After 22 years of fetching it from my driveway every morning, I finally took the plunge about six months ago and canceled delivery of our daily local newspaper. I felt empoweredlike I had quit smoking, or finally told the boss where he and his sorry management style could go. I smiled about it all that week.
I'd wanted to pull the plug for a long time. Except for sports and movie listings, I found less and less to read that wasn't already in The New York Times, and I could get sports and movie listings online. Some Sundays, I spent almost as much time culling the dandelionsthose pesky advertising insertsas it took me to read the non-sports parts of the newspaper.
After I went cold turkey on the daily (which gave me an extra three minutes to think each morning), I realized that the same centrifugal forcethe force of habithad been holding me to the NBA for the past few years. Each year, it seemed, my interest waned a little further. It declined in direct proportion to lower shooting percentages, dwindling point-per-game totals, and a general flow to the game, compared to the halcyon days of Magic and Bird, that looked like the Titans' offensive line trying to perform Swan Lake.
Just like the daily paper, the NBA claimed it was getting better and better. But every year, it was worse and worse, as the league and NBC kept trying to market one bogus heir to Michael Jordan after another, instead of working on the overall game. Unlike the newspaper, I couldn't manage to cancel my subscription to pro basketball. I was too addicted. Each fresh fix was less satisfying, but I couldn't quit.
This year, something weird has happened. The NBA is getting better. Or at least it's more satisfying when I take the drug. I'm almost lovin' this game.
I know, I know. There's still a lot to dislike: too much clanging, excessive banging, too much grinding half-court offense. Yet I'm seeing hopeful signs. Here are eight of them:
The Phoenix Suns. They may not run quite like the '85 Lakers or the '76 Celtics, but Phoenix is easily this year's most fun team to watch. And Steve Nash and Amare Stoudamire are easily the most fun players. Nash, the longhaired little engine that couldn't stop running, is a more elusive attacker than Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, and without the wires. Stoudamire, just three years removed from high school, is an undersized post player whose authoritative dunks make opposing fans go "ooh" several times each game. Together, they helped the Suns rack up the best record in the NBA while raising the scoring average of the whole league.
Shaq is back. When Shaq's having fun, everybody can have fun, including the fans. The past two years in L.A. weren't much fun for the Big Man, who generally approaches life with the slobbery enthusiasm of an untrained puppy. After he escaped to Miami, Shaq had something to prove, just in case Kobe's sniping had made anyone doubt that O'Neal was too fat and lazy to win a title without him. Shaq not only turned the Heat into the best team in the East, he has made everyone around him betterespecially Dwayne Wade, who has enjoyed one of the best playoff scoring runs in the league's history. Don't be surprised if Shaq pulls off the rarest of feats: carrying three different teams on his enormous shoulders to the NBA Finals.
Manu and Tony. Tim Duncan is the most versatile center in the game todayand second only to Shaq as the player to build a team around. But the guys who make an otherwise plodding San Antonio team exciting to watch are the foreign imports: Manu Ginobili, who helped Argentina take the Olympic gold medal, and Tony Parker, France's best export to America since Lafayette. Parker is a roadrunner who blows by defenders so fast that you almost expect to hear a taunting "meep-meep" as he darts into the paint. Ginobili is a dervish. He's the Jackie Chan of the NBA. For him, no move is too daring or improbable. He harasses opponents. He takes pratfalls. He never stops running. Why doesn't America produce more guys like this?
Kobe is home. And that's tonic for the league, even though Kobe had been the Anointed One until the arrival of LeBron James. Without Shaq, the underrated Derek Fisher and old hands like Rick Fox and Robert Horry, the Lakers missed the playoffs for the first time since Bryant was a gleam in his own eye. As a result, we missed hearing even more about the Lakers' ongoing soap opera and Kobe's ongoing image problem. And, somehow, it seemed that a little justice was served on the egomaniac player who convinced the water-on-the-brainiac owner to jettison one of the game's greatest coaches and one of history's most dominating players so he could have the club all to himself.
Jeff Van Gundy. Last time we remember seeing the diminutive but spunky Van Gundy, as coach of the Knicks, he was clinging like a poodle to the leg of Alonzo Mourning during a bench-clearing brawl. Now, Jeff has resurfaced with the same fire in Houston. And, once again, he showed he wasn't afraid to pick a fight with a giantthis time, NBA Commissioner David Stern, who fined VG $100,000 for refusing to reveal the name of the ref who allegedly told him that the zebras were blowing extra whistles on the Rockets' Yao Ming. In the face of a Stern warning that he risked losing his job, Van Gundy stood his ground. Good for the little guy.
Avery Johnson. Meanwhile, up the road in Dallas, the apprentice-turned-rookie-head coach keeps defying expectations. Once, no one thought he could playuntil he hit the shot that clinched a championship for the Spurs. Then, when Don Nelson stepped down and gave the reins to Johnson, his assistant, most of the Geniuses assumed the rebuilt Mavs would tank. Instead, they seem to have received a personality transplant from their plucky coach, who is a breath of fresh air both in the interview room and on the sidelines, where he's been heard to give his players instructions like, "Have fun." Under his guidance, the Mavericks beat Houston after dropping the first two games at home and (as of press time) were surprisingly tied 2-2 with Phoenix.
The Artest-less Pacers. After their kung-fu foray into the crowd at Detroit early this season, whoda thunk that the Indianapolis Pacers would become the feel-good story of the NBA? Yet here they are. Despite more long suspensions than the Brooklyn Bridge, the Pacersminus their leading scorer, the combustible Ron Artestrighted themselves and are in position to reach the Eastern Conference Finals. More shocking yet, the Pacers-Pistons series has been a model of civility. Even Rasheed Wallace has (mostly) behaved. Memo to media: check alignment of planets. Memo to Larry J. Bird: how about voluntarily suspending Artest for all of next year, too.
Sir Charles. It goes without sayingwell, with Charles Barkley, nothing goes without saying. He'll say things that everyone knows but no career-minded broadcaster would dare say on the air. That's exactly why he's the most entertaining TV commentator on any big-league sport. He makes the halftime studio segments more entertaining than most of the games he watches. He'd be even better paired at courtside with Marv Albert. Hell, I'd watch him handle Monday Night Football. And if Sir Charles ever decides to run for a Senate seat from Alabama, my campaign contribution is in the mail. Once he got going, not even all the sergeants-at-arms, much less some mere Senate rules, would be able to stop a filibuster by Senator Bread Truck.