The date has recently changed from June 20 to June 21, and with the clock reading triple zero on Game 7, the 2013 NBA Season has ended and the first day of the 2014 season and another year of Miami supremacy has begun. Sometime in this transition….
Tracy McGrady is walking off the court after failing again to capture a ring. He’s tagged along for the last couple months on the San Antonio Spurs’ Swan Song because he was willing to do what Stephen Jackson would not: sit on the bench and dodge Patty Mills’ flailing towel. Ten years ago, in a different generation of ball players, when LeBron James was just leaving high school, Tracy McGrady ruled the NBA, as did the three legends that he now shares a uniform with. Now, even though he’s only three years older than Dwyane Wade, his career ungracefully edges closer to its conclusion. On his way off the court, he briefly hugs the best basketball player in the world, a title that for a short moment in time he himself might have once laid claim to. But LeBron is of little consequence to him. Right now he just wants to get off the court after another season ends with a loss.
LeBron James is not ready to get off the court. He is ecstatic. Someway, somehow, he has managed to lead his team from the brink of failure to a second straight championship. After three years of near-constant pressure and scrutiny, he is able to tell the world that he ain’t got no worries. In the 2011 Finals, the kind of pressure he had just overcome in a thrilling 48 minutes of basketball following an emotional vertigo in Game 6 would have forced him to crumble. Now the best player in the world knows he’s the best player in the world, and he can breath a deep sigh of relief as he allows his mind to clear out all the stress of these playoffs and fill with the joy of accomplishment.
A few minutes before, the always stoic Tim Duncan had embraced an emotional LeBron before walking off the court. LeBron had held on to Duncan for longer than the normal post-game bro hug, as if refusing to let a leader of the previous generation descend to the locker room as he, the greatest player of this generation, ascended to the trophy presentation. Now the Big Fundamental is sitting at the podium answering questions from sports reporters. When asked how losing this Finals feels after being so close to winning with a very special team, he is visibly upset. Tim Duncan brings a lot of things to the table; outward emotion is not one of them. But now, after coming so close to finally winning his fifth ring with his brothers from other mothers of slightly different colors, he has to fight back tears. Then he is asked if he will retire, and he fights back more tears and a degree of anger as he answers that his contract says he’s supposed to play next year. Then the reporter asks “if he will be back next year”. Tim does not understand who “he” is, and says “I’m sorry?” in a quivering voice. The reporter clarifies his microphone sabotaged question with the word, “Manu”.
Manu Ginobili has won three championships. He is the greatest Argentinean basketball player ever. He made the scoring sixth man (James Harden, Kevin Martin, Jamal Crawford, J.R. Smith, etc.) a popular schematic, he innovated the euro-step and flopping, and helped open the door for South American ballers. His international career playing for Argentina is unmatched. He is one of the best passers in basketball. And now, after struggling for most of the postseason, after dominating Game 5 to chants of “Manu! Manu!” and after turning the ball over 8 times in Game 6 and missing a crucial free throw, a few late turnovers overshadow what was a very fine game from Ginobili. Now he must contemplate retirement at the age of 35, and an injury-plagued 35 at that. He sits down in the locker room next to his exhausted point guard and frère d’armes.
Tony Parker doesn’t quite know what to think. After his miraculous shot in Game 1 and a dominant performance for the first five games of the series, his production unexpectedly tailed off, mostly due to the presence of the king on his court. Despite not winning the championship, he had done enough for people to begin to name him as the best point guard in the NBA instead of that guy from the State Farm commercials. And despite the fact that he already has three rings, this loss feels different in a way. Just like being the ex-husband of Eva Longoria means much less than being the husband of Eva Longoria, winning championships in ’03, ’05, and ’07 sounds a lot better than winning the championship in ’03, ’05, and ’07 and losing in 2013. After six years of disappointment, Parker had led his team back to where they belong and come within a few free throws or one Ray Allen jump shot from bringing the trophy back to San Antonio. Now the future is uncertain. Parker is still in his prime, but his two future Hall of Fame teammates are aging. Is it possible that they can try this one more time?
Dwyane Wade isn’t thinking about one more time. He’s thinking about three. As he sits down at the post-game press conference with extreme giddiness, he implores the reporters to refer to him as “three” (this coming from the guy who wanted us to call him WOW). He has orchestrated the ultimate coup d’etat of NBA power by recruiting a superpower that has in the past two seasons defeated the second best player in the NBA and arguably the best franchise in North American sports for the last fifteen years. He is being called an unselfish superstar, his knees are an excuse when he plays badly and a magnifier when he plays well, and he has full custody of his two sons. He’s one of the greatest 2-guards to ever play and he has three rings. But now with the ultimate weapon playing alongside him, possibly until his retirement, and time to fix his ailing knees, Dwyane Wade isn’t thinking about three. Not four. Not five.
Tim Duncan is thinking about five. He’s thinking about how close he was to number five. He was about five feet away from the basket when he missed a simple little shot that would have tied the game with less than a minute remaining. His press conference is over now and as he walks away, his signature hunch is just a little more depressed. His face keeps the same steady and emotionless look. And one of the ten best basketball players ever, one of the classiest professionals and greatest champions of American sports, walks away from the spotlight as his grip on the NBA loosens to the point of dispossession and his mind continues to contemplate how he managed to miss a shot that for years gave cause for cheers in San Antonio but tonight created a disappointed quiet among Spurs fans.
Quietest of all is Kawhi Leonard. He, like usual, is avoiding speaking. As Dwyane Wade speaks with the NBA Countdown crew, he mentions how he hasn’t heard some of the Spurs talk all series. He doesn’t know what Kawhi Leonard sounds like, but he knows that the young man can play. Right now that doesn’t really matter to Kawhi. He’s thinking about how hard he worked this Finals to defend the best player in the world. He’s remembering the free throw he could have made that would have sealed the victory. He’s thinking about how he still had energy to play when his older teammates seemed completely spent. He’s thinking about how San Antonio traded away a very good player for him as a mid-1st round pick from San Diego State. He’s thinking about what he will have to do to fill the shoes of these legends who are sure to finish their playing days sooner rather than later.
Magic Johnson and Jalen Rose are neither quiet nor stoic. They are laughing with LeBron, who is speaking with the NBA Countdown crew. They’re talking about the game. LeBron is relaxed and enjoying himself. Jalen is happy to be speaking, on a somewhat equal level, with a fellow basketball player and inner city kid who beat the odds. Magic is being Magic, talking to a fellow all-time great about what it’s like to be superior. Bill Simmons is not laughing. He is barely smiling. The witty journalist isn’t making pop culture jokes; he’s listening intently to everything LeBron says. He’s hanging on every word. Few men on earth understand the NBA better than Bill Simmons, and few men love the Association more than he does. He recognizes what this moment in his life means. He’s sitting just a few feet away from one of the most special athletes in the world. He’s talking to “the next Michael Jordan”. And he’s doing so as this prodigy finally takes massive steps towards unbounded greatness. As Magic tells LeBron that he believes he could become the greatest player ever, Simmons understands what that means and he understands that Magic might actually be right. LeBron might not get to greatest ever status, but he will be something unlike any other player ever has been and perhaps ever will be.
Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra can finally relax. Although Pop’s team has lost, he feels a sense of pride in what his group was able to accomplish. At least for a few days, he can relax and not worry about how to defend LeBron or how to answer questions from reporters. Soon enough the NBA Draft will be happening and he can begin to think about the very uncertain future of his team. He sits and his usual look of anger turns into a brief smile and a laugh as he thinks about how his veteran, “boring” team came so close to winning yet another championship. His team’s era of dominance may finally be over. Maybe not. Erik Spoelstra is also smiling. A lot. After celebrating with his team and answering questions, Spoelstra is finally alone, thinking back on the amazing series that his team somehow managed to survive. Just a year after many were once again calling for his job, Spo is now a two-time champion and must now continue to guide and lead the most talented team in the NBA. Two years ago he was a failure, defeated by a Jim Carrey look-alike. Two years from now he could have as many rings as the all-time great that he just defeated.
Kobe Bryant doesn’t know where he will be in two years. He doesn’t even know where he wants to be in two years. As he watches his contemporary successor raise another Finals MVP trophy, the future of his Achilles’ and the future of his team come to mind. He thinks to himself: I’m not that old yet. I’m going to get on a court again. And I don’t care who you are, I won’t go out the way Tim, Tony, and Manu did.
Kobe’s current teammate Dwight Howard‘s immediate future is what’s in question. He must decide where he’s going to take his talents. Should he go home to Atlanta? Nah. What about Houston? That could be a great team. There would be less pressure. Then again, he loves Los Angeles. Then again, Los Angeles might not like him. What about Kobe? Maybe he realizes it, maybe he doesn’t, but he could still be the best center in the NBA. Maybe he could carry a team to a Finals like he did in 2009.
Derrick Rose is getting ready to play again. So is Russell Westbrook. Kevin Durant isn’t forgetting what happened in 2012. He isn’t forgetting what happened this year. Paul George is determined to be ready next year. Andre Iguodala is looking for a place to play. Mark Cuban thinks he has the answers. The Grizzlies and Nuggets want another chance. Chris Paul is waiting to see what type of team he will be returning to in Los Angeles before deciding where he could best win a ring. He’s heard what people are saying about Tony Parker. He’s also talked to Dwight Howard on the phone once or twice. Kevin Garnett is ferociously battling his younger cousin in a battle of ping pong and he doesn’t give a @#$% what the latest reports are about where he’s playing next year. He’s trying to forget that Rajon Rondo is sitting somewhere with that disdainful look on his face and a surgeon’s work on his ACL. He’s trying to forget that the former Celtic #20 became Heat #34 and made a big time shot en route to winning a championship without his Boston buddies. His coach Doc Rivers is trying to find the truth for his future, while The Truth Paul Pierce prepares himself for inevitable changes. Carmelo Anthony still hasn’t won anything. Chris Bosh is smiling because he earned his money by helping win another ring. He’s happy because all he has to do is play hard and he will be accepted as a member of the Big Three. He’s nervous because he might not be in Miami when they go for the three-peat. Andrew Bynum is styling his hair. And getting healthy.
LeBron James wakes up. He’s the best player in the world. He’s on the same team with a talented group of guys who also are his friends. He’s a millionaire a hundred times over. He has a wife and two kids. He beat the odds. He’s going to take some time off before going back to work. He wakes up under the same sun as the rest of the NBA, and while it may be his kingdom it’s their league. Just because he’s taking a day off doesn’t mean they will. Just because the Heat will be favored to win again this year doesn’t mean all 29 other teams won’t give it their best shot. As he steps out of bed, so does Andrew Wiggins, who wants to be the successor. So do Nerlens Noel and Kyrie Irving, who might be the only shot Cleveland has at getting the kingdom back. And so does the rest of the Association as they get ready for the day, the week, the summer, and late October.
Obviously I made some of this up. Like most of the “true story” movies you see. I love basketball and the NBA and now it’s gone for a while. Too bad. Like, comment, subscribe/follow, post to Facebook and Twitter, email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for reading!
Soli Deo Gloria