So long, farewell to some NBA stars
As we get ready for 2010, we also look back at 2009 -- specifically the players, coaches and other sports figures who called it a career in the past calendar year.
On Monday, we said farewell to some NFL stars. Tuesday, we turn to the NBA.
This isn't a comprehensive list -- just a few of our favorites. The greats, and those whom you may have already forgotten.
Daaaaaaamn, that white boy can jump.
Kind of a silly thing to say about a professional basketball player in a dunk contest -- and yet, I remember watching the 1996 All-Star slam dunk contest with my boys, and there was a collective "what what" when Brent Barry took off from the free throw line.
"Daaaaaamn, that white boy can jump."
If you remember, it wasn't a great year for dunks. Doug Christie was in the contest, but didn't make it to the finals because his possessive wife heard other women might be watching (just kidding). And Darrell Armstrong must've misread the sign-up sheet because he shot a layup.
Still, Michael Finley and Jerry Stackhouse were legit that year, and -- well, the gangly Barry, nicknamed "Bones," took the brothers out. Some cried reverse racism, some cried favoritism because of his last name, and some cried overrated because Barry did step over the free throw line when he took off. I just gave the dude his props while also feeling slightly ashamed at my own surprise that he had those kinds of hops.
It was as if Barry was exorcizing the "white men can't jump" demon from the hoops world, and everybody's head started spinning around like Linda Blair's.
The following year, Bobby Sura entered the contest but didn't make it out of the first round. Eventually Kobe Bryant won the contest and, well, things went back to "normal." For whatever reason, Barry remains the only white player ever to win the slam dunk contest. He is also only one of only three players to win the contest and a championship ring. The other two are Bryant and Michael Jordan.
But if there was ever a player defined by one meaningless shot, I guess it would have to be Brent. The best of the Barry brothers. The dunk didn't win a big game against a rival, or stave off elimination in the playoffs. It wasn't even on someone. Still, it was good enough to make the nation stop, take note and say "Daaaaaaaaamn."
-- LZ Granderson
Many NBA fans will remember Bruce Bowen as a defensive pest or a dirty player.
They might recall someone who played on the edge of the rules and had the audacity to shut down, or at least contain, many of the league's biggest stars. Worst of all, he was a big part of making us sit through three championships by the humdrum, boring San Antonio Spurs.
The nerve of the guy.
Upon closer inspection, Bowen was the opposite of the coddled, gifted players who take physical talents for granted and fritter away their careers. Instead, Bowen fought, kicked, scratched and clawed for everything he achieved in basketball and in life.
He overcame an unstable family situation as a youth in Fresno, Calif. -- his mother battled drug addiction, and his father wasn't around -- to ascend to a career millions of kids dream about. He starred at Edison High and earned a scholarship to Cal State Fullerton. After going undrafted in 1993, he bounced between the CBA and France for several years.
Bowen got his first break in the NBA when he signed with the Miami Heat in 1995. Then he was cut before the season started. He signed again with the Heat the following season, playing one minute before ultimately being cut a second time. He finally stuck with Boston in 1997, followed by a stop in Philadelphia and a return to Miami.
By the time he joined the Spurs in 2001, he was becoming one of the best defenders in the league. He fit perfectly with San Antonio, as he didn't need the ball to be effective. That's crucial when your teammates include Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
In addition to winning those three titles with the Spurs, Bowen was named to the NBA's All-Defensive first team five consecutive seasons -- and to the All-Defensive second team the three seasons prior to that. Easily overlooked is the fact he also worked to become one of the league's most efficient 3-point shooters, leading the league in accuracy beyond the arc in 2002-03.
You can mutter and swear about Bowen's dirty style of play all you want
as long as you admit you would have loved if someone played defense that hard for your favorite team.
-- Thomas Neumann
There are NBA players who are talented.
There are NBA players who are hustlers.
And then, there are NBA players who are just ballers.
Matt Harpring was a baller.
No, he didn't wow you with his crossover, never dropped 50 at MSG, and I don't think anyone has ever pushed a Harpring mixtape at the barbershop. But few players have given as much as Harp did on the court on a nightly basis, and in the end that relentless effort probably cut short his career.
Despite the knee surgeries, bone spurs, staph infections and severe ankle injuries, Harp just kept coming back to do whatever his team needed to be done to win -- hit big shots, grab key rebounds, play D, set screens, dive for loose balls, swing the rock, hack. It didn't matter if he was a starter, if the play was called for him, or even if he was on a winning squad -- Harp treated every NBA minute as if it was his last, embodying one of the sports' greatest clichés: leave it all on the court.
Sure, you can be shortsighted and dismiss the 11-year vet as a glorified Mark Madsen. You know -- the white guy who hustles his way to a roster spot and is credited with being "smart" or "a gym rat" because "white men can't jump." But in doing so, you not only demonstrate how little you know about Harp -- who turned down a football scholarship at Notre Dame to play hoops at Georgia Tech -- but how little you know about what it really means to be a baller. It's not about stats and highlights, it's about having the talent to do whatever is necessary to win the game -- and then having the humility to actually go out each night and do exactly that.
-- LZ Granderson
ALONZO MOURNING AND DIKEMBE MUTOMBO
Before Alonzo inspired everyone who has ever nervously sat on a transplant list with his rousing comeback following a kidney transplant, and before Dikembe finger-wagged his way into basketball fans' hearts with his infectious smile and enthusiasm for slam-dunk contests, these two warriors teamed up to form one of the most feared frontcourt tandems in college basketball history.
Mourning and Mutombo arrived on the campus of Georgetown University from opposite ends of the Earth. Mourning was the most decorated high school player in America -- a polished product, and a dominant force on both ends of the floor. Mutombo, on the other hand, was a project -- an unrefined bundle of talent who quickly adapted to his new surroundings and blossomed into a superstar both on and off the court. Together, they terrorized opponents -- scoring with ruthless efficiency, wiping the glass clean, and forcing opposing guards to steer far clear of the lane, as any floater was quickly treated more like a volleyball set than a serious shot attempt.
Despite all their later success, this is how I'll always remember them. (At least until Mutombo takes the United Nations by storm, wagging his finger at all those who get in his way.) The changing college basketball landscape, where raw big men often flee for the riches of the pros before they are even close to fully developed, basically guarantees that we will never see such a tandem again. In the current environment, both guys would have come out after their first year of college and still been top-five picks. Instead, college hoops fans got to enjoy watching two young men develop into excellent players on the court as they gained life experiences that later made them two of the league's most generous contributors off the court. The whole thing makes us more than a little nostalgic for the days of Rejection Row.
-- Toby Mergler
Kobe Bryant entered the NBA in 1996 and quickly developed into one of the league's most explosive scorers. During the first half of his career, he squared off against several of the most celebrated defenders in recent history -- including Gary Payton, Bruce Bowen and Scottie Pippen. But the guy Kobe claims gave him the most trouble wasn't one of those legendary stoppers. Instead, it was a former second-round pick who willed his way into an NBA rotation and eventually became the steady backbone of a team that reached the NBA Finals.
Eric Snow never was the most dominant player on the floor, but he did all the little things that made him a coach's dream. He provided strong leadership and took care of the basketball. He always put the team above his own numbers. He gave maximum effort on both sides of the court, never taking as much as a single possession off. Plus, he never got in trouble off the court -- instead, he served as one of the league's best role models, and took home hardware for both citizenship and sportsmanship during his time in the NBA.
At the height of his career in Philadelphia, Snow provided the perfect anchor for Larry Brown's team-first system, and a tailor-made counterbalance for Allen Iverson. He was the quiet, squeaky-clean yin to AI's boisterous, semi-controversial yang. They ended up complementing each other beautifully, and together led the most memorable 76ers team since the days of Doc and Moses to the brink of an NBA championship.
While they came up short in the 2001 NBA Finals against the Lakers, it may not be Snow's last chance to win a title. He's an excellent bet to follow in Doc Rivers' and Byron Scott's shoes as guards underappreciated in their era who later became excellent head coaches. So goodbye for now, Eric, but we're sure we'll see you again soon. And when you do get a coaching gig, we hope you have someone as solid as you to run the point.
-- Toby Mergler
A sports broadcaster is more than a disembodied voice emanating from the television set. Like a late-night talk show host or anyone on "The Surreal Life," they're a house guest -- someone you're practically inviting over to grab a brew and spill salsa on your couch. As such, should they be judged by their diction, their sound-bite soliloquies, their command of statistical minutiae? Or should they be judged for being, well, fun?
Bill Walton was fun. Because Walton had fun. In an on-air universe of smooth air heads and ersatz tough guys, dopey Panglossians and schoolmarmish sports moralists, his earnest stream of semi-altered consciousness was a breath of pure oxygen. With his booming, bombastic delivery ("HOOOORIBLE!") and high-low mix of hyperbolic, thus-spaketh-Zarathustra pronouncements ("You have all summer to be tired!") and Zen-like hoops koans ("Use the crowd's energy to make your body feel golden"), Walton turned basketball games into something approaching postmodern performance art. Was he drop-dead serious? In on the gag? Descending into self-parody? Ascending into an Andy-Kaufman-like meta-state? Was Walton puffin' the magic dragon right now?
As a viewer, I neither knew nor cared; trying to figure the man out was entertaining enough. Never got old, really. The one thing I knew for sure? Walton always enjoyed his own company, making it easy for me to do the same.
-- Patrick Hruby