Baby Boomers ran the NBA for two decades. Starting with Magic Johnson’s Finals MVP in 1980 through Michael Jordan’s Game 6, you couldn’t eat unless you were a Baby Boomer. In the 19 years between Magic’s Finals MVP and Generation X reppin’ Tim Duncan’s 1999 Finals MVP, a Baby Boomer won virtually every regular season and Finals MVP and every scoring, rebounding and assist title. Only Shaquille O’Neal had the audacity to crash their party, winning the ’95 and ’99 scoring titles…oh, and Gen X favorite Rod Strickland snatched the ’98 assist title.
Tom Brokaw dubbed the generation of Americans that survived the Great Depression and then fought Nazis in World War II as “the Greatest Generation” – sociologists agreed. In the NBA, though, the Baby Boomers that dominated the 80s and 90s would undoubtedly get that tag. But, as great as they were, part of why they were able to remain in power for so long was because the first half of Gen X hoopers produced a troubling amount of busts (Pervis Ellison), underachievers (Kenny Anderson, Derrick Coleman) and unfortunate injury casualties (Larry Johnson). Of players drafted from 1988 to 1994, only Shaq, Jason Kidd and Gary Payton are surefire Hall of Famers.
Sports, like music, is a young dude’s domain. But unlike, say, Jay-Z refusing to give up the throne, young superstars in the 90s couldn’t take it from Jordan and his fellow Boomers. And as transfixing as Jordan was, things got boring after a while. Who was checking for Stockton-to-Malone or Ewing vs. Olajuwon in 1997? It took Jordan retiring and Shaq teaming with a developed Kobe Bryant for Gen X to finally get those Boomer geezers to fall back.
It’s been admirable and even inspiring to see Kevin Garnett and Duncan and Kobe other OGs stay more than relevant, but, it’s time. It’s time for Generation Y – LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose and other 80s Babies -- to get disrespectful and take the car keys.
It’s seemed like Gen Y has been ready to do just that, winning all the regular season MVPs and scoring titles and taking up the bulk the All-NBA spots the past four seasons. But, what’s troubling is that for all the virtuosity that the young cats exhibit, they aren’t winning the big boy. We could be looking at a Boston vs. San Antonio matchup in the NBA Finals. This is a problem.
Dwyane Wade won the Finals MVP in 2006, bolstered by a still dominant Shaq and a bunch of other Gen X stalwarts. Other than that, it’s been “Shaq & Kobe,” the Spurs’ Big 3 (there’s no consensus on when Gen X ends, but enough sociologist have it spanning through ‘82, which would make Tony Parker Gen X, too), the Pistons’ egalitarian Gen X troop, Boston’s Big Three (Gen Y Rajon Rondo hadn’t made it a Big Four, yet), Kobe/Lamar Odom/Pau Gasol – you get the picture. And then, last June, in the most damning and frustrating example of Gen Y’s inability to truly take over, the Dirk Nowitzki/Jason Terry/J-Kidd-led Mavericks put, LeBron and D-Wade in the backseat, threw on the window locks and bumped an iPod playlist of nothing but Hit Squad, Native Tongue, NWA and Hieroglyphics.
If the Spurs and Celtics keep these young boys from holding the trophy, again, then we might be looking at a Lost Generation. Given Gen Y’s collective, “never seen before” talent, that would be unthinkable and straight-up depressing.
Every generation gets a bad rap as they come of age. Born at the end of the 70s, I’m considered a Gen Xer. We were considered everything from lazy to antisocial to amoral. Generation Y is in the midst of similar public backlash. In a 2010 New York Times Magazine piece entitled “The Why-Worry Generation,” Judith Warner gave Gen Y the following props: “They have inspired a number of books on how unmanageable they are in the workplace, with their ubiquitous iPods, flip-flops and inability to take criticism…A consensus has emerged that, psychologically, they’re a generation of basket cases: profoundly narcissistic and deprived of a sense of agency.”
She went on: “For critics, this is irrational exuberance, an example of group psychosis, proof that this generation is headed for a major crash.”
Dwight Howard is sorting through his wreckage. Next season will be LeBron’s 10th -- I can only imagine what nine ringless seasons will do to the psyche of what could have been the greatest player ever.
By all accounts this generation of basketball players is astonishingly wonderful on an unprecedented level. It’s often awe-inspiring to watch LeBron and Durant and Rose. Chris Paul plays point guard better than any human being not named Magic. But none of the Gen Y superstars – save Wade (and Rondo), of course – have any jewelry.
People are perplexed. So much so, that now you’re hearing certain factions trying to change the narrative -- like, all of a sudden, it’s not all about championships. Nah, fam – it’s all about championships.
This litmus test is not unfair. Why? Because these young dudes are better than everyone. They are the best players on the planet. Westbrook is better than Ginolbili and Parker; D-Wade is better than Ray Allen. Basketball is obviously a team sport (and the Spurs look to be a juggernaut), but it is one where individual brilliance – especially in the biggest moments – can trump everything.
At some point, LeBron or KD or Paul or Howard or Rose or one of the other Gen Y superstars is going to win a championship. But it won’t mean as much if they get the championship due to the inevitable Gen X attrition. That’s a Docile Takeover. They have to forcibly take ownership of the league. For their sake, the league’s sake, our sake and history’s sake, I hope they get their bully on next month.