02 April, 2009

Heroes Die

Another angle of my NBA fandom that's affected by geographical detachment: it's a lot less consistent and more personal than it would be if I were duty-bound to follow a team. Contrast the small rosters of a basketball team with the 20+ stars in a top football club's squad, and you can see the NBA becomes a veritable pic'n'mix of favourites the casual fan can choose from on any given night (see: Delonte West, Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Big Baby Davis, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Andersen, Shaq). I can get interested in the up-swing in Thabo Sefaloosha's fortunes in a way I never could with, say, a resurgent Wigan Athletic full-back. I won't lie - the glamour and action, games every night of the week, and relentless accumulation of stats help too.

One of the odd things about starting to follow any sport is a lack of context when watching ageing stars, or even that lack of comprehension when watching stars really in their prime. When I started following football in 1995 Liverpool's squad included the waning Ian Rush and John Barnes, while Peter Beardsley was playing up front for Newcastle. I was a couple of years late to really understand these players. There's a lot of regret here: if I'd really been paying attention I could have been experiencing Fowler, Bergkamp, Le Tissier, Ginola and Cantona in their primes. I blame myself less for this, but similarly I was missing the best years in Europe of Zidane, Figo and Ronaldo. I still feel the only player I really appreciated at the time was Steve McManaman!

With this in mind and my basketball obsession in its infancy, there's a degree of desperate conservation that sets in when I watch basketball just now, as who knows when some of the current 'living legends' might break down? Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki have gone down as fast as their teams since their MVP days. Kobe may be getting his best shot at a solo championship this June. Tim Duncan may only be a playoff force for another year, and Shaq's incredible burst this season, at 37, already seems to be defying the laws of time and physiology.

Allen Iverson, at only 33, is already assured of legendary status: number one pick in the extraordinary 1996 draft (ahead of Kobe, Nash and 7 other future All-Stars) his ten years in Philadelphia included a League MVP, 4 seasons as scoring champion and perennial All-Star selection. Still, Iverson has a combustible personality and the Sixers were beset with friction, beaten out by Shaq's Lakers in Iverson's only Finals trip. Despite his astonishing scoring ability (3rd highest average points per game in league history) A.I. looks likely to end his career without a championship ring. A trade to the Nuggets placed him alongside another big-time scorer in Carmelo Anthony, but it was soon apparent that the duo were going to prove too defense-lite to get past a first-round playoff series. The Answer was moved on to Detroit for Chauncey Billups.

It's become fairly clear that Denver got the better end of this deal - Chauncey has propelled them to second in the Western Conference at time of writing, and instilled a new belief in D. Meanwhile, it's become apparent just how much influence "Mr Big Shot" had with the Pistons, who have fallen apart. After 6 consecutive East Finals appearances, Detroit are now sub-.500 and scrapping to make the playoffs while Iverson seems a very poor fit as a solo star in a team that was once the very definition of 'chemistry'. A poor substitute indeed for a gritty defensive point guard who could pull the strings and make shots.

There were reasons for hope. I mentioned yesterday that the Pistons are still a tough matchup with Rip Hamilton back in the lineup, and that with a focused Iverson adding firepower to the second unit they could scare anyone. Don't forget that the guy is meant to be playing for his next contract. But it looks like it won't happen that way (main story). Allen Iverson is a superstar, and with that self-belief has also come an intransigence that has doomed any attempt to fit him into a system. Ultimately it may be that stardom that denies him another chance at a ring. And if his thoughts are starting to swing towards retirement, that means any opportunity to see A.I. take over a game is unmissable, a real collector's item.

It's a peculiarity of american sports that everything is set for parity, from salary caps to college drafts. Talented players landing at loathsome franchises often get things all their own way and no backup, sometimes ingraining that lone hero status and turning them into novelty scorers. LeBron is astonishing but he's only received real quality support in the last year. Because of rookie contract length, it's not uncommon for a young star to remain in that dark place for 4 or 5 years before joining a contender (e.g. the stars of the 2003 draft class who will be in that extraordinary 2010 upheaval). By that stage, 'fitting in' may be too much to ask. Concerned for OJ Mayo yet? You should be.

Maybe this is why the revival of the Celtics has been such a story. Paul Pierce had been the only reason to smile for the C's during the past two torrid seasons, Kevin Garnett had won an MVP in Minnesota but endured 7 successive first round playoff defeats, and Ray Allen (aka Jesus Shuttleworth) had been quietly pouring in 3-pointers and enjoying cult status as everyone's favourite shooter. After years in the wilderness, they found each other, formed a tight unit, reincarnated a stumbling franchise, and completed their resum├ęs. It's a great story.

Which brings me back to the beginning. I've had many basketball infatuations, but my love for Ray Allen constitutes more than a crush. It's the real deal. 'Ray Ray' cuts a sleek figure and doesn't dominate games like Kobe, LeBron or Dwight Howard, but in this defense-orientated Celtics setup he fits beautifully, harrying opposition wings on D. On offense he can drive in to the paint or, more usually spaces the floor and works off Pierce or Rondo to bury a dagger. He's a brilliant shooter, with a stroke that's simply beautiful to watch. He has a cheeky smile and interviews well. He reads books, for crying out loud! And he's 33, which means I am desperately trying to grab memories and encase them, any time he plays well. I know I'll miss him when he's gone.

Last night's game against Charlotte gave me an opportunity to post this. I briefly mentioned yesterday that Charlotte's playoff push is a serious one, and having sprung a defeat on the Lakers they were more than ready for the Celts, forcing the game into double overtime. Good job Boston have a player that can hit clutch shots; I was more than pleased with the way this one turned out:

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