As the first decade of the New Millennium runs out, if one counts that way, I’d like to say, on behalf of the NBA:
That was only 10 years? It seemed longer, like the Hundred Years War.
The NBA has had a dramatic rise from its arrival as the bumpkin of major league sports, but also had setbacks that were like Columbus finding the world was flat, after all, and sailing off it, before its 21st century adventure.
The 1970s were supposed to be the NBA decade after the New York Knicks won two titles and Madison Avenue flipped for Walt Frazier and Willis Reed (and Greenwich Village, at least, for house hippie Phil Jackson).
Instead, it wound up as the Tape Delay Decade, as the Knicks went back in the hole, New York forgot it was the mecca, and CBS put on NBA Finals games at 11:30 p.m. so they couldn’t torpedo their ratings.
The 1980s turned out to be the Golden Age with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird reviving the Los Angeles Lakers-Boston Celtics rivalry, one or the other appearing in the first nine Finals of the decade, and the two squaring off in three.
The 1990s was the Age of Michael Jordan, the NBA’s zenith.
This was the Decade of Living Dangerously, seven years of defining moments that looked like neon bulbs in an arrow pointing straight to hell, ending, amazingly enough, in a dramatic turnaround.
I don’t know how it happened but this is what happened:
•2000 – With Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, two of David Stern’s young stars who are supposed to carry on for the retired Jordan, the Lakers beat Indiana, 4-2.
The TV rating is 11.6, down 38 percent from Jordan’s last Finals, in 1998.
•2001 – The Lakers repeat, beating Philadelphia, 4-1. Rating: 12.1.
•2002 – Lakers 4, New Jersey 0. Rating: 10.2.
•2003 – San Antonio 4, New Jersey 2. TV rating: 6.5, a record low.
With the Lakers stumbling in the second round, the NBA finds out how bad things can be.
With the East in ruins, New Jersey make consecutive Finals appearances after winning 52 and 49 games, respectively, which wouldn’t even get you home-court advantage in the first round in the West.
With clueless ABC making its debut, Stern is scorched for putting the bulk of his TV package on cable.
•2004 – Detroit 4, Lakers 1. TV rating: 11.5.
As if answering Stern’s prayers – he once joked his ideal matchup was the Lakers against the Lakers – they make the Finals but are upended by Larry Brown’s Pistons.
In the real bad news, Lakers ownership scatters the team to the winds, trading O’Neal to Miami.
•2005 – San Antonio 4, Detroit 3. Rating: 8.2. Lowest for a seven-game series since the tape-delay days.
The season is almost beside the point, under the pall cast by the Auburn Hills, Mich., riot and by Bryant’s arrest.
•2006 – Miami 4, Dallas 2. TV rating: 8.5, a minimal increase that suggests how much audience they’ve lost with an interesting series and O’Neal, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki, not to mention Dallas owner Mark Cuban.
•2007 – San Antonio 4, Cleveland 0.
TV rating: 6.2, the record low – on merit after the League Office Riot.
The lawmakers in the league office garrotte their own postseason, suspending Phoenix’s Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for leaving the bench after San Antonio’s Robert Horry hip-checks Steve Nash into the scorer’s table.
It’s a burn-the-village-to-save-it ruling, ignoring an easy out: Tim Duncan has done the same thing after another collision, spared by the fact play didn’t stop.
Says league vice president Stu Jackson, defending his ruling: “It’s not a matter of fairness. It’s a matter of correctness.”
With Game 5 in Phoenix after the Suns tied the second-round series, 2-2, in San Antonio, Stern says his guys didn’t torpedo the Suns, it was “two Phoenix Suns who knew about the rule, forgot about (it), couldn’t control themselves or had coaches who couldn’t control them.”
Whoever killed it, the postseason is definitely dead as the Spurs finish 10-1 against the undermanned Suns, Utah Jazz and Cleveland Cavaliers.
Now it’s as if the gods are basketball fans and they’re upset, too.
Bryant goes off on the Lakers in his days of rage after the season, demanding to be traded.
Surpassing that in another historic low point, referee Tim Donaghy admits betting on games he officiated in collusion with gamblers.
•2008 – Boston 4, Lakers 2. TV rating: 9.3, beating the 2008 World Series.
The gods, who must be over it, guide Andrew Bynum’s development, chill out Bryant, restore harmony in Lakerdom and revive the even deader Celtics, who have been past the first round four times in 20 years and didn’t reach the playoffs in 10.
Earthlings pitch in to help. Minnesota general manager Kevin McHale donates Kevin Garnett to his old team, turning down the Lakers’ offer of Bynum and Lamar Odom.
It’s actually providential for the Lakers as Bynum surpasses Greg Oden as the center prospect of his generation.
Then, with the Lakers looking for a big man only because Bynum has gone down, Memphis donates Pau Gasol, the last piece of the puzzle.
•2009 – Lakers 4, Orlando 1. Rating: 8.5, despite going only five games.
Now as the decade runs out, the Lakers look set for a long run.
The East has marquee matchups weekly with an elite level that includes the reinforced Celtics, the young Magic, and the LeBron James-O’Neal Cavaliers.
Exit smiling, anyone who still can.
Now, for our eagerly-awaited NBA Decade Awards, or at least they might be eagerly awaited if they came up more often than once in 10 years.
•Team of the Decade – Lakers and San Antonio (tie).
History isn’t remembered by decades, but eras, which may not fit neatly into decades.
The Lakers’ 4-3 edge in titles over the Spurs this decade hardly demonstrates that they ruled, since it’s 4-4 over 11 years counting the Spurs’ title in 1999.
Of course, if either goes ahead to stay in the next year or two, it’ll be their era fair and square, a proposition Laker fans can live with.
•MVP – David Stern, commissioner.
While getting torched roundly, and occasionally ticking me off personally with his Judge Dredd style …. if that was a lot less than I ticked him off … his decisive moves set the stage for the amazing turnaround of the last two-plus seasons.
With the big agents spoiling for a fight, Stern locked the players out in 1999 but has had labor peace since.
In his real magic trick, his controversial move to cable TV kept network revenue coming, to the tune of $930 million annually, leaving baseball, which gets $700 million, in its wake.
•Player of the decade – Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan (tie).
Same deal as the teams. All three have four titles, so whoever breaks through next wins the era.
•Most amazing Kobe moment – The season-ending win in Portland in 2004, when he leaned under Ruben Patterson’s armpit to knock down a 3-pointer to tie it at the end of regulation, then hit a 3-point moon ball over fast-closing Theo Ratliff at the end of the second overtime in a 105-104 win.
That was three days after a teammate criticized Bryant for not shooting in a loss at Sacramento, leading to a a full-blown controversy, a furious meeting in which Bryant demanded that the teammate identify himself, and accusations of “tanking” in the press.
•Best moment – Robert Horry’s winning 3-pointer at the buzzer in Game 4 in the incredible 2002 West Finals.
With Sacramento leading the series 2-1 and the game 99-97 and nine players jumping on each other to rebound O’Neal’s miss as time ran down, Vlade Divac batted the ball out – to Horry, spotted up on the arc, as if stationed there by the gods.
The rest was Lakers history.
•Second-best moment – Dwyane Wade weaving through all five Dallas Mavericks, getting the call and making the free throws that gave Miami a 100-99 overtime win in the pivotal Game 5 of the 2006 Finals, perhaps the greatest move in NBA history that didn’t lead to a basket.
•Worst moment – The 2004 Auburn Hills Riot.
It’s not good when your players punch out the customers on camera.
It’s worse when Ron Artest hurtles into the stands to unload on the wrong fan, and Jermaine O’Neal drops another in his tracks with a roundhouse right.
•Best organization – San Antonio.
In their tiny market, Coach Gregg Popovich made the most out of everything, turning late picks into Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, George Hill and Luis Scola (oops).
Even better, they never bragged, complained about referees or uttered the word “conspiracy.” In an NBA dictionary, their picture would be next to the word “grownups.”
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