By Eric Neel
Page 2


I mean, not to gush, and not to sound like a wide-eyed kid getting his first glimpse at Cheryl Tiegs in fishnet or anything, but ... Wow.

The season's a month old, and what a month. Has it ever been this good, this wacky before? Is this maybe the wildest 30 NBA days of all time?

I'm telling you, the game is alive right now, my friends.

I tune in every night, and every night I feel like Mel Allen watching Ozzie Smith make a play on some impossible-to-reach ball skitting behind second base. Over and over again, I'm shaking my head and saying, in my best aw-shucks drawl, "How about that?!"

* * * * *

On the upside, which is WAY up:

How about the Seattle SuuuuuuuuuuperSonics?!
There are two kinds of people in the world. The first kind look at the Sonics' hot start, compare it to the roster and say, "It's not going to last, don't get excited." The second kind look at the Sonics' hot start and say, "Come on boys, keep it up!" The first kind wait for the chance to say, "I told you so." The second kind hope against hope that things will keep rolling, that this will be one of those freaky, Carolina Panthers, Detroit Pistons stories that comes out of nowhere, defies all predictions and charms the socks off sports fans everywhere. I don't know what kind of person you are, but I'm pretty sure I know what kind of person Mel Allen was.

How about the Bobcats?!

Emeka Okafor
Emeka Okafor hasn't disappointed the fans in Charlotte so far.

Emeka's for real. Brevin Knight's alive and kicking. And Bernie Bickerstaff seems to have something like Piston Kryptonite in his back pocket. Two of the best fourth quarters I've seen so far were the two in which Detroit scrambled to come back on Charlotte (once successfully, once not so much). It wasn't the quality of ball, it was the quality of fear in the eyes of Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups. These guys were on top of the world just a couple of months ago, and now they were running scared from an epic humiliation the likes of which they'd never known. Hilarious TV.

How about LeBron's continuing rise to the upper stratosphere?!
He's still only 19 and it's already hard to imagine what could be left to say about him. But I'll say this: The one thing that defines NBA greatness more than any other is timing. The greats move in a different time than the game and the other players around them. Think about Magic pushing it, think about Larry working those odd little hiccups in a defender's feet or an opponent's pedestrian moves toward the rim, think about The Doctor stopping time for that supernatural swing behind the backboard.

Now look at LeBron. Look how slow he is. There's a preternatural calm thing about him. It's a slow-motion ease, like Lynn Swann dancing on Mark Washington's chest. That whole Cleveland team, that whole city, rests on him, and he knows it, and yet he consistently lets the game come to him, lets the floor unfold before his gaze. Monday night against the Clippers, like The Wolf, he stood in the right corner, with the shot clock winding down, and just waited for the double to come find him, which it did, which left Ilgauskas wide open at the elbow for an easy jumper. He's quick, he's got bursts, and he always goes hard, but he's never going hard, you know what I mean?

How about the rebirth of Grant Hill?!
I'll admit it, I used to hate him a little; ever since that alley-oop, ever since that flat-top fade, ever since he was the Dukie Golden Boy who could do no wrong. Then when he got hurt, I didn't forget about him, but I didn't think about him, either. Now he's back and I have to say, I'm rooting hard for him to stay back. The guy is just a pleasure to watch.

How about the Clips?!
9-6? Four wins in a row?! (Yeah, two of those four were against Golden State, but still, four wins in a row is crazy-talk in Clipper Country.) A winning record on the road for the month?! Elton is fierce. Love Elton. Wilcox has been a revelation. Ric Bucher said on "Fastbreak" the other night that Wilcox was among the very best power forwards in the league right now, and I agree. Love Wilcox. Shaun Livingston's gonna be real good. Love Shaun Livingston. Marko Jaric already is pretty dang good. Love Marko.

But here's the really good Clippers news: They pass the ball and they defend. As a team. First in the league in assists-per-game at 24.6, third in assist differential, averaging 5.2 more assists than their opponents every night, and ninth in steals at 8.3. That's, like, I don't know, fundamental basketball or something. From the Clippers. Madness, I tell you. Madness.

And it isn't just a numbers thing. This team is fun to watch. They're leaving little floaters for each other on the break. They're making clever, you-didn't-think-I'd-go-that-way-did-ya interior passes. The ball is hopping off their fingertips. They want to make passes. And I want to watch them do it. I'm TiVoing Clippers-Nets games right now, just for the privilege.

All of which is to say, somebody check me on this, because the world may now spin counterclockwise, night may now be day, and blue states may be turning red even as we speak.

How about Steve Nash in the role of Magic Johnson, Shawn Marion in the role of Michael Cooper, Amare Stoudemire in the role of James Worthy, and Joe Johnson in the role of Byron Scott?!

How about Kobe dishing?!
Eleven assists Tuesday night (along with 7 boards). He's averaging almost six-and-a-half now. And every one of them is a little ray of hope, a quiet little promise that the ice is melting, that the flow is coming.

How about the Wizards scoring almost 103 points a night?! How is this possible? They start Brendan Haywood, am I right? Did they re-sign Elvin Hayes, too? Is Bobby Dandridge in the building?
Here's how you know when there's a full-fledged revolution of basketball fun going on in the world: The good people of The District get a taste.

How about every Kings-Mavs passing clinic -- your free bonus, along with a smiling Bill Walton bobblehead doll, for signing up for the NBA League Pass package?!

How about Dwyane Wade?!

Dwyane Wade
Dwayne Wade's only getting better in Miami -- even with the Big Fella in the middle.

Other than an injury (which has slowed him a bit), can he be stopped at all? Adidas has that ad right now where T-Mac's busting through all those tethers and ropes and traps set by a squadron of planes and stuff, but they've got the wrong guy. Wade is the one. Wade is the one working like Houdini, jumping in and out of boxes and slipping out of chains.

I doubted him a bit before the season began. I thought maybe Shaq's presence in and around the paint would jam up his work space. I was a fool.

Who's ever gotten to the basket like this guy does right now? Isiah? But Wade's stronger. Pistol? But Wade's quicker. Jordan maybe. The young Jordan. And you know if I have to go to MJ then we're talking about some serious ball being played.

And don't you get the feeling watching him that he's just getting started, just easing into the lead singer role? Don't you get the feeling we're in for more and better still from him?

And as Chad Ford said yesterday, and as I've said before, too, how about Dirk Nowitzki, Andrei Kirilenko (It crushes me that he's hurt right now. Seriously, I'm devastated. I'm doing research on old homespun organic solutions, like tobacco leaf compresses and leeches and such. I've got a kit of cures in my bag and I'm heading to Salt Lake right after I finish this column) and Manu Ginobli?!

And maybe best of all, how about the fact that serious contenders are growing on trees in bunches?!
San Antonio? Definitely. Minnesota? Yes, sir. Dallas? Uh-huh. Miami? Legit. Utah? I'd say so. Phoenix? All of a sudden. Seattle? Sounds crazy, but ... Sacramento? Sure. Orlando? You have to include them. Indy? Even after the brawl. Detroit? Of course. Cleveland? Could be.

Are you not loving this? How can you not be loving this?

I'm telling you, somebody put Chic on ... everybody sing it ...

"Good times
These are the good times
Leave your cares behind
These are the good times
Good times
These are the good times
Our new state of mind
These are the good times"

* * * * *

Of course, it hasn't all been sweetness and light this month. Some of it's been wildly, weirdly bad, too.

So on the Downside, some of which is low LOW down:

How about only one team (the Knicks at 7-6, after squeaking by the Hawks in OT last night) with a winning record in the Atlantic Division?!

Jamal Crawford
With the help of Jamal Crawford, the Knicks stand first in the Atlantic -- which isn't saying much.

Ugh. This isn't shocking, but it is mighty impressive. I wonder, can we package these teams for opposing teams' season-ticket-holder promotions? "Buy tickets to the Knicks, Sixers, Raptors and Celtics games, and we'll pay you to come to the Nets game!"

How about the Pistons stinking up the joint?!
I like this team, but I'm actually not too broken up about this. I'm a little surprised (Ben's been out, of course, but even before that, they looked flat), but not very disappointed. After a summer full of paeans, I don't think I could have survived an entire season's worth of hosannas to the "saviors of team play." I respect what they do. They can D it up. But I like my team play fast and fun, with points on the board and whatnot. I like the teams working the No-I angle in Phoenix, San Antonio and Sacramento a whole lot more.

How about Tracy McGrady + Yao Ming equals ... nada?!
I can barely stand to watch this team play. They stand around like nervous teenage boys at a middle school dance just waiting to get shot down by the pretty girl. They're not stiff -- they're stuffed, like a family of duck-billed platypuses on display at the natural history museum. Tracy's clanging. Yao's under-used, just like last year. Yawn.

When the deal went down for T-Mac, I figured we'd see a lot of give-and-go, a lot of halfcourt-cleverness and some dead-eye shooting -- I just didn't figure it'd only be coming from Grant Hill and Little Stevie Wonder ...

How about the Hubie dream dying so early in Memphis?!
Like the English Beat, I ask, "Wha'ppen?" It's hard to get a straight story on this thing: Was it health reasons? Was it "insubordination?" Was it a combination? Hubie's a private guy; he's not going to say much. The players liked him personally; they're not going to trash him.

But let's say this: If, if, the players, after only one strong season, started thinking they were somehow over Hubie, his unorthodox strategy, and his very orthodox approach to discipline and hard work, well, then they've earned the spiral they're in now, and they've earned the very real possibility that it's only just beginning, too.

And of course, last and least, how about the brawl?!
Forget the question of who's to blame. I figure it for one of those moments you get in a Flannery O'Connor story, where each and every character comes off just about equally contemptible and ugly. The beer and chair chuckers doing their sorry Bluto Blutarsky bits, Artest doing his crazed manhood thing, Jackson going off like a trailer park pit bull on 'roids, the security guards making themselves invisible, Tom Wilson putting it on Artest like his boys and his crowd had nothing to do with it, Stern sternly reveling in the role of Kenesaw Mountain Landis ... nobody looks good. And nobody's gonna look good, no matter how many apologies are offered and no matter how many punishments are handed down.

Ron Artest
The fight in Detroit was a very black mark on what's been a very good NBA season so far.

So in the end, I'm just not that interested in the crime-and-punishment part of this thing. What interests me, and freaks me out, is how quickly the scene devolved, from a tense rivals game with flare-ups to something out of the streets of Chicago in the summer of '68. We want to believe the peace is a steady, reliable thing when we gather in groups, but it isn't. We like to think the line between riled up and rabid is clear and universally agreed upon, but that's a lie.

The peace is tenuous. That's true of any room. Any party, any gathering of strangers is tinged with a feeling of wariness and suspicion. A room like the Palace is super-charged with combustible elements: Lubed up fans, keyed-up players, and a widening gulf of resentment and misunderstanding about the kinds of lives each of them lead. It's a miracle we haven't seen more of what we saw in Detroit. It was a freaky scene, some spectacular car-crash television, but it was always within the realm of possibility, it was never too far beneath the surface.

So you appreciate the spectacular show on the surface all the more. And at the same time, you mistrust it some, you know it covers problems that are deep, and not easily solved. This thing's basically over. Artest and co. are busted, there'll be new rules for security, and maybe even beer sales, but those changes won't make the peace less fragile, and they might make it more so.

* * * * *

And that idea came in a cocktail with some of the best basketball I can remember this month. It came in combination with the kind of ball, night in and night out, that reminds me why I love the game, the kind of ball that justifies splurging on the bonus cable package and wasting away the night-time hours flipping channels between one game and another.

It's a wild combination. It's the kind of mix that makes me wanna say, "How about that?! And even more, it's the kind of thing that makes me wanna say, "What else we got? What's next?"

Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2. His Basketball Jones column will appear each Wednesday during the NBA season.