Regarding 1996: Infinity’s almost over

All you need to enter into the Google search bar is “199” when the all-knowing algorithm, based on billions of queries and clicks and user behaviors, makes a few suggestions including “1996 nba draft.” One of the top drafts in the league’s history took place on June 26th, 1996 in East Rutherford, New Jersey – nearly 18 years ago. Now in 2014, most of the class of ’96 has retired, two have had their jerseys retired, one was killed in what is still an unsolved homicide, one has become something of a demigod in China and five are still at it, on the 82-game grind seeking out a mix of competitive fulfillment and financial security. Every season we tack onto a draft class’s NBA existence, the range of possible experiences grows wider and today we’ll focus on the interwoven paths and unexpected todays of seven members of the class of ’96.

Jersey retirements are like a prolonged hug with 20,000 strangers who all agree that, tonight, we’re going to celebrate the contributions of Allen Iverson or Zydrunas Ilgauskas. There couldn’t be a pair of players much different from one another in the league’s history: Iverson, the wiry little guard from Hampton, Virginia who struck fear into the white hierarchy of league marketers and corporate executives at barely six-feet tall, 165 lbs soaking wet, black, an offensively defiant dervish blessed with more mythological superpowers than any man or basketball player could wish for.

Less than 400 miles away and born just two days before Iverson in 1975, the giant Lithuanian Ilgauskas endeared himself to Cleveland fans with long, slow strides stretching down the court like a vision in the mind of Roald Dahl, Cleveland’s very own Big Friendly Giant with the feathery soft touch and brittle bones in his feet that cracked and split and fractured and left him sidelined for long stretches, but not long enough for Cavs fans to forget him.

So it is that these two players who crossed the stage in East Rutherford back in 1996 have arrived as grown men, 38-year-old fathers with children and post-basketball lives, still warmly embraced by working class, blue collar communities that have supported them for so long. They’re connected by invisible parallels, likely nothing more than timely coincidences, but when seen through the lens of history, too similar to ignore. Seeing each player’s jersey retired this season was like witnessing a hometown version of a Hall of Fame induction. It was friendly, inviting, inclusive, intimate – made of some of our species’ most favorable traits. The jerseys rise like the championship banners of individuals into the rafters, basketball’s version of immortality granted to the few in exchange for a combination of excellence and loyalty. It might not carry the level of achievement that a Hall of Fame induction does, but it’s warmer, more nostalgic and the perfect place to start when reminiscing about the class of ’96 in this year of someone’s lord, 2014.

Z & AI

Someday, assuming Robert Sarver loosens the purse strings of the franchise, the Suns will retire Steve Nash’s jersey and the Lakers will hang Kobe’s #24 from the ceiling at the Staples Center or whatever mega corporation is sponsoring the Lakers home arena by then. Hell, they’ll probably attempt to immortalize him in a statue the way fellow ‘96er, Stephon Marbury, has been cast in steel or bronze or some moldable statuesque material in Beijing or maybe Laker zealots will demand a stretch of the 405 be renamed in his honor. But no one’s retiring the jerseys of Derek Fisher or Jermaine O’Neal unless their amateur alma maters choose to do so. In a stroke of improbability that reminds us all of the great equalizing unknowns of age and injury, it is Fisher and O’Neal who play key minutes for the Thunder and Warriors in 2014 while Kobe and Nash watch Laker losses pile all the way up to the Buss family’s luxury box. How we arrived at this upside down world is known and documented, but that makes it nonetheless head scratching.

The youngest players from the ’96 draft were a pair of preps-to-pros 18-year-olds, Kobe and O’Neal. Fresh off Kevin Garnett’s successful move to the NBA from Farragut Academy, NBA teams wanted to catch the next potential star and before either teen played a game they were handed shoe deals from Adidas. The draft and Adidas affiliation would be as close as their pro paths would come to intersecting.

Kobe carved his cold narrative out of a block of ice with fine chisels, manic vision, and a genius’s audacity. O’Neal – the baby faced Blazers teenager came up under strong personalities and hardened vets like Sheed, Pippen, Steve Smith, Greg Anthony, Detlef Schrempf – was jettisoned to Indiana before he ever made even a 5-point-per-game imprint in Portland. By the time O’Neal proved himself worthy of taking the Pacer torch from Reggie Miller, Kobe was already winning titles and waging war with Shaq over the Laker locker room.

We know Bryant as a man who played through pain, breaks, sprains, a rape trial, contractual nonsense, and all along defined himself solely on the court until suddenly he became the elder statesman of the league prone to swearing in interviews and getting away with it because, as we’ve been told and led to believe, he’s an old man set in his ways with no time for the niceties the rest of the league abides by. O’Neal, by contrast, never regained his All-Star form after the Malice at the Palace. It was like that punch that he failed to connect on on the Palace floor drained some imaginary basketball life force – assuming such a life force exists which may hinge more on the question of whether basketball is a job or a way of life. He devolved into an overpaid, injury-prone big who’s played on five different teams since 2009.

From a health perspective, their reputations couldn’t be more different and it is with these reputations that we arrive at in 2014 with the toughest MF in the league forced to sit while chuckers like Nick Young and Kent Bazemore and Xavier Henry try and fail to live up to the once proud name written across their jerseys. It’s a foreign concept, difficult to accept by the orthodoxy as Kobe speeds towards an inevitable ending while the Mr. Glass of his draft class, O’Neal, revives himself in Oakland. He only plays 20 minutes a night, but on this playoff-bound team, he’s filled in as a steady, reliable old pro and given the size-deficient Warriors height and defense where Mo Speights has failed – and all for a paltry $2 million. No one would’ve guessed that the five-time champ, former MVP, fourth overall scorer in league history, and possibly most driven player on our planet would be on the shelf with the Lakers languishing in the cellar any more than they would’ve pegged O’Neal’s career to enjoy an enthusiastic embrace of the East Bay faithful in this successful final act.

Stylistically, there aren’t two players much different than Steve Nash and Derek Fisher (Ilgauskas and Iverson aside). They were the 15th (Nash) and 24th (Fisher) picks of the draft so there were expectations of impact, but not the savviest of scouts imagined the decorations these two would earn. Nash is one of the most beloved and cerebral pass first point guards in recent memory. Fish is a five-time champ with a cockeyed lefty jumper, a political maneuverer who happens to be a professional basketball player, but without so many of the traits we expect our lead guards to have. Nash’s second stint in Phoenix never had a happy ending. To think of it, Nash’s teams in general have never found the happiest ending. Instead, it seemed like strokes of bad luck and fiscal conservatism kept him from the (we imagine) coveted ring. In some ways, Nash was his own worst enemy in Phoenix, always choosing to stubbornly stick it out and remain loyal instead of asking for a trade as the team allowed the roster to melt into the concrete sprawl of this ever-expanding city in the desert. But all along, it appears the Suns training staff and the dry desert air sustained Nash as it does so many of our American retirees.

And it’s not that Fisher lacks loyalty (unless you ask Billy Hunter), rather he appears to prefer personally beneficial situations and who can grudge a man for looking out for himself? I doubt Fisher holds many illusions about the purpose of professional sports. No, he seeks the natural high that comes with chasing titles and earning pleasant paychecks. But now in 2014, the two-time MVP and (it still seems odd) present Laker can’t stay healthy for more than a couple games at a time. His hamstrings, his back, his body – all 40 years of it – are betraying him. I don’t know if it makes things better or worse, but this Lakers group he signed up with is a windblown garbage can, seeking an owner (or familiar hand) to come reclaim it from urban misdirection. Fisher, at 39, less than a full year younger than Nash, has the body of 25-year-old Fisher with the same massive biceps he came into the league with 18 years ago and his body’s internal workings – rubber band ligaments and well-maintained joints – continue to remain loyal to the entity that is Derek Fisher. Where Nash’s off-court decisions (who to sign with, when to push for a trade) could be questioned, Fisher has continually steered his own destiny and has, once again, landed on a team in position to make a run at the NBA Finals, which would mark his ninth visit to that supposed hallowed ground. Nash has never appeared in an NBA Finals. It’s not fair or unfair, it is, as David Halberstam wrote, the breaks of the game. If a healthy Jermaine O’Neal and a broken Kobe Bryant are digressions from our previous narrative, then an eight or nine-time finalist Derek Fisher next to a YouTube-appearing Steve Nash seems cosmically incorrect. Or maybe just an affront to good taste.

If everything I’ve written above is laying out a case for contrasting histories and unexpected outcomes, then Ray Allen is the model for the control we crave; the level of the class of ‘96. Allen’s closest peer from his draft class is Kobe. A post-Jordan retelling of the Jordan/Miller rivalry, but in this go-round, Allen gets his rings and also stands alone while Spike Lee becomes a caricature of himself without a pro foil to validate his orange crushed antics. As warm and fuzzy as it is to see Fisher and O’Neal jogging up and down the court with unexpected bounce, Allen has proven to be the most resilient and reliant, and not surprising, the most capable of adapting.

Like Fisher, his crisp professionalism is rewarded with invitations to play for teams filled with ringers which he graciously accepts – much to the vulgar disgust of Garnett. He was half written off when the deep sixing Sonics sent him to Boston, but instead of giving in to the temptations of time and the perceived ego crushing acceptance of becoming a second or third fiddle, Allen persevered in a changing world with new foes and new issues. Some thought the bell was tolling on old Ray back in ’07 and maybe it was just deep wishes against a Boston baked Big Three, but we know those wishes or prayers went ignored. We know this because the formerly known “Candyman” answered his own prayers last year, at 38, with his course-of-history-altering three for the ages. That three that broke the spine of the city of San Antonio like a symbolic Big John Stud crushing the back of Spur fans across an unforgiving knee reassured or reminded or vindicated Ray Allen’s on and off court savvy – a combination that has escaped the few of his remaining draft cohorts. Whatever man, Ray is still here, his jumper still wet, while the class of ’96 ebbs into the sandy saltwaters of time. Take a long last look, human history recedes from view. The class of ’96 is not dead, but we are dying.

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