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Thursday, February 13, 2003
Updated: February 14, 2:20 PM ET
NBA's glory days are now

By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

It was late. We'd been driving for hours with hours still to go. We were talking NBA, and my buddy Phil, deep in an MJ's-last-All-Star-Game stupor, wouldn't shut up about the great, glorious '80s: Magic here, Larry there, Dr. J everywhere. Isiah, the early Jordan, the late Kareem -- the golden era of hoops and so on.

He had a sweaty, panting stink to him, a genuine lather.

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson
Was hoops better in the time of Bird and Magic?

The road was winding and lightless. Deer and possum were jumping up out of every gully, causing me to swerve wildly to save the car and our souls from ruin.

I was fried. Addled. And tired of the same old song.

"Enough," I said.

"What?"

"Enough. Quit. Give it up already with the glory days thing."

"Whatta you mean?"

"I mean it's over. Take off the nostalgia goggles. Live in the now. Read your Emerson -- screw the sepulchres of the fathers, enjoy an original relation to the universe, why dontcha?"

"Uh, you want me to drive?" he said.

"Shut up. Yes, of course I want you to drive -- look at this road -- but don't distract me when I'm trying to make a point."

"Which is?"

"Which is that your romance for the old days is tired. Which is the game was nice back then -- it was great, for what it was -- but there's no doubt it's better now. Much better. You trot out that glory days schtick and you end up sounding like your couch-bound, beer-sipping pop, talking about trudging uphill both ways through the snow to school. You sound slow. You sound yesterday."

"I'm not hearing this," he said. "And leave my pop out of it."

"I'm serious," I said, knowing it was sacrilege, and knowing I was right. "Without even trying, at 60 mph on the road to perdition, with nothing but Snickers and Pepsi running through my veins, I can rattle off 26 reasons (we were 26 miles from the next rest area, the next bathroom, the next Pepsi -- it felt like the right number) things are better right now than they were then."

"Go for it."

So I did.

Kevin Garnett
Why the '00s are better: big men like Garnett who dunk, dribble, pass and even shoot the 3.

1. Bigger, stronger, faster players. Look at the old tapes -- lots of what kinesiologists like to call "smooth" muscles; otherwise known as no muscles at all.

2. Handle and touch at all five points on the floor.

3. More players shooting and making more 3s. You like the 3, don't you? Who doesn't like the 3? Your pop doesn't like the 3 (sorry). The 3 -- the way it spins on that long arc in the air, the way it seduces momentum and takes her out dancing -- is dramatic, baby.

4. Mobile, agile big men.

5. High-flying little men. Not Spud Webb oddities, but crucial, leader-of-the-pack, points-in-buckets-and-tongue-wagging-dunks-for-emphasis stuff from Stevie Francis, Baron Davis and the like.

6. Big air, big dunks. When Doc and David Thompson (and later Dominique and MJ) levitated, they were like brothers from another planet, angels sent from hoop heaven. Everybody's got hops these days. Flyers abound. The game's up in the rafters. Francis, VC, Jason Richardson and Desmond Mason, Richard Jefferson, Kobe, T-Mac, Garnett, the young Amare -- the list goes on and on. You know what a dunk is? A dunk is like Armstrong on the moon -- testimony to what we're capable of, some fantastic glimpse of what our earth-bound frames can do. Every dunk ennobles. You know what else a dunk is? It's a riff, a solo; it's like Louis Armstrong out in front of the Hot Sevens, it's one man expressing himself and laying it down against the backbeat of the game. And in this way, every dunk inspires. And there are more dunks, more stirring, alley-oopish, no-you-didn't throw-downs now than ever. So there it is, we are ennobled and inspired, lifted and charged.

Now I was the one getting rabid.

"Ennobled?" Phil said. "Seriously, I think you should let me drive."

Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant
Guys like T-Mac and Kobe can fly high, dunk big and score more highlights than players from the '80s.

"Quiet, I'm on a roll. I'm like Steve Martin doing nose jokes in 'Roxanne.'"

7. Defense. As in, they play it now. Schemes are more sophisticated. Everything is challenged. Watching the ball get flipped and skipped around the perimeter, and inside and out, until somebody gets an open set-shot, that's all Naismith-crisp and impressive in its way, but watching players having to literally invent some new way to create enough space to get a shot off, and watching them drain shots under extreme pressure -- that's the goods.

8. Impossibly gifted, illogically graceful, extra-categorical, all-purpose-yardage guys. Exhibit A: Tracy McGrady. Exhibit B: Kevin Garnett.

9. Tighter shoes and looser shorts. Flow factors.

10. The old Hawks unis, with the Miss Universe sash design, are gone. Ditto the Nets' graffiti, air-brush look.

11. Yao, of course.

12. The whole internationalism thing. If loving Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash is wrong, I don't want to be right.

And speaking of Nash ...

Steve Nash
Be not afraid: Steve Nash lets his hair flow freely.

13. Hair. Steve, Moochie, Ben Wallace, AI -- men unafraid to let their freak flags fly. How are things better now than in the '80s? The hair is becoming more like the '70s. (Which means, of course, no Kendall Gill, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Hopson, Brad Sellers, Malcom Jamal Warner fade and jet-plane-landing flat-top stuff going on.)

14. Flair. Swagger, smiles, and showmanship. I like knowing guys are enjoying themselves.

15. Cable. Something like 47 free games a week, and, I don't know, like 634 games weekly if you splurge for the league pass deal. Point is, you know everybody on every team. Big-city cats on storied franchises are stars same as ever, but guys who do good work in obscurity get love now, too. In the old days, your devotion was programmed by some pencil-pusher in a network office; you were made to choose between Magic and Larry because some pasty-faced, never-took-a-charge-in-his-life programmer decided that's all you could handle. Now ... now it's fight-the-power time, baby; it's a free market.

And while we1re on the subject of TV, let's not forget BET, and let's not forget ...

16. There'll be a black owner in Charlotte next year.

17. The cross-over dribble.

18. Zen and the triangle. Not because they're successful most of the time, but because they remind us -- athleticism, instincts and impulses notwithstanding -- it's always a thinking game.

19. The consistent promise of a George Karl or Pat Riley meltdown, and with it, the rapid and complete decomposition of toughness, war metaphors and stuck-in-cement offensive game plans.

Kobe Bryant
Have we mentioned Kobe yet? We just did.

20. Kobe. I mention this because, while what he's doing this week has some precedent (Mr. Jordan), it's so good Iım quickly forgetting what the other guy looked and played like. Behind Kobe (and they're all behind Kobe right now) is a ridiculously deep and wide pool of talent full up with guys who have uniquely entertaining games: McGrady, Kidd, Iverson, Pierce, Allen, Webber, the O'Neals -- Shaquille and Jermaine -- Duncan, etc.

21. There is an NBA franchise back in New Orleans, which opens up the possibility of the franchise in Utah surrendering in a trade its utterly nonsensical team name in the interest of restoring some small measure of order to the universe. Yes, the Utah Hornets will be confusing and illogical for young fans, but so much less confusing, so much less disturbing, than the Utah Jazz. We will tell our children things in the world are not perfect yet, but they are getting better, there is hope.

22. Coaches aren't trying to be "stylish" or "natty" so much anymore, which leaves more time for stuff like coaching.

23. More tattoos. I know, most folks think the skin art is a sign of the decline of western civilization, but the way I see it, the tats say a guy has a life, a personality, a history. Used to be, players looked rootless and the game seemed like some abstract exhibition. Everyone was clean, like Lorenzo Lamas playing the goofy jock in "Grease." Now, with pictures of a man's kid on his bicep, of the dragon he fears or wants to be, or of a line of poetry he likes, the game comes up out of, and bleeds back into, life.

24. The contemporary players have a sense of history. You saw them at the All-Star Game, giving props and passes to Michael from beginning to end. The game he, Larry, Magic and Doc played -- the styles and strategies that came before -- they're in the new game. The golden era is part of this era. The young guys are torchbearers; they know when they're quoting one of the legends' moves, and they know what it takes to try to improvise or improve on them -- and they're hungry to do so, and eager to do it right.

25. The game is approaching some basic limits: How much younger and how much bigger can the players get before it has to reconsider and reinvent itself?

These are interesting days.

And in the soon-to-be absence of the icon ...

26. We're on the cusp, waiting to see who the next icon will be. It's a good place to be. Anticipation is sweet. Beats recollection with both hands tied behind its back.

"There you go," I said, as we pulled off the road. "I'll stop at 26, like I said I would, but rest assured, I've got a bit on the zone defense I can do, some ideas about the rash of very smart, very hip hoops commercials we've seen lately, and a dozen other things, too."

I looked over. Phil was out. Probably dreaming of the '84 Finals.

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.