Pau trade, and, of course, whether Deron Williams and Dwight Howard will be playing in Brooklyn or Dallas.
Oh yeah, and this:
But Irving and Wall? Nothing like that. They’re yet-untainted by the ESPN-driven storylines, the behind the scenes tampering from Stern and desires for crossover appeal. Their expectations are still low, so we can just sit back and watch them play their asses off without worrying about rings or contracts or whether they can co-exist with other superstars on the same team. They represent all that I used to love about the NBA, without the horrible aftertaste left in my mouth from the lockout.
The NBA billed this game like they always have (well, technically like they’ve always billed the Rookie/Sophmore Game), as being a spotlight for the future of the NBA. Of course, when the NBA says that, they mean from a talent perspective, but I look at it a bit differently. While the guys playing in this game will be the All-Stars of the future and will go from playing on Friday night to Sunday night, they are fundamentally different from the guys currently playing on Sunday.
Kyrie Irving was seven years old when Jordan retired for the first time. LeBron James was 13. Today’s crop of All-Stars grew up under the long shadow of Michael Jordan and, as such, have tried to do everything they can to be the next Mike. But they can’t. Even if Kobe Bryant finally gets that sixth ring, he’s still Kobe Bryant. If LeBron James somehow makes good on his promise to bring Miami “not one, not two, not three…” rings in Miami, he’s still LeBron James (and an asshole). No matter how much ESPN, TNT and ABC want another Michael Jordan or Chicago Bulls dynasty for ratings, they’ll never get one. And because of that, their constant quest to recapture the magic that was those teams will forever harm the league and those players.
But the guys playing on Friday night? To them, Jordan’s just a brand. They didn’t grow up with him. Sure, his impact on the league was there, but they don’t have any memories attached to the flu game. They weren’t alive for The Shot. They missed it. They grew up watching guys like Allen Iverson, Chris Webber and Steve Nash. Guys that, while great, never won it all. They grew up watching guys like Kevin Garnett, Kobe and Shaq who, while dominant, couldn’t do it on their own. They grew up outside the shadow cast by Jordan. And as such, they’re free to be themselves and decide who Kyrie Irving, John Wall or DeMarcus Cousins wants to be. They don’t invite these comparisons, they don’t count the rings, they just play their goddamn asses off and entertain the fans.
Kyrie Irving and John Wall had a lot to be spiteful about on Friday. Despite having a rookie season that’s virtually unprecidented, Kyrie was passed up on Sunday for Deron Williams and Joe Johnson. When Johnson backed out for injury and Kyrie had a second chance to make the All-Star Team, he again got passed up for Rajon Rondo. Despite being the number one pick in 2010 and the MVP of the Rookie/Sophomore Game that year, John Wall fell down the draft board and went after a guy like Jeremy Lin who’s NBA career is a mere handful of games long. While they could have gone out and played with a chip on their shoulder, out to prove that they should have been playing on Sunday or drafted earlier, instead they went out and had a hell of a lot of fun. And in doing so, they reminded everyone why they were number one draft picks.
Kyrie’s perfect 8/8 from behind the arch notched him his first accolade in the league, the Rising Stars Challenge MVP. He also got his first (at least that I’ve seen) dunk of his pro career thanks to a lob pass from John Wall that had me leaping off my couch at 2:30am when I was catching this thanks to my DVR. Meanwhile, John Wall won the dunk contest a day early without even being in it, Tristan Thompson quietly put up 20 to lead Team Shaq in scoring (personally, I can’t believe I’m writing that) and the Ricky Rubio/Blake Griffin combination somehow lived up to the hype and was everything I was hoping it would be.
It was a refreshing change of pace. It’s seemingly been forever since I’ve watched a game where it looks like everyone’s having fun. I can’t remember the last time I watched someone come down from a dunk with a smile on their face instead of an overly macho mean mug or listened to commentators that were actually watching and enjoying the game. In a strange way, the Rising Stars Challenge, even if only for a fleeting moment, cut through all that bullshit and reminded me of why I love this game so much. To me, it was the true highlight of All-Star Weekend, and has given me hope that the NBA can get back to what’s important and why we all love this sport so much. Fun.