Tuesday, April 1, 2003

It's time for changing of NBA stars

Next generation already taking over

By John Denton
Florida Today

In a span of just five days last week, David Robinson was honored in a tearful retirement ceremony in San Antonio, Michael Jordan completed a farewell swing along the West Coast, and John Stockton blew out 41 candles on his birthday cake.

Still, even with three of the NBA's top stars taking what could be their final huffs and puffs down the court, there came signs - possibly from the basketball gods themselves - that the game would survive just fine.

In Orlando Thursday, Magic star Tracy McGrady and Minnesota's Kevin Garnett waged a battle for the ages - McGrady scoring and setting up teammates on one end of the floor, while Garnett snatched rebounds and altered shots on the other. And Friday in Los Angeles, Jordan didn't just pass the torch to Bryant - the Lakers guard snatched it away and properly buried it from 3-point range en route to 55 points.

"Elgin Baylor used to be considered the best small forward to play the game, but who was going to ever do what he did again?" said Magic front office executive Dee Brown, who retired from the NBA last season. "Then came Julius (Erving) and people wondered if there would ever be another like him. Then, came Michael (Jordan) and now there's Kobe (Bryant) and Tracy (McGrady). And LeBron (James) is coming next. There's always going to be a person who's ready to take over.

"There's a kid on the playground right now watching Tracy and Kobe, thinking in five years he'll be taking over. That's what keeps the game healthy."

That's not to say the league isn't going to miss players such as Jordan and Robinson, each of whom has announced this will be his final NBA season. And it might be the end of the line as well for Karl Malone and Stockton, the irrepressible Utah duo.

Factor in the memorable goodbyes for Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon earlier this season and it's clear this is a time of transition for the NBA.

"There's no doubt about it now that it's a transition period for the NBA," said Utah's Malone, 39. "And in some ways, that's kind of sad, because we've all had such a good run."

When Jordan initially retired from the game in 1993, it seemingly caught the NBA off guard. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the players credited with making pro basketball chic again, already had left the game, and losing Jordan was another blow.

But this time, Magic coach Doc Rivers said, the league is ready to take the hit of losing several of its veteran leaders because young talent such as McGrady, Bryant, Garnett and Duncan has emerged as legitimate superstars.

"Five or six years ago we just weren't ready, but now we are," said Rivers, who played for 13 seasons. "When Michael first left, all our young guys were just potential stars. Guys like Garnett, Tracy, Kobe, Vince Carter, Allen Iverson - they all had great potential, but none of them were proven yet. Now I think those guys have shown they can carry this league."

If this truly is goodbye - and you never really know with Jordan - it has been a memorable one. Jordan became the first player 40 years old to score 40 points in a game and almost single-handedly has kept the Washington Wizards in the playoff hunt with his scoring and willpower. Stockton still looks and plays like the fresh-faced rookie from 1984, becoming just the seventh player in league history to play after his 41st birthday. And while Robinson's bad back has bothered him all season, his Spurs look as if they could send him out with another championship ring as a going away present.

Legendary baseball pitcher Satchel Paige said it best when he asked, "How old would you be if you didn't know how old you are?" And just last week, Stockton summed things up similarly by saying, "If I wasn't 41, I don't think we'd be having this discussion (about retirement)."

Stockton has yet to make up his mind about whether or not he wants to hang up his old-school short shorts. He continues to defy logic at a position that usually wipes out players quickly.

Oscar Robertson and Bob Cousy were 34 when they retired; Isiah Thomas left the game at 33. Other point guard greats such as Dennis Johnson (35), Mo Cheeks (36), Norm Nixon (33) and Kevin Johnson (32) lost their legs and faded away long before Stockton.

Stockton has that quiet, unassuming dominance, as he showed in the first quarter of a defeat of Portland recently. Of Utah's first 10 baskets of the game, Stockton assisted on five, made two himself and set a hard screen that freed teammate Matt Harpring for another bucket.

"I just still love to play," Stockton said in his typical low-key manner. "This is a great game."

Robinson is quite possibly the most well-liked superstar to ever play in the NBA. At age 37, with much of his game sapped by a debilitating back injury, Robinson is admired throughout the league for his grace and professionalism.

When Jordan announced he was planning a second comeback to the NBA prior to last season, some wondered if he would tarnish his legacy as one of the greatest players of all time. His Wizards are a far cry from the dominating Chicago teams he played on before, but Jordan just might have enhanced his legend.

"I wanted to be that bridge to the next generation," Jordan said. "I played against Dr. J and at that time, he was bridging the league along with Magic and Larry to my era. I feel as though I had that obligation to the game and the next generation, and I feel I've been able to do that in my own way."

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