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Tuesday, October 28, 2003
Updated: October 29, 12:31 PM ET
Twenty reasons the NBA is fan-tastic

By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

There's always this moment just after baseball season ends when my tanks are running low and I think maybe I don't have another NBA season in me.

Gary Payton
Forget feuding Shaq and Kobe, GP in gold is reason enough to watch the Lakers.

Eighty-two is a lot of games. November to June is a lot of calendar. My wife likes to say, in fact, that the NBA season is not a season at all.

"It's coal into diamonds," she says. "It's rings on a tree stump, it's a Coppola shoot in the jungle, it's waiting for a bad haircut to grow out, it's reading 'War and Peace' in the original."

I like the game a whole lot more than she does, but I take her point: It's a long haul from now 'til the Finals. And in the face of that fact, there's this moment, about 18 hours after the last pitch of the World Series, when, truth be told, I waver in my commitment.

It's a bad time. Things go dark around the edges. I get dizzy, drop the remote, get up out of the comfy chair and head to the garage, thinking maybe I'll get started on a couple of projects around the house.

Like I said, it's bad.

Fortunately, I manage to snap myself out of it every year just in time for the regular season tip-off. All it takes is a splash of cold water on my face, a stiff drink, a minor drilling mishap in the garage, eight of Tolstoy, and a handwritten list of reasons I ought to shut up and be glad to watch the season that's about to begin. Then I'm as good as new.

Here's this year's list of reasons:

Kwame Brown
Will Kwame Brown get up off the floor and produce this season?

1. Kwame Brown. I saw him play in a high school all-star game just months before he was drafted No. 1, and he knocked me out. Then he went pro ... and you know the rest. So I'm wondering, is this a bounce-back year, will he spring to life without MJ and Doug in town? Or is the bad word on his work ethic true, and is he headed instead for the trivial hinterlands of NBA history, the same place where Chris Washburn, John Williams, and Stanley Roberts walk forever restless and sad? We've all got a guy like Kwame, a guy we care about, a guy we should know better than to care about. Maybe for you it's Jalen Rose or Keith Van Horn. For me, it's Kwame. I'll check his line every morning, first thing.

2. Allen Iverson with the ball in traffic. This is on my list every year. Screw big men moving predictably and unimpeded. Forget Tim Duncan. Never mind Shaq. Give me this paradigm-shifting, shape-shifting, taut wire of a little man every time out. Give me an underdog who makes guys twice his size cry mercy. Every game AI plays is a treatise on heart and stamina, and a command performance of sick, syncopated skill.

3. The kids in Memphis running and pressing. Constantly. After the Kings and Mavs, these guys will be the most entertaining team in the league. Throw in that the coach is a 70-year-old icon to whom the players are totally devoted, add that they have a super creative point guard (Jason Williams) and an incredibly deft power forward (Pau Gasol), and include the fact that maybe -- just maybe -- they're going to make some playoff noise for the first time in franchise history, and I'll even take 'em over the Kings and Mavs, actually.

4. The off chance that Phil Jackson tries to give Gary Payton a copy of "Black Planet" during one of his book-club meetings. (And while I'm at it, the off chance that GP and Karl doing little cuts and curls for easy buckets is more the L.A. story than Shaq and Kobe feuding.)

Carmelo Anthony
Expect Carmelo Anthony and Denver's new uniforms to be hot items.

5. The new Denver unis. There's something a little ABA, and something a little UCLA, about them. Both pluses in my book. Plus which, they've got that we-ain't-afraid-to-be-pretty edge about them, unlike the old Nugget uniforms, which had that how-to-ruin-one-of-the-world's-most-beautiful-skylines ugmo softness about them. If Carmelo wins Rookie of the Year, don't underestimate the fact that he looks a whole lot better in these jerseys than LeBron does in those mistake-by-the-lake Cavalier reds as a contributing factor.

6. It beats the hell out of watching Kobe's trial.

7. The hope that someone at ABC/ESPN says in a programming meeting, "Hey, you know what we ought to do is bring back the Dutch Master's One-on-One tournament at halftime!" and everyone in the room thinks it's a great idea, like maybe Samantha, despite her promises not to interfere in the ways of mortals, has put a spell on them to make them think everything out of Darren's mouth is brilliant, and the whole room bursts into applause.

8. Ben Wallace and Elton Brand, because rebounds are righteous.

9. Yao 2.0. I know he's tired, and I know Van Gundy's gonna be pushing him to play all back-to-the-basket and traditional-like, and I know little Stevie'll freeze him out some nights. I also know there will be many smooth little drop-steps and seeing-eye passes that will bring a smile to this boy's face.

Jason Kidd
There's nothing like Jason Kidd driving to the hole and finding a teammate with another spectacular pass.

10. Jason Kidd with the ball at midcourt and Richard Jefferson and Kenyon Martin filling the lanes. Another annual item. I want to see players make plays at crunch time as much as the next person, but I also want to savor these moments when the game, regardless of the score or the situation, is just a short, perfect poem on the rush of opportunity unfolding in front of you and the beauty of choosing the one true path.

11. The Western Conference playoffs.

12. The chance that Vince Carter will exceed expectations this time around.

13. Kevin Garnett playing every night like he's got something to prove all over again. The second-round-of-the-playoffs rap is whack; but if it means more bugged-out eyes, more shouts to the rafters, and more mind-boggling all-purpose lines, I'm all for it.

14. The following names: Bonzi, Boykins, Speedy, Manu, Amare, Baron, Dwyane, Darius, Redd, Eddy Curry, Pau, and Nene. (And of course, Darko, Carmelo and LeBron.)

15. The moment when Don Nelson sneaks a second ball onto the floor, figuring if the guys move quickly enough maybe nobody will notice.

Chris Webber
Will Chris Webber finally lead the Kings to the Finals?

16. The awkward grace of Paul Pierce and the graceful awkwardness of Chris Webber.

17. Three guys about to go boom: Gilbert Arenas, Zach Randolph, and Rashard Lewis.

18. The look on Alonzo Mourning's face on opening night. And, if the gods are just and true, the look on his face on closing night, too.

19. Tracy McGrady trying to do it all himself. It's a team game, and the Magic are no real title threat until they find a second scorer, rebound, and play some better defense; but in the meantime, T-Mac trying to make up for all that will be some very entertaining, no-he-didn't, did-you-see-that, giggle-like-a-schoolgirl TV. (Subset of the same phenomenon: Nick the Quick in the Golden State.)

20. What are we talking about ... like there was ever a choice? Like I was ever not going to watch? The game isn't a choice; it's a jones. It's a tractor beam. It's part of my DNA, going back to Fred Brown, Slick Watts and the '74 Sonics, going back before that, to games in Boston and L.A. I only ever heard about sitting at the kitchen table listening to my Papa tell stories.

So baseball's over. So there's a lot of hoop to be played in the next several months. So sign me up.

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.