Games of the Meek: April 7-13, 2014.

It is a Diss tradition to dedicate the second of the last Games of the Week to the teams that I didn’t bother to watch this year, simply because they were too bad, too tankish, too uninspiring, too dramatic, too not the Warriors, or too whatever else I saw fit. It is also a Diss tradition to bathe these teams in RED, which is apparently the color of shame. Not all Diss traditions are kind. Perhaps these teams will do better next year.

Monday: No Games Scheduled

The NBA and the NCAA get a big fat red face-painting today. No games scheduled? Really? Because of the national championship game for college? That’s a big, steaming load right there. Sure, the tournament has been entertaining enough this year. But nothing — NOTHING — is worth removing a day of games for. Only way the NBA can make up for this is to come out, call NCAA president Mark Emmert a skeezy fucking prick-hole, turn him upside down, and shake that douchebag really hard so every NCAA athlete and under-funded academic program can get the millions upon millions of dollars that fall out of his pockets. Go hit your head with a brick, Emmert, and may your antiquated, pay-to-play hack-job of an organization burn in hell.

Tuesday: Dallas Mavericks at Utah Jazz (6:00 PM on League Pass)

Each year, a perfectly innocent team suffers simply because they give off that “give me four or five years, and I’ll have my shit together” vibe sometime in early summer, and I just write them off for the next nine months. Unfortunately, that distinction belongs to the Utah Jazz, who were broadcasting all sorts of weird signals just as soon as the offseason began. They didn’t even try to resign either of their two best players from the previous year (who then went on to have great years for their new teams), and their intriguing rookie (as much as any of those exist this year) spent a significant part of the early season injured. So by the time they actually started playing better after the All-Star break, they were all personas non grata to me. Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Trey Burke are interesting enough, but not on a weekly basis. And you can’t help but look at Phoenix, who were projected to be about as bad (or maybe even worse) than the Jazz, yet are thriving under former lead assistant Jeff Hornacek’s tutelage, and think that they might’ve let the wrong guy go to a different team within the conference. But all that’s in the past, now. Utah has a down year about as often as Haley’s Comet appears, so I’ll give them a mulligan. Sort of.

Wednesday: Phoenix Suns at New Orleans Pelicans (5:00 PM PST on League Pass)

After two consecutive years of winning my end-of-the-season approval for a job vaguely-well-done, I have to give the New Orleans Pelicans a big splash of the red stuff this year. The reason is simple: Anthony Davis has made them look bad. In 2012, the team was seemed to be trying to forget Chris Paul and reassert itself under then-lauded coach Monty Williams. In 2013, after getting bought, and drafting Davis, the team was focused on trying to get healthy, and start developing a Davis-Ryan Anderson-Eric Gordon core. In 2014, after a largely celebrated offseason that saw them obtain Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans, and undergo a wack-nuts rebranding into the Pelicans, the team was actually projected to win some games. So much for that, I guess. Anthony Davis’ brilliance on both the offensive and defensive end had the unintended side-effect of highlighting how poorly this team is built and coached. There were some acts of the Basketball Gods, like injuries to Anderson, Holiday and Evans (that is, all of the other good players on the team). But AD didn’t really do them any favors, despite his excellence. To see such an exquisite player forced to run extended minutes with Austin Rivers and Brian Roberts is a crime of the highest order in the NBA. So my love affair with Monty Williams and Dell Demps is officially over. I demand a real team around Anthony Davis. Perhaps Adam Silver can re-purchase the team and send AD to Golden State.

Thursday: Denver Nuggets at Golden State Warriors (7:30 PM PST on TNT)

The Homer Game of the Week features my beloved Golden State Warriors facing a former favorite of mine: the Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets went from being one of my most-watched teams to one of my least, and much of it has to do with the beguiling danger what I’ll term the “faceless army” syndrome. Last year, the George Karl-lead Nuggets developed an exciting brand of “next-man-up” basketball, which worked out great until the “next man” failed to step up in the playoffs, and George Karl lost his job. The Brian Shaw-lead Nuggets, in many ways, were very much like the Nuggets of the prior year, but this time around, that “faceless army” worked disadvantageously for the Mile High Club. At various points in the season, the Nuggets really lacked a true “face” to really help me figure out what, exactly, was going on with the team. The veterans didn’t get along with Shaw, and Shaw didn’t seem to try and get along with the veterans. The team stole the “Most Friendly for Knee Injuries” label from the Blazers (get well Nate Rob, JJ and Danilo, who wasn’t fixed properly by his team). And by February, they were giving off that sort of musty smell of a team that probably had too much pride and latent talent to outwardly tank, but it was clear that it wasn’t in the cards. If they get one of the lottery picks, they’ll get a Melo-like presence to re-anchor the team, and get a Trailblazers-style rebuild-on-the-fly started in earnest (think Damian Lillard joining LaMarcus Aldridge) which will get them back into the top eight in the West. But this year was not one worth watching in Denver.

Friday: Washington Wizards at Orlando Magic (4:00 PM PST on League Pass)

Don’t get me wrong: there will be a day when we look back at the Dwight Howard trade, and assert that the big winners of that whole crazy things weas the Orlando Magic (sort of like the Grizzlies are said to have “won” the Pau Gasol trade, even though the Lakers got two championships out of Gasol). Nic Vucevic still projects to be a top-five center someday, Arron Afflalo has been found money, and the cap space and draft picks the team accrued will ensure competitiveness someday in the future. Orlando will come out of that looking pretty, even if Dwight makes several deep playoff runs with the Rockets, and even wins a championship. But we are still many days away from uttering that opinion, and not getting wide-eyed looks from just about everyone. When I checked in on this team, it looked like Jameer Nelson was still getting an awful lot of playing time despite the fact that younger players needed the development. The young guys themselves looked promising (I especially like Tobias Harris, Victor Oladipo and Mo Harkless), but aren’t really anything worth tuning in for on a regular basis at this points in their careers. I’m sure the Magic will be sick come 2017, but it’s 2014, and I can’t be bothered right now.

Saturday: Boston Celtics at Cleveland Cavaliers (5:30 PM PST on League Pass)

Even when the Cavs briefly threatened to snag the eighth seed from the Atlanta Hawks (who are spared a spot in Games of the Meek because someone has to finish eighth out there), I was done with this team. Few teams appeared to have less fun throughout the season, and it really showed in the product. Similar to the Pelicans, the Cavs got a pass the last two years because they seemed to be clearly on a rebuild-path. But this was the payoff year, and despite the weakness of the East, we got very little in return. And man, was it sad. Kyrie and Dion did not gel as an elite backcourt, were at odds the entire season, and couldn’t keep their names out of trade and eventual departure rumors. Newcomers like Jarrett Jack, Earl Clark and Andrew Bynum contributed very little from the outset, and late-arrivers Luol Deng and Spencer Hawes provided too little, too late. Mike Brown looks like the least enjoyable coach to play for in the entire league. The hero worship for straight-up role player Matthew Dellevadova got unbelievably uncomfortable. And even with all of this, the team almost staggered their way to the playoffs. That’s the East for you, folks. I won’t miss this Cavs team. Hell, this Cavs team won’t miss this Cavs team. That’s how much they hate themselves.

Sunday: Toronto Raptors at Detroit Pistons (12:30 PM PST on League Pass)

Congrats, Joe Dumars. Your Pistons are the first team to be listed in Games of the Meek three years in a row. Between you and me: I think this year was his best fuck-up job; some grade-A shitty general managing. If you thought that whole “overpay inefficient starters” thing was just a phase that he got over back in 2009, you are wrong, my friend! This is one of the few times I can remember that nearly every reservation someone had about a team during the offseason came absolutely true. There weren’t enough possessions to go around for the team’s starters, and no one was good enough to make those possessions meaningful. The team played next to no defense. The bench was entirely non-existent. The head coach was a dud. And look who’s left standing. Everyone claims that Tom Gores will let Dumars walk at season’s end. I’ll believe it when I see it.

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Diss Guy Miss Guy, Vol. 72

Diss Guy: NBA’s topic du jour: the Pacers

Many bloggers and basketball writers are hacking away at keyboard keys eagerly exploring the Pacers recent slide. There’s all these quantitative and qualitative reasons to explain the spring slope they’ve been sliding down for the past month. But we’re not investing in deep analytics here, instead we’re praising the decline, because if there’s anything we love more than an unexpected 19-game win streak, it’s an unpredictable collapse by a team that previously seemed ordained to renew their rivalry with the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. Today any ordaining is on hold while our eyes are glued to the proverbial flaming horror of Luis Scola hanging on the edge of the abyss, long dark hair aflame while the Pacers’ collective grips try to hang on tight while Ian Mahinmi and Roy Hibbert try in vain to haul their mates back up to solid ground, but everyone slips with sweaty fingers and oily hands. Careful now…

I’ve seen many more stories and headlines exploring the reasons why Indiana’s struggling than I’ve seen about the Spurs excelling. I don’t believe this is because sports fans prefer failure to success (although there’s something to that) because even Philadelphia’s recent league-tying 26-game losing streak wasn’t covered with the congressional investigative zeal we’ve seen writers give to the Pacers. A quick glance at Google News shows us some angsty headlines:

As fans and writers, it’s like we can’t get enough of these tales of demise. Everyone’s in a race to understand these unsolved mysteries. What is it so deeply embedded in our DNAs that we latch onto collapses like the ferocious mechanical shark in Jaws clenching down on the limbs of a frightened white child? We taste the blood in the water and simultaneously cringe at the metallic flavor while chomping down for more. Do you remember Rick Ankiel? He was a beast of a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals whose career as a major league hurler deep sixed on national TV when all ability to hit the strike zone abandoned him on that loneliest of mounds while everyone watched, perplexed. I’ll never forget Ankiel’s story … it was simply too unexplainable.

The Lakers last year were a collective train wreck of incomprehension. After the fact, it all made perfect sense, but in the moment when we all thought they’d be competing for a Western Conference crown, it was a shock to the system of our expectations. They were a story that refused to die. From the early season struggles and Mike Brown’s firing to Kobe’s torn Achilles and finally Dwight Howard’s departure, they were hot mess in the mold of Amanda Bynes and Lindsay Lohan, but without the substance abuse and legal issues. And like those starlets gone astray, many of us followed – from near and afar, but we followed.

What’s happening with the Pacers is much more inexplicable than the Lakers and, for this occasionally cynical writer, it’s dramatically satisfying. The roughneck bullying of David West, the ineptitude of Roy Hibbert’s offensive game, the race to anoint Paul George … the narratives are coming undone and our inner Freuds are crawling through the gray matter desperate to explain and understand it. In the meantime, I’m trying to enjoy a show that I don’t think will last. I’m no sadist, but the very public crumbling in athletics, particularly over something as universally trivial as winning and losing in basketball, is entertaining. Pacers games have devolved into spectacles where they struggle to get past the woeful Pistons or score more than 80 points each night. No one’s hurt, no one is dying, just a group of guys who took a corny picture together and are now the NBA’s most confusing riddle. It’s not funny, but it’s gripping in the same way as LeBron’s 2011 Finals performance. And after all, what are sports if not an unscripted soap opera with cleverly crafted storylines holding our attentions with never ending plot twists and turns? Pacers fans will disagree, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Miss Guy: The Corrosion of Rust Belt Basketball (except the Bulls)

As much entertainment as the Pacers have provided, they’ve joined a few other teams across the rustbelt of the country to exemplify shitty on and off-court basketball management. The Rust Belt drapes across the upper Midwest and covers historically industrial cities that are included in the league’s Central Division: Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit. The Central is unlike most divisions in the NBA in that none of its five teams are outright tanking or using a get-bad-to-get-better strategy. Also fitting is that Indianapolis, home of the Pacers, is not part of the Rust Belt, which unfortunately hasn’t insulated it from a poor post All-Star break.

The Bucks are the one team in the division that could best benefit most from an intentional rebuild, but even they appear to be stuck in stasis unsure of how and where to go next. The Pistons are a collection of mismatched pieces like a Lego set put together by a semi-creative kid who somehow stumbled into uncle’s acid stash and found some of the most colorful, but useless pieces in the whole set and ate the directions as an afterthought. Detroit, of all the Rust Belt cities, has suffered the worst of their Rust Belt counterparts to their dependence on the auto industry which has been grossly mismanaged. The parallels between the pitfalls of the Big Three automakers and baffling Joe Dumars decisions – all the way down to the dependence on excuses – is sadly apropos.  Post-LeBron Cleveland is never scared of making bold moves, but like the LeBron era, most of those moves pop in concept, but fall flat in reality. Desperate to keep their young star Kyrie Irving, Cleveland has rushed headlong into moves with an emphasis on today and a blind eye to tomorrow.  And for more on the Pacers just scroll up a couple inches and re-read the Diss Guy section or click on any of the links above.

On court, the Cavs, Bucks, and Pistons have been below average all season. Where Cleveland and Milwaukee have shown signs of post All-Star break improvement, the Pistons have taken a cue from the Pacers and gotten worse. These teams operate in place of confused tumult and it shows in their personnel moves. The Cavs roster has been influx all season beginning with the axing of their off-season gamble, Andrew Bynum (picked up later by the Pacers where he’s currently hurt), reaching its climax with the firing of GM Chris Grant and including trades for Spencer Hawes and Luol Deng. Detroit dumped Coach Maurice Cheeks after he won back-to-back games and all rumors are indicating Dumars is done after this season. Milwaukee with GM John Hammond (a Dumars protégé) and Coach John Drew are treading water in a lake polluted with industrial waste and other putrid smelling hazardous materials.

Whether or not there’s a correlation to their in-season moves and recent stretch of losing, the Pacers look like a team that took a couple risks (adding Bynum and trading long-time Pacer Danny Granger to Philly for Evan Turner) and lost. It’s not realistic to analyze Indy’s splits and blame Turner or Bynum, but something in the locker room or between the players feels like it has changed and until we can measure chemistry (looking at you, 2k Sports), we’ll have to satisfy ourselves with a mix of data analysis and trusting player comments.

In terms of wins and losses, the Central isn’t the worst division in the NBA (that dubious distinction belongs to the Atlantic), but when we layer in front office management, the failure to make progress in Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee shifts the dishonor to the Rust Belt division. The graphic below shows before and after All-Star break margin of victory and Net Rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating). Except for Cleveland’s 0.2 post All-Star net rating, each of these teams is below zero across the board. Since February 16th, they’ve all ranked in the league’s bottom half of winning percentage. By any statistical measure they’ve been anywhere from mediocre to the league’s worst, but like the cities across the Rust Belt, you don’t need some fancy three-dimensional graphics showing population decline and unemployment to see decay. Tune into a Bucks game for hopelessness. Maybe watch the Pistons for an example of mismanagement. Cavs for earnest desperation and the Pacers for the current version of community dysfunction. The Central is depressed and dependent on the Bulls for any sort of post-break positivity. At least NBA teams can pray for talent bailouts in the form of an annual lottery … that’s more than the residents of shrinking Rust Belt cities can fathom.

 

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The Exiled

Editor’s Note: We are proud to feature a guest post from Alex Siquig. This is Alex’s first submission to The Diss. Follow him on Twitter @thomasawful.

***

It seems like the snow will never stop falling in Baltimore. It is April and still this cold trash falls from the sky. At work people are talking about this relentless winter or March Madness or some combination of both. I don’t care for either. Every year during this beloved tournament there comes a point where I refrain from directly trying to prove the clear and obvious superiority of the NBA from some college hoops boosting zealot. Others have done it better and more elegantly than I ever could. To each his or her own! But there is one complaint in particular that grates on my sense of propriety. College fans routinely lambast the NBA for lacking the requisite maniacal crowd intensity, implying some league wide apathy amongst ticket buyers, but those grumblers have likely never made a study of the commitment and devotion of Golden State Warriors fans in the last decade. It’s mind-boggling and seems almost unjustifiable, the agony people have cheered for, supported, and loved for so long with almost nothing given back. To me that kind of affection is a lot more stirring than screaming in the stands and painting your face a particular color for a couple of games.

Baltimore is a proud town, it’s brusque and bold and sweet. It’s a city deeply in love with the Ravens and the Orioles. Everyone wears purple in the autumn and winter and the word on the street is the next Super Bowl and paternal asides about Joe Flacco. Spring and summer is all about orange and a seriously dorky looking bird. The most important part of the NBA for most Baltimoreans is Carmelo Anthony. Based on mostly meager anecdotal evidence, I feel very confident wagering that 80% of Baltimore City School gyms are named after Melo. The Bullets have been gone for years and there’s no apparent longing for them.

Similarly, it took quite awhile for something recognizable as “homesickness” to catch up to me, but it caught up hard this year and in strange ways. I grew tired of the chalkiness of Baltimore sunshine. The snow ceased to be a magical novelty and transformed into a likely way of killing me in a car accident. Watching basketball and more specifically Warriors basketball became a rare occurrence. I had become fat and comfortable in San Jose, at least when it came to money. Here there were no benevolent friends with uncles who owned a consulting firm. Life became lean and lonely. I lost contact with the majority of my friends. Money was the San Antonio Spurs of my life; it never ceased to smash my dreams…Rent and food and too much booze and then bills and insurance and bills and debt and bills. All the while there was something strange happening, something I didn’t care for.  It was just a thudding realization that I was missing it.

It seemed every year without fail the typical Golden State Warriors season would be irrevocably ruined after a few games. The 82 game season takes us from Halloween to summer’s doorstep, but the Warriors have always had an aptitude for digging their own graves and then cannonballing into them with kamikaze abandon. We still cheered, but it was dependably depressing. So when I moved from my cottage in Santa Clara to Baltimore I certainly didn’t expect the Warriors to start winning games, but that’s exactly the thing those assholes started to do. They won pretty, they won ugly, they stumbled into trouble and then managed to start winning again, a characteristic few Warriors teams during my lifespan can confidently claim. They won and won and scraped their way into the post-season. They beat the highly favored Denver Nuggets. They put a genuine scare into the immaculate killing machine known as the San Antonio Spurs before falling in six games. They played like a burgeoning contender, like the team my dad and I had always wanted. And they did it while I was far away, without many similarly victory deprived souls to share this long scheduled catharsis with.

I did try to share it, especially with my dad. Phone calls with bad reception, emails with no subject lines. Dad was the guy to blame for this silliest of infatuations. Dad took me to get Chris Mullin’s autograph. He tried to teach me how to spell Sarunas Marciulionis. He forgave me when I lost interest during the Mike Dunleavy years. He never made me feel like a bandwagoner, even when I was. I’m certainly no athlete or even generally interested in sports at any level. But there are things you might consider pointless or even beneath you that surge with possibility if someone just has the audacity to bring them to life for you. My father has a knack for stripping the vulgar layers away, leaving only the splendor left standing. I didn’t see the obvious beauty in basketball until he made me see it and since then I’ve never been able to un-see it. Basketball is therapy, soul searching, release, revenge, and forgiveness. It’s art, but better than most of that museum stuff.

I was missing Stephen Curry playing the best basketball of his life, a bona fide and anointed superstar. I was missing the strange rise of the Splash Brothers. I didn’t have a say in the great fan debate/moral inquiry of David Lee. I have never seen Andrew Bogut block a shot at Oracle. I was missing the Warriors spoken of with respect by the media, by other teams, by all the vacuous pundits. In just under two years they had flipped the script with such vigor you could almost forget what an unrepentant laughingstock they had been for so long that the phrase since “time immemorial” is only faintly hyperbolic. The dysfunction was one of the guiding principles of the organization. For many years they seemed less like a basketball squad and more like mercenaries bankrolled by an unseen parsimonious warlord.

Loving a team from afar isn’t altogether a unique situation. People relocate, things happen, it’s fairly standard to cheer for teams outside your time zone. You have to be like Gregg Poppovich or Rick Carlisle and make some dang adjustments! Many of these amounted to minor annoyances, that Satan of Small Things. Waiting until 10:30 at night to watch games. Rarely getting to watch the local feed and listen to the avuncular grace of Jim Barnett or the much-despised enthusiastic company man (but very decent play-by-play dude) Bob Fitzgerald. Peering at my computer screen and trying to decipher choppy time delayed streams loaded with penis enlargement ads. Sometimes my computer couldn’t seem to handle the feeds anyway and I took to the streets (Twitter).  Pacing angrily while refreshing time-delayed box scores and rabidly scrolling through the chaos of basketball Twitter were some nerve-racking times. This is no great shakes to soccer fans or tennis enthusiasts who rise at obscene hours while their friends snore through their nightmares, but this did feel different somehow. The timing. The meteoric rise. Something important was happening that I wanted to be a part of, and I couldn’t and wouldn’t. The greatest Warriors team of a generation would rise and fall while I shivered 3000 miles away. I am not the cosmos, I know, but it’s a heavy feeling in my chest nonetheless.

This is not the easiest sell, but in some dark moments I miss those final rotten days of the Chris Cohan owned Warriors. Not for the loathsome Cohan, or the toxic atmosphere he and Robert Rowell and an increasingly distracted Don Nelson perpetuated, or the horrific teams that routinely got hammered down during an 82 game marathon towards disgrace. I miss them for far more selfish reasons. I was there. I could finally regularly afford tickets to games so I went as often as I could manage. I had what seemed like dozens of buddies that were usually willing to either come over and put up with my hysterics or sit and watch me scream at the television of this dive bar or that dive bar. This was the great era of D-League All-Stars, second-rounder debris, and distracted over the hill journeymen come to die. This is a time no one actually pines for. But I pine for the living room in the house I grew up in where I used to eat the hell out of dad’s not quite world famous spaghetti and watch Golden State Warriors games until our hearts and brains broke. The fellowship of damaged fandom, the brotherhood of bricked shots and defensive brain sharts. It wasn’t much, but it was all we had for quite a long, long time.

I’ll swallow my murkier reflexes and try to suppress the curmudgeon within. My life is too good and to be unduly envious of the proximity of others to the abruptly successful Warriors is a broken path. I chose the snow and doggone it (people in Baltimore say this quite often) I’d choose it again. But what I wouldn’t give to be there for just one game and see this team fight to take the Thunder or Clippers to the brink. To see a Stephen Curry game-winner with 16,000 comrades I’ll never meet. BART would be packed with loud drunks in jerseys, the sodas and beers would be near unforgivably expensive, and I’d be sitting in shitty upper level seats and getting rowdy with dad and Chris and Jon and Jason and Nate and Jarod and Devlin and Mike and My and Nick and Ramsey, and the rest of the people who know instinctively what it means when I post Stephen Curry’s name over and over again on Facebook and broadcast my anxiety across social media.

That would be a perfect night, even without the win.

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Kobe Bryant Sheds his Skin

As the youngest of three brothers, there was a decent amount of fighting with my siblings growing up. Probably not any more than you would expect from three boys, but still. In many ways my oldest brother is your stereotypical first-born—the leader in anything the neighborhood kids got up to, who had a difficult time controlling his anger any time one of his little brothers beat him at anything, even an insignificant, luck-filled game.

Two of my most vivid memories from childhood were when I beat him up. They’re vivid because they’re the only times I got the better of my brother five years older. Once I managed to get out of a pin and got a few swings in before he resumed dominating me. The other time I nailed him from a distance with a 32 ounce bottle of sunscreen, immediately realized my mistake and sprinted to the only room in the house with a door that locked.

The central organizing force of my childhood was my relationships with my brothers. If you track my current behaviors back far enough, chances are they originate in how I related, understood and interacted with my brothers. It’s not that these relationships were deterministic—I’m not in my current job because I once beat my brother up—but that they shaped me to the extent that nurturing plays a role in that.

I couldn’t help but think about my childhood as I read through the New Yorker’s big Kobe Bryant profile, ten pages of Kobe struggling with understanding how much control a person really has over who they are.

***

When discussing Kobe Bryant’s character, his own role in shaping it is frequently left out of the discussion. His public persona is a cold-hearted basketball player with a homicidal desire to win, an affliction he was born with and managed to channel into becoming one of the best basketball players of all-time. It seems Kobe himself believes this, describing one of his daughter’s meltdowns after he beat her at Candyland: “‘Shit, the kid’s like me. Damn it….Maybe you can learn it later, but it’s not taught.’” From his parents to his daughter, Kobe Bryant is merely a vessel of a genetic hatred of losing.

A year ago Kobe went down with an achilles injury. The initial pronouncements were not good, and a survey of basketball players suffering achilles injuries revealed mostly broken careers. But that didn’t stop the Lakers, Kobe or Kobe fanatics from assuming, without a second thought, that he would recover ahead of schedule, recover his greatness. After all, why would a human injury affect a man who isn’t human? It never stopped him before, playing through achy knees and multiple broken fingers.

The headliner from the piece though, the quote that has bandied about this week, is Kobe Bryant’s criticism of Miami Heat players for posting a photo of themselves on Instagram wearing hoodies in solidarity with Trayvon Martin. Kobe was responding to the notion that he should’ve done something as well, retorting that just because he is African-American he has no obligation to support all African-Americans. Using the language of a post-racial utopia, he says one has to look at the facts first.

He also spoke of his admiration for Seattle Seahawks corner back Richard Sherman, and sees Sherman as a kindred spirit displaying, “‘the truth of athletes at the highest, highest, highest level.’” When profile author Ben McGrath brings up how white people in particular reacted to Sherman’s post-NFC title game demonstrative statement, Kobe once again downplays race: “‘Even if it’s a white athlete that exploded like that…That was the ugliness of greatness. That’s what that is to me.”

Kobe has adopted an extremely naïve opinion on the importance of race. He seems to subscribe to a worldview where there exists such a thing as an objective fact, as if “facts” aren’t colored by numerous things, among them race. He doesn’t acknowledge that simply by being black in America, Trayvon Martin lost the battle of “facts” before it even began. His pooh-poohing of a race-based understanding of Sherman’s comments is inconsistent with the heavily racialized uproar that ensued.

The commentary on Kobe’s opinions on the Trayvon Martin case—including my colleague Jacob’s wonderfully written piece from last week—has focused on his identity as an African-American with a non-typical African-American upbringing in suburban Philadelphia and Italy. This imprinted upon him a complicated identity, not wholly American but certainly not Italian. This is what Jim Brown refers to when he says Kobe Bryant is, “somewhat confused about our culture”.

While Kobe’s cultural identity is certainly important—and something he brings up multiple times in the profile—these analyses based upon where he was raised miss out on fully understanding Kobe. I don’t think his stances on Richard Sherman or Trayvon Martin come from his different understanding of “African-American” from having grown up in Italy, but rather a rebellion against the idea that a person is how they were raised. I think Kobe is angry at not being party to this dialogue. He wants to reassert control over his own narrative, and not let it be defined by who he was 25 years ago.

***

Kobe Bryant has never been a pitchman in quite the same way as Michael Jordan or, more recently, LeBron James. Sure he spends his summers selling shoes in China and features in some commercials, but hypersaturating your consciousness with Kobe Bryant doesn’t fit the brand he has cultivated, the dark, mysterious, lethal Black Mamba. He isn’t in commercials riding his bike around or taking selfies with his Samsung ™ phone.

A cynical reading of the New Yorker profile is that Kobe granted access to change this, to boost his marketing credentials. You don’t grant wide-ranging access for the hell of it, because you believe in good journalism, but to get something out of it. The cynical reading says Kobe knows the end is nigh, and he is pivoting towards a post-basketball career. But it goes deeper than that.

Kobe Bryant has sold millions of sneakers, but not really. Nike has sold millions of sneakers with his name on them, with his face on the ads. Wkeden+Kennedy‘s brilliant ad executives come up with the commercial, and the director tells him where to go. He’s selling shoes but he’s not the one doing the selling, if that makes sense.

I don’t think Kobe is pivoting towards increased promotion, but attempting to reinvent a whole new Kobe, a Kobe he controls. He tells McGrath about his admiration of Giorgio Armani: “‘Giorgio Armani didn’t start Armani until he was forty. Forty! There’s such a life ahead.’” Armani isn’t admired only because he created a billion dollar business, but also because of when he started a billion dollar business. To Kobe, at 40 Armani left unknown-to-the-world Armani behind and was born anew as Giorgio Armani, fashion empire mogul.

Similarly, he tells of stopping in business classes at Boston College and the University of Miami on a recent road trip. I doubt there was value to him in an undergrad marketing class, especially once it became distracted by his presence. But it is another sign of Kobe owning his own person, ceasing to let others control his image and instead becoming educated enough to do it himself.

***

The logo for Kobe Bryant’s Nike gear is an abstract shape made up of six quadrilaterals in a vaguely triangle formation. He has explained that it represents the sheath of a samurai’s sword. Fascination with martial arts is a well Kobe has gone down before: “Black Mamba” is the name of Uma Thurman’s character in Quentin Tarantino’s homage to Japanese martial arts films. Perhaps I’m taking his marketing too seriously, but it makes sense to me that a samurai is how he sees himself, and thus projects accordingly. He’s dark, silent, mysterious, deadly, an assassin.

It is not a persona that lends itself well to McDonald’s commercials. It is not a persona that lends itself well to opening up and letting the public in. Indeed, for all the gallons of ink spilled upon Kobe Bryant, we don’t know too much about him as a person. In any case it doesn’t matter, as if the New Yorker profile is any indication, the person we do know is furiously trying to change that image.

Soon we will see Kobe Bryant as Kobe Bryant envisions, unshackled by the influence of his past.

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Games of the Week: March 31-April 6, 2014.

Opening Day for baseball. To those who were just biding time with the NBA until the National Pastime started up, I hope you enjoy your summer-long nap. We’ll wake you up when the NBA Finals start.

Monday: Milwaukee Bucks at Detroit Pistons (4:30 PM PST on League Pass)

I’ll be honest: tonight’s games are fire. Spurs versus Pacers is a sizzling late regular season game, especially now that the Pacers are coming apart a little bit, and Roy Hibbert has decided to throw his teammates under the bus. Raptors versus Heat is an excellent second round preview, as I have the Raptors listed as one of the teams who could upset the Heat in the second round. But tonight’s attention is going to be freely devoted to Bucks versus Pistons, who are ready to collide into each other and probably make a really big fart noise. I’ll tell you what: that Pistons’ loss to the Sixers was one of the biggest statement losses in recent memory. That team needed to step up and lose that game, and they did so, no questions asked.

Tuesday: Golden State Warriors at Dallas Mavericks (5:30 PM PST on League Pass)

The Homer Game of the Week comes early — a gritty matchup versus my beloved Golden State Warriors and our longtime rivals, the Dallas Mavericks. You and I both know that the Warriors dropped another one of those “should really win” games at home against the Knicks last night; another unfortunate event in the strange timeline of the Warriors 2013-2014 season. The Knicks loss joins strange home losses against the Cavs, Wizards, Bobcats, Spurs…you’ve heard the list by now. A team that is capable of beating anyone, and losing to anyone as well, does not make for clean prognoses about playoff success (or even qualification). So, accordingly, this is a big week. After this game, there’s a game the next night against the Spurs, before a weekend home-stand against the Kings and the Jazz. 2-2 would be an acceptable record for the week. It just depends which games we win and which games we lose, I suppose.

Wednesday: Brooklyn Nets at New York Knicks (4:00 PM PST on ESPN)

It took us until April, but we finally have a “Battle of the Boroughs” that has some actual meaning. The Knicks — who have no lottery pick in the upcoming draft, even if they finish in the bottom-13 — must make the playoffs. A stinky mix of stellar ‘Bocker basketball, plus Hawks suckiness, has put the Knicks within a half game of the final playoff spot. Of course, that means nearly every game from here-on-out is a “must win,” including this midweek fete against the Nets. I know I’ve thrown a ton of shade at the Knicks this season, but after the loss to the Warriors last night, I have been reminded that their players can compete and work together as a team. This game has some huge implications; not just for the Knicks playoff hopes this season, but for how we remember this particular Knicks team, and this very intriguing Knicks season.

Thursday: San Antonio Spurs at Oklahoma City Thunder (5:00 PM PST on TNT)

Not a lot to say about this one, especially at this point in the season. First in the conference versus second in the conference. Good teams, good players, good previous history, good times. Let’s all watch it together, shall we?

Friday: Cleveland Cavaliers at Atlanta Hawks (4:30 PM PST on League Pass)

I tried to ignore the Cavs for the rest of the season. I really did. Their fate seemed sealed; the dream deferred for another year. But then the Hawks started to fall apart, and the Cavs were given new life as a potential playoff team. So here we are: watching Cavaliers versus Hawks on a Friday night, in the quest to see who will become fodder for the Pacers or Heat in the first round. Forget about re-evaluating the Cavs. I think I need to re-evaluate myself.

Saturday: Chicago Bulls at Washington Wizards (4:00 PM PST on League Pass)

It’s interesting; whenever I read about the Wizards, they are described with language that is typically reserved for “bad” teams. And yes, the team is only three games over .500; a spongy record for a team that is entering the playoffs. But the facts are that the Wizards have beat some excellent teams this season — the Warriors, Thunder, Pacers and Heat can attest to this — and they have had several opportunities to join their Leastern counterparts, and sink towards the depths of the Association, and they have not. So no, they are not the best team in the NBA. But they are far from the worst, and this matchup between the Bulls and Wizards is a playoff matchup. So take THAT, haters. You can see my self-righteousness from here.

Sunday: Memphis Grizzlies at San Antonio Spurs (4:00 PM PST on League Pass)

The ABC games aren’t really floating my boat this week. Miami versus New York is tired, and Clippers versus Lakers is damn near insulting. But the NBA schedule makers are going to reward the die-hard fan with a Grizzlies versus Spurs; a gift for the truly faithful. And my, am I excited. Depending on how the Warriors-Spurs game goes this week, I may be counting on the Grizzlies to deliver some retribution for me. But if they’re trying to get our sixth spot, then I’ll be hoping for the Spurs to do the Lord’s work. It’s just nice to be thinking about playoff seeding at all. This is a game that has meaningful implications for just about everyone in the Western conference hoping to go to the playoffs. It’s nice to be included in that conversation.

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Diss Guy Miss Guy, Vol. 71: Special Kobe Bean Bryant Edition

Diss Guy & Miss Guy: Kobe Bean Bryant

My favorite image of Kobe Bryant is the image you see above. It is the iconic print by Jacob Weinstein created for Kobe’s section in Bethlehem Shoals et. al.’s FreeDarko Presents: The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac. In the picture, Kobe is seen trying to construct a model wooden ship in a jar. His face is rapt with attention, and his body is positioned uncomfortably in a cheap-looking office chair. The ship he is building seems to be nearly complete, replete with tiny riggings and masts, and sharply-creased sales sitting proudly at attention. However, the floor beneath his feet is a disaster; a bloody massacre of broken model ships, with balsa wood and glass shattered all over the monochromatic floor. On the opening page of the entry, Shoals cuts to the core of Kobe, provides us with excellent encapsulations of Kobe that remain true today, nearly 10 years after the publication of the Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac. “No superstar has cut a stormier path through his era than Kobe Bean Bryant,” write Shoals, adding that he “may be the Great American Shooting Guard,” but that “he has spent his whole life aspiring to this kind of abstract dignity.” Shoals directs our attention towards American magnum opuses, and offers that “just as Moby Dick defines our national literature despite its rollicking imperfections, Kobe’s drives and desires have made him equal parts pristine legend and unwieldy mess of humanity.” On the entry’s sidebar, Shoals argues that the discipline of deconstructing Kobe is driven by an extremism between polar sides of a spectrum. “Where others see only their love or hate for Kobe,” he writes, “we see a complex mess of a man’s best and worst qualities.”

This “complex mess” — the term Shoals uses to describe the existence of Kobe in our own lives — has been put on full display over the last few days. Kobe recently did an interview with The New Yorker, and snippets of that interview have been leaked as excerpts to the general public. Kobe speaks about a lot of things in this “wide-ranging” interview (is any interview “narrowly-focused”?), but most attention has been paid to his comments about African-American identity, specifically as it relates to the shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin, and the trial (and subsequent acquittal) of his killer, George Zimmerman. According to the excerpts, Kobe offers a cool view of the outcry around the wrongful death of Martin, and focuses on the Miami Heat’s hoodie-picture protest as emblematic of his critical views. Kobe is worth quoting at length here, without additional commentary from myself:

I won’t react to something just because I’m supposed to, because I’m an African-American..that argument doesn’t make any sense to me. So we want to advance as a society and a culture, but, say, if something happens to an African-American we immediately come to his defense? Yet you want to talk about how far we’ve progressed as a society? Well, we’ve progressed as a society, then don’t jump to somebody’s defense just because they’re African-American. You sit and you listen to the facts just like you would in any other situation, right? So I won’t assert myself.

Of course, the comments were not received well, and criticism came from multiple angles and individuals. In general, the criticism touched on many gray areas revealed in Kobe’s incisive comments, which illustrated Kobe’s rather spongy views on race, identity, and politics. Many referenced December 2013 comments made by seminal athlete, activist and cultural icon Jim Brown’s takes, which focused on Kobe’s positionality as a black man who spent his formative years outside of the United States (and who garnered an angry response from Kobe). Additionally, in response to Kobe’s comments, civil rights activist Najee Ali, director of Project Islamic H.O.P.E., angrily called for “African-American youth” to “no longer buy Bryant’s jerseys or shoes” and “boycott all products he endorses.” The justification, according to Ali, was simple: “Bryant doesn’t identify with the struggle that our African-American youth face nationally. So why should we continue to support Bryant who has never truly identified with the African American experience?”

Jamilah King of NPR’s Colorlines took exception to what she termed as Kobe’s “stingy insistence on clinging to a ‘post-racial’ identity,” and defined as an “old, conservative notion that black people should not be treated differently in this country —  despite all of the evidence, like Martin’s death, that they are.” And finally, Yesha Callahan of Clutch Magazine decried Kobe’s failure to look outside the failures of the system, and instead recognize who he is: a black man who himself was accused of raping a woman. The anger in Callahan’s voice is clear as she lambast Kobe for his hypocritical comments about Martin, as she labels him a traitor and a rapist: “The irony, is that people jumped to Trayvon’s defense, because he was murdered by a trigger happy asshole and it showed just how invaluable a black child’s life is. But it’s obvious that Bryant forgot how quick people jumped to his defense during his rape case.  But of course Rapey Bryant  didn’t mention any of that.” Clearly, the comments struck an emotional nerve with a large part of the African-American intelligensia online.

Never one to be labeled “incorrect”, Kobe took to the great defense stand of modernity — Twitter– to explain himself. In his first tweet, he again redirected the discussion of the celebrity case away from questions of race and identity, and back towards Kobe’s insistence that “facts” justify the outcry over Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal. The next day, he linked his political worldview with his racial worldview, explaining (in 140 characters or less) that in an ideal society, that identity really doesn’t matter, and that everyone is hashtag colorblind, and hashtag genderblind. Between the two — and his inclusion of standard-issue liberal/reformist leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela in his response to Jim Brown’s questions of his allegiance to his African-American identity — highlights that Kobe’s focus is not on parsing out the messy history of oppression of blacks in America, but rather, moving forward towards that crown jewel of the crown of liberalism: the post-racial, gender-blind society.

Now, it’s clear that these quotes make us feel some type of way. The agitated responses above illustrate this, and indeed, it’s very difficult to totally support Kobe in his purposeful overlooking of race, not just in his comments about Martin and Zimmerman, but also in regards to his own identity. In regards to his views on the death of Trayvon Martin, Kobe’s insistence on focusing on the “facts” directly conflicts with the actualities of the Zimmerman case. Kobe’s point of view seems largely in line with others who feel that Zimmerman got away with murder, or at the very least, that Martin’s death is indicative of patterns of racial violence in America. What is perverted is his reasoning that the “facts” can be separated from larger questions about race. Contrary to Kobe’s perspective, public outcry of around Zimmerman’s acquittal is focused on the jury’s reading of the prosecution’s presentation of the “facts”, and the prevailing feeling that the “Stand Your Ground Law” is being used as an excuse for a racially-motivated murder. Additionally, Kobe’s refusal to support the Miami Heat’s (admittedly soft) form of protest, which depicted the African-American members of the team wearing black hooded sweatshirts in solidarity with Martin’s family, is a personal choice, but unmistakably disappointing as well.

Kevin wrote about this nearly two years ago, when he applauded LeBron for making an overt political statement about Trayvon Martin, and compared this act to anti-political statements Michael Jordan made in the 1980s where he asserted that the last thing a marketing giant wants to do is make a firm political stance. In many ways, the same sentiment exists for Kobe, who opts to look towards a mythical post-racial society that will not exist as long as America remains America. Kobe’s focus has, and always been, on his brand and legacy, and taking a middle path works well for investors. In his view, he both champions racial equality, while stating that the system does not work. Such problematic safeness doesn’t get high marks here at The Diss, and for these reasons, he wears the Miss Guy label.

However, as Shoals said back in 2008, the mess surrounding Kobe is a complex one, and his complicated views on race, as well as his own identity, are worth deconstructing further. While it is clear that Kobe has no doubts about who he is — “I’m an African-American,” he says in the interview — his critics seem to question his own ability to identify with the struggles of the African-American community. According to their calculuses, an opinion that deviates from the perspective of the united front against racism and racial violence shows a lack of solidarity with the movement, and by extension, his own racial identity. It is unsurprising that their critiques drift into questions of authenticity, and whether Kobe’s life as a wealthy, traveled African-American can be seen as legitimate when he offers opinions on blackness and the African-American experience.

In the critiques, we get an implication that Kobe’s view of blackness is not correct, or even more damning, not authentic. We see this in Jim Brown’s strangely xenophobic accusation that Kobe’s childhood spent abroad makes him less “African-American” than someone who matches his own conception of what that particular type of experience is supposed to look like. It is apparent in Yesha Callahan’s critique of Kobe, where she calls-out Kobe’s childhood spent in suburban Philadelphia (his father played for the Sixers), and uses it as a way (really, a weapon) to question his legacy as a basketball player. “Bryant loves to brag about how he was raised in Italy and the suburbs of Philly, as if it sets him apart from other black men in this country,” she writes. ”But what he fails to realize is that no matter how many rings he has, thanks in part to Shaq, in certain people’s eyes, he’s just a n-word that can shoot a ball in a basket. He needs to keep his social commentary to himself.” In these comments, we see a troubling theme, and perhaps an even more troubling implication: that Kobe’s own upbringing does not qualify as a truly “African-American” experience, and as such, that his opinion, and perhaps his existence, should be viewed as wholly incongruent with that of black American, and perhaps among African-Americans everywhere.

I have watched Kobe Bryant for many years now, and like most of my peers, have a very complicated relationship with the man. Most of the time he has been cast as a foe, described by words such as “killer”, and tasked with ending a preferred-team’s dreams. Many moments stick out in my mind that seem to define Kobe for me, but one clamors for attention more than the others. It dates back to 2002, when a much younger, greener Kobe won his first All-Star MVP in Philadelphia. One forgets that Kobe haters used to decry Kobe’s youthful smugness — this was long before he faced rape allegations, as well as a public  that largely assumed that the system had failed in establishing his guilt — and this All-Star MVP, as well as his championship rings from the prior two seasons, seemed to announce his arrival as a bona fide superstar in the NBA, and perhaps the best player on a team that also featured Shaquille O’Neal. Kobe was excellent in the game — he scored 31 points, had 5 rebounds and 5 assists –which he felt he played in front of his hometown crowd, where his father had once been a fan favorite.

However, the Philadelphia fans booed Bryant lustily, their howls echoing off the bulwarks of the Wells Fargo Center. Much of it was certainly due to the fact that Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers had defeated Allen Iverson’s Sixers in the NBA Finals the previous summer. But much of it was issued as an indictment of Kobe’s proclaimed Philadelphia-ness; his authenticity as a local. In their boos, their message was clear: you’re not one of us. You’re an outsider. And as the boos rained down, and a look of hurt came across Kobe’s face, I placed a timestamp on that moment. For the first time, I saw something besides what I perceived to be smugness and invincibility; the assumption that he would be excellent forever. Instead, I saw vulnerability, I saw an unsureness I had never seen before. You can see it above. Kobe’s smile is weak, and his lips are quivering as he half-heartedly holds the MVP trophy above his head, and a place that he called home let him know that he wasn’t part of the club. And since then, as each season passes, the Kobe I see seems more dark and isolated, more defensive of what he is, and what he means. He seems to have far more foes than friends. This has been the case for many years now.

Kobe Bean Bryant has long been lambasted for not being something that we’ve always wanted him to be. We have wanted him to fall in line with a particular image of something — a sidekick, a superstar, a global icon, a leader, a husband, a teammate, an all-time great — and year after year, he has not met that expectation. In the early part of his career, he was held accountable for not being the authentic heir to Jordan we always wanted. In the latter parts of his career, he has been indicted for not being LeBron. In a long line of individuals whose statures are elevated to represent the NBA product as a whole, Kobe’s presence is perhaps the most uncomfortable. He has not been able to follow the line-of-best-fit for a myriad of aspects of his personal and professional life, and he has largely been held accountable. There is a long history of Kobe being linked with inauthenticity; of being a troubling counterpoint to a prevailing narrative. In many ways, it is unsurprising that for some, his African-American experience makes his opinion as an African-American illegitimate. Because his experience was unlike Jim Brown’s, Trayvon Martin’s, or any other black male’s experience, which is based upon environment, upbringing and access to opportunity, it is disqualified. It is the unfortunate given of Kobe; a ragged storyline that follows him like a shadow.

It’s instances like these that bring me back to the image that leads off this piece; FreeDarko’s iconic image Kobe attempting to complete his impossibly-detailed model ship, arrayed neatly in its glass vessel. While Kobe himself is focused entirely on completing the ship in the bottle, our eyes are drawn to the entirety of the picture, the bleak carnage strewn about the floor. Those broken ships on the floor — each one still clinging onto beautiful little riggings and masts, even as they lie as rubble on the teal — seem to be the versions of his legacy and identity that did not meet his approval, and were deemed unfit to live. In each ship, there was a flaw that was only seen by him, and him alone. The failed ships perhaps have names that only Kobe could see emblazoned on their hulls, names like “USS Sidekick” or the “HMS Inefficiency”; ships that are steered by false navigators, who question the experience of the vessel’s engineer. Only Kobe can represent Kobe; there is no one else who can tell him what is right, and what is wrong. Those moments lay on the floor, their existences disregarded.  And we don’t know what is going to happen in the next moment. Will Kobe be satisfied with his product, an authentic representation of his identity and experience? Or will he deem this, too, to be unrepresentative of who he truly is, and smash it on the floor in a fit of rage?

For me, that question, and that assertion — that there is no one way to look at something, that opinions can be held strongly, and that experience is only lived by the person who is living it — is what has made Kobe so compelling over the years, whether he is playing the role of a friend, or a foe. And in my mind, perhaps that’s worthy of being a Diss Guy. That sort of stubbornness, that “complex mix of a man’s worst qualities”; a steadfast feeling that authenticity is in the eye of the beholder, makes Kobe a person worth considering with an open mind, even if his tiny ships are broken all over the floor.

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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.