Monday, June 13, 2011

Giving the NBA Another Try.

Last week Bill Simmons wrote an article describing his new-found love of hockey after years of indifference living in Boston and following the Boston Bruins. His article was thoroughly enjoyable, and also inspired me to do some soul-searching of my own. No this is not a hockey piece, and anybody expecting quips about the SJHL, NHL or hockey need not read this, unless you embrace the sport of basketball. If so, than this might be right up your alley.

Growing up in the Greater Vancouver area, I admit that basketball was hardly forced down my throat as a youth. Sure we played in the school-yard, and my classmates would wear Michael Jordan t-shirts and Nike shoes. But the Vancouver Canucks were the only show in town, and hockey was (and still is) life. It was the be-all end-all sport, and no sport could touch it.

Maybe it was out of boredom, or possibly by chance, but I remember watching bits and pieces of the 1994 NBA Finals. I remember watching the Houston Rockets led by Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Vernon Maxwell take on Patrick Ewing, John Starks and the New York Knicks. As the series progressed I got more and more into it, and after watching Houston beat New York in Game Seven I was left with two prominent thoughts:

1) "I'm glad New York didn't win the NBA Finals too." - This coming from a die-hard Canuck's fan who was still choked at the 1994 Stanley Cup Final.

2) "I think I want to buy a pack of basketball cards."

A year later the Canucks were still legitimate, but they were bounced by Chicago in the playoffs in Round Two. The absence of Canuck's hockey left me watching more and more basketball. Michael Jordan had returned to the game and was dominant. The New York Knicks had a great rivalry going with Indiana, and I was smitten with the Orlando Magic and the tandem of Shaquille O'Neal and Anfernee Hardaway. I still remember watching Houston beat Orlando in the finals that year and seeing Shaq crying as he walked back to the locker-room. Thankfully I did not do the same.

My knowledge of the sport was growing, and grew ten-fold with the arrival of the Vancouver Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors. How cool was this?! An NBA team in Vancouver! A chance for me to watch Shaq, Reggie Miller, Shawn Kemp, David Robinson, and Patrick Ewing live!

While the Vancouver Canucks started to unravel from 1995 onward, the NBA became my new fascination. I would get to school at 8:30 every morning to shoot hoops with my friends. My allowance was spent on basketball cards, and instead of shelling out money for NHL tickets (thanks to the lockout), my Dad and I went to watch the Vancouver Grizzlies in 95-96.

We're all aware of how bad the Grizzlies were, and my Dad and I knew that heading to G.M. Place likely meant certain defeat for the Grizzlies. However season one did provide some entertaining moments. I'll never forget watching Byron Scott hitting two clutch free-throws in the final seconds, helping Vancouver to an 84-80 victory over the New York Knicks. That victory snapped a 22-game losing streak for the Grizzlies and helped them avoid the history books for the wrong reasons.

But I didn't only watch the Grizzlies. I would watch any game available to me. I could name the starting five for most teams, and I made sure that I had the most NBA jerseys out of all my classmates. No joke I had a jersey for every day of the week. I assure you that I was the only fifth-grader in B.C. that owned a Dikembe Mutumbo Denver Nugget's jersey.

Even as the Grizzlies continued to lose miserably they still provided a ton of entertainment. Shareef Abdul-Rahim and Bryant Reeves provided some highlight-reel plays, and youthful prospects like Mike Bibby, and Antonio Daniels provided the necessary optimism to continue cheering them on.

While the Grizzlies kept losing games, the Chicago Bulls kept winning championships. Even though the Bulls were dominant, the game still had plenty of parity, and stars like Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Shaq and of course Michael Jordan provided plenty of reasons to continue watching.

However in 1999 things changed. I was now old enough to understand the politics of sports a little more, and I remember screaming bloody murder at the television on the day that the Grizzlies drafted Maryland point-guard Steve Francis with the second-overall pick in the draft.

This trade (in my opinion) created the eventual un-doing of the Grizzlies.

For anybody not familiar with the situation, here's what happened.

Vancouver had previously drafted point-guards Antonio Daniels (1997) and Mike Bibby (1998) in the first round of the NBA Draft. Daniels was something of a bust, but Bibby was exciting, consistent and what many considered to be a 'main-stay' in Vancouver's back-court.

For reasons that still to this day defy explanation, the Grizzlies had expressed great interest in drafting point-guard Steve Francis second-overall in the draft. Francis publicly stated that he did not want to play in Vancouver for these reasons:

- The Grizzlies have a point-guard.
- It's too far away from Maryland.
- Endorsement-wise it was not a good fit.

Meanwhile forward Lamar Odom had expressed great interest in playing in Vancouver and would have been a great compliment up-front with Shareef Abdul-Rahim and Bryant Reeves. They Grizzlies could have also drafted the likes of: Richard Hamilton, Shawn Marion or better yet they could have dealt the pick to add some size and depth.

Sure enough, Stu Jackson drafted Francis and traded him before he even played a game in Vancouver. He sent Francis to Houston in exchange for Small-Forward Michael Dickerson, some spare parts and some draft-picks that the Grizzlies subsuquently wasted.

Poor basketball decisions coupled with a weak Canadian dollar, a jack-ass owner and a constant loser did not mix well with the previously loyal contingent of fans in Vancouver. To nobody's real surprise the team was shipped away to Memphis in 2001 and basketball has been an after-thought in Vancouver ever since.

Even when the Grizzlies left, I still felt a glimmer of loyalty to the NBA because of the Super Sonics and they're close proximity to B.C. But that changed when they're ownership turned murky. Add the fact that the Vancouver Canucks were once again competitive, and NBA players were making more headlines off the court than on it. I was fed up. The Sonics were relocated to Oklahoma City in 2007 and I was done. Finished. The two teams I cheered for had both left, and I had no real vested interest in the NBA anymore. Sure I kept tabs on who the best teams and players were, but the only time I truly acknowledged the NBA was during vacations in Miami and Phoenix. I admit that I always rooted for Steve Nash, but even that was more for band-wagon purposes.

Then about a year ago The Decision happened. Lebron James went on National television and told the world that he was, "Taking his talents to South Beach to join the Miami Heat." He would be joining his pal Dwayne Wade, and shortly thereafter it was announced that ex-Raptor Chris Bosh would join in on the party. It was a dynasty in the making! Three of the NBA's top players on one team. How could they lose?

While fans in Miami were elated, the rest of the sporting world was pissed. Who did Lebron James think he was? He's a true talent, but had never been able to lead Cleveland to a championship. Then he joins Miami and the 'Big-Three' start talking about all of the championships they were going to win, like it's something that's easy to do.

I couldn't help but think about guys like Karl Malone, Gary Payton, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Reggie Miller, and Steve Nash are all infamous NBA players who are 'ringless.' How do you think they feel about Lebron, Wade and Bosh predicting a dynasty before it happens.

More importantly the NBA was worth following again. Why? Because the NBA had a villain. The whole premise of the 2010-2011 season was simple: Either somebody will Beat the Heat and embarrass Lebron, or the 'Big-Three' would find a way to win and the dynasty would begin.

As expected the Heat rolled through the NBA's Eastern Conference playoffs with relative ease. They took care of Philly, Boston and Chicago with little difficulty and found themselves in the NBA finals against a plucky Dallas Mavericks group that had a combined ZERO championships between the 12 of them.

While Miami had three stars, Dallas had one. A seven-foot German named Dirk Nowitski who had played 13 years without a championship. Another name that would one day be added to the list of Hall-of-Famers to never win the big one.

Miami wins Game one at home with relative ease. Dallas takes Game Two in dramatic fashion with one of the most improbable comebacks in NBA playoff history. All of a sudden my interest is peaked again. Did they really just go on a 20-2 run to tie the series?

My interest faded again after Miami won Game Three in Dallas. But then Dallas bounced back with a win in Game Four and then grabbed the series lead with another home victory in Game Five. Dirk Nowitski couldn't miss, while Lebron James couldn't come through in the clutch. Heading into Game Six, James had only 11 fourth-quarter points in the past three games. Dirk Nowitski was out-playing all three superstars, and did so in Game Four with a nasty sinus-infection.

Before Game Five, Dwayen Wade and Lebron James mocked Dirk Nowitski's illness by "faking" sickness before the game. As they walked to their locker-room they jokingly covered their mouths and coughed and giggled in front of the camera. Nowitski took the high-road and told his teammates not to say anything about their antics. In Game Five he let his play do the talking and his team had a 3-2 series lead.

Last night at 6:00 my finance and I sat in front of the T.V. and turned on the game. I told myself that I was going to watch the game in it's entirety and do my best to 'be a fan' again. It turns out that the Dallas Mavericks made it very easy for me.

Even with Dirk Nowitski going one-for-12 in the first-half the Mavs were leading. Jason Terry was shooting the lights out, JJ Barea was a true spark-plug and the Miami Heat seemed nervous and on-edge.

Dirk bounced back in the third quarter with eight points, and the Miami Heat could not get any sustained pressure going. Better yet, when Dallas made clutch baskets I found myself cheering out-loud and fist-pumping their success. I was glued to the TV for every possession, and once the fourth quarter rolled around my fist-pumps turned into loud statements directed at the TV.

"C'mon Dirk! You have to make that shot!" or "Lebron just turned it over again!" were common statements. The fiance was half-watching and kept laughing at my reaction to the various plays. Sometimes she would look up from her lap-top and ask me a question or uttera funny statement:

Julie: Who's that Guy?

Me: That's Mark Cuban. He owns the Mavericks. He's so rich it's disgusting.


Julie: Oh my God! That guy's so short! (Pointing at Jason Terry when he was celebrating with Dirk).


Julie: Ahh! I'm so happy the Heat lost! Lebron James is a douche-bag. (That's why I'm marrying her folks.)


Julie: Where the hell is he going? (Asking why Dirk walked to the dressing-room right after the game was over).

The worst part about last night's game was the celebration itself. The game ended and everything was so subdued. Lebron and Bosh cried, Mark Cuban jumped up and down, and then decided that he didn't want to answer any questions on the podium.

All of that aside, the plucky underdogs defeated the favored villians and in doing so the Mavericks won their first NBA Championship ever. It was great to see players like Jason Kidd, Dirk Nowitski and Jason Terry win their first ring, and even greater to see Lebron James humbled at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks.

Will the Heat be able to rise up and win the big one? Time will tell I guess. But the important thing is that I WILL be watching it all unfold.

I forgive the NBA for stealing the Grizzlies away from me, and I thank the NBA karma-police for allowing the underdog to win. Now I just need to pick a favourite team and stick with them, at least until Vancouver gets a team back. Hey, if the Mavs can beat the Heat in six, then anything is possible.

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