Tuesday, February 11, 2003

The brash new kids on the NBA block

The Indianapolis Star

ATLANTA - "Basketball, The Next Generation" is brash, rich and wears its pants loose. It is a millionaire boys club that makes outsiders feel pessimistic about the future of sport, if not the mores of future society. The 52nd NBA All-Star game offered a new hope, though.

A single, fundamentally lacking basketball game that didn't even count actually had that kind of power.

It was the most important basketball game since Magic Johnson's 1992 All-Star appearance, when the NBA became one of the first mainstream educators and bastions of acceptance for HIV and AIDS.

Just remember these images from Sunday's game at Philips Arena, and remember that they were testament that all is not bad with today's pro player:

Image 1: The Eastern Conference team, including Vince Carter, is selfless enough to force retiring legend Michael Jordan into the starting lineup.

Image 2: The players continually defer to Jordan, shunning obvious marketing opportunities, trying to get the game's biggest name the heroic sendoff he deserves.

Image 3: Jordan hits a shot in overtime that reminds people of those he used to make to win championships. And every player in the building is leaping, cheering, smiling or slapping five.

Sunday was a special night, and it was special only because it was orchestrated by the very players we often see as intrinsically apathetic.

"The All-Star game is not about individuals," said Minnesota's Kevin Garnett, whose 37 points helped him become the game's most valuable player. "It's a time for you to share stories, good times, emotional times with your teammates.

"I went into this game knowing that this was Michael's last All-Star game. And I knew that (it was going to be) my first time with Yao (Ming), so I had a bunch of things going through my mind."

Kobe Bryant, the guy who wound up ruining Jordan's storybook ending by making two free throws to force the second overtime, seemed legitimately hurt that he did so.

"I was really torn," Bryant said, showing rare emotion. "I didn't want to be there (at the free-throw line), but I knew I had a job to do."

Some players privately cursed the referee for calling an obvious foul on the East's Jermaine O'Neal of the Indiana Pacers.

This was not a night any player wanted Jordan overshadowed. No player from either team wanted to use Jordan's final All-Star game as an opportunity to prove to the world he was the Air apparent.

It's not often that you go to a basketball game and a lesson in morality breaks out.

Well, just maybe the new kids aren't quite as bad as we tend to perceive them.

Maybe they aren't entirely self-centered. Maybe they do respect their elders. Maybe they do have a genuine appreciation for history.

If you look at it honestly, however, you will see that players from the previous eras weren't exactly faultless. Jordan, himself, has his demons.

Of course, Dennis Rodman was as bad as he wanted to be. Kermit Washington broke a man's face with one punch. Johnson contracted a deadly disease through careless sexual experiences. And Indiana's own Larry Bird was a trash-talker whose estranged daughter still begs to see him.

It puts a different perspective on "the good, old days," doesn't it?

But that doesn't preclude the next generation from self-improvement. Some behavioral changes must occur. Sunday night's momentous game cannot be an aberration.

"I leave the game in good hands," Jordan said during an emotional halftime ceremony.

Sure, they are fallible hands.

Sure, they are hands that, at times, will wave feverishly to "Look at me!"

But they are good hands. Hands that, given the opportunity, are worthy of handling a torch with care.

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The brash new kids on the NBA block
Salvation for Pat Riley: become coach at UCLA
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Daytona notebook

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Tuesday's sports on TV, radio