|AI, Duncan personify today's NBA|
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist
Ask sports fans (and we did) to name the marquee player in the NBA and you get three names: Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal.
Call these guys the face of the league.
But ask folks which players have the most impact on them, make them want to be NBA fans, and it's two other names that are head and shoulders above the crowd: Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan.
Call the Allen-and-Tim duo the heart of the league.
The face players are a more-or-less unified front, three guys with appeal so broad they can endorse such middle-of-the-road brands as McDonald's and Radio Shack. But the ESPN SportsNation survey results tell us that the NBA heart is a divided thing.
Iverson and Duncan beat to very different rhythms: they play almost unrelated games on the floor, seem to live worlds apart off it, and in the minds of media and fans, they're opposing ideas made flesh and blood.
The idea of Iverson is ...
It's cornrows, tats and cross-overs, arm sleeves and headbands. In a word, street.
It's an idea of improvisation, of syncopated rushes into what the defense gives you, of vamping off a set play, of cutting contests, high-flying solos and on-the-spot collaborations.
The idea is ...
Hot, the way a tempest is hot -- whirling and full of fury.
Cool, the way Shaft was cool -- laid-back and at the ready.
Tough: forged in a crucible of hurt, steeled through controversy, and tested in the court of public opinion.
And little. Little like endearing, inspiring, and miraculous; little like wanna hold him and wanna be him.
The moms, the kid, the posse and the streets of home.
The longshot odds.
The hunger that twists a face in snarls, shouts and tears.
Surrender and sleep when you're dead.
A player's thing.
Shoot when you're open and even when you ain't.
Take a hit and always get back up.
And bend, tuck, dip and let fly at angles that look ad-hoc and clumsy at the start, but something very much like beautiful at the finish.
To some, he's the hip-hop embodiment of heroism and rugged individualism.
To others, the idea of Iverson is nothing but trouble. He's not just a player, or a person, he's a sign, a fundamentals-lite symbol of what has gone wrong in the league and the culture, a disrespectful omen of where things are headed, and the death-knell of a simpler, more innocent time.
By contrast, the idea of Duncan is ...
Four years and a cap-and-gown.
Quiet confidence and a game that speaks for itself.
It's the idea of the lyrical game: picks, passes and bank-shots that echo old game footage, and evoke Woodenesque ideals.
The idea is ...
Hot, the way the Mojave is hot -- arid and still.
Steadfast, like a palace guard. Smooth, like Sinatra with a mic in his hand. Subtle, like Ricky Jay doing a three-card Monty.
And big. Big-man-in-the-pivot big. Giants-of-yesteryear big.
No "I" in team.
I'm the most unstoppable cat out here but you'd never know it.
Never rile and never get riled.
A coach's thing.
Working hard, working smart and always, always working.
Pump fakes and two hands on the ball.
Passing out of the double-team, boxing out, playing help D and looking to throw the Walton-in-'77 outlet.
Textbook post moves short on flair but long on results. Nothing awesome like Shaq, nothing no-he-didn't! breathtaking like KG, just numbers adding up the way they do at Jerry's Labor Day Telethon -- more this year than last year, and still more in the offing.
To some, he's the throwback essence of the pure game; the body, mind and spirit of what Isiah Thomas likes to call (not ball, hoops, game or skillz but ...) "the game of basketball." He's a welcome and familiar port in a new jack jock storm.
The bridge between Iverson and Duncan -- and it's a strong one -- is will. Each guy hauls a truckload of desire and dedication into the gym every night. We see that, and we respect and respond to it.
But in almost every other way, from style to all the social and political punch style signifies, they're polar opposites to us.
As indicated in the ESPN survey, the intense feeling we have for both AI and Duncan signals the struggle -- creative vs. coached, new thang vs. the basics, and wild child vs. the good citizen -- at the heart of the game and the league.
It's especially acute now, when every game is on TV and every ad is for a player's new shoe, but it's an old, old hoop struggle between progressive and conservative impulses, between styles and ideas that stretch, and styles and ideas that reinforce, what it is we know. It goes back to Jordan's shoes and Stockton's shorts, to the ABA-NBA merger days, even to Texas Western vs. Kentucky and beyond.
These tensions, for better and worse, seem to reflect the tensions in the larger society. Our survey shows that African Americans feel a lot better about where the league is right now than whites do. And folks older than 35 are less satisfied with the league's direction than younger folks are. To the extent Iverson is the trend, the survey suggests that he tends to excite blacks and young people, and tends to worry whites and those approaching, living through and exiting middle age.
The NBA is not just a sport, a game -- it's a place where ideas, embodied by players like Iverson and Duncan, challenge each other, and challenge any of us who are fans to make judgments and choices about what we value and who or what we identify with.
If I choose MJ, Kobe or Shaq, in a way, I've made no choice at all -- hard for anyone to have a big beef with me, hard for anyone to care. But if I choose Allen, at least in some implicit way, I'm rejecting Tim. If I gravitate toward Duncan, some significant part of what Iverson represents gets the back of my hand.
And when I make the call, I'm saying this is the version and vision of the game I want to see take hold now and in the future. I'm watching the way international players bring both flair and fundamentals into the mix. I'm paying attention to how the league markets itself and its players. And I'm standing with or against the crowd who says the league is on the decline.
I can admire the face of the game, but what I feel for is the heart of it, because it's in the divide that the stakes are high.
Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.