To have witnessed the NBA during the rough and tough 1980's is to know that one had to be truly maniacal within the confines of the game in order to be successful back then. I mean, on some straight up ax-murderer type ish, within the context of the game. All of the great ones had that special something about them. Behind the bright smile of Earvin “Magic” Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers was a fierce competitor who would dunk on his own mother, and point in her face as he ran back down the floor. One can’t help but recall the choir boy smile of Isaiah Thomas while he was with the Detroit Pistons.
He appeared humble, happy and well-adjusted while in front of the camera, but was often described as manipulative, despotic and just a downright ornery fellow in the locker room and on the basketball court. Those of us who had the pleasure of seeing the legendary Julius “Dr. J” Irving interact with the media off the court recall that he was a cool dude. Not simply aesthetically, although he brought that New York flavor with the brims, jackets and shoes that he wore, but he spoke so eloquently and intelligently. As a kid who was already picking up on subliminal messages from film and television regarding the alleged un-intelligence of the Black man, Dr. J was very much a hero to me in that regard.
So imagine my surprise when on November 9th, 1984, the cool, calm and classy Dr. J was seen trying to hit Boston Celtics small forward Larry Bird with a pugilistic value meal. That’s right, a two-piece with a biscuit. Though I didn’t know it at the time, history would reveal that the historic paragon of NBA cool was goaded by Larry Legend all game with his persistent and insistent trash talk- as well as his deft scoring ability. Finally, the Doc had enough. Larry Bird had succeeded in causing the level-headed, conscientious all-star to unravel before the viewing public. I bet he got a good laugh out of that later on.
Former Chicago Bulls shooting guard, and consensus choice by many as the greatest basketball player the world has ever seen, Michael Jordan is infamous for the manner in which he pushed his teammates in practice. He pushed them so hard that, according to legend, he was involved in physical altercations with teammates on at least five different occasions, one of which involved former teammate, and current Golden State Warriors head coach, Steve Kerr. And no catalog of historic NBA "non-friendlies" would be complete without mentioning Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant.
You know you’re getting a little long in the tooth when you realize that Kobe Bryant is now considered a part of the NBA old school. Yes, Kobe “The Kid” is now damn near 40 years old and the NBA has become much more player-friendly on many levels; the reduction of physicality and a league-wide officiating style that is intolerant of individuals who are demonstrative, engage in trash talk or are passionate in any manner that the league deems as being excessive.
Back in the day it was frowned upon for teammates to demonstrate any form of kinship or camaraderie toward their opponent in the playoffs. In many cases, sportsmanship was frowned upon all together. No handshaking, no helping opponents up when they fall down, no nothing. It was about that searing desire to be the very best and to win championships.
Off-season friends would turn into mortal enemies during the season.
In the past, the very best were sadistic and boastful about the manner in which the won, often taunting fans and opponents alike with their brilliance. Today’s crop of NBA illuminates are a different breed. For the longest time I have been trying to conclude whether or not this should be considered a bad thing. After all, the integrity of the game, as well as fan safety, is paramount in the NBA. This is especially so when we considered that the Malice at the Palace brawl between the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers happened only 11 years ago. However, that maniacal fire is largely missing from this crop of NBA superstars and I admit that I miss it.
LeBron James presents a combination of size and abilities the likes of which no one, short of Jim Thorpe or Bo Jackson, has come close to matching in the history of U.S. pro sports. But the two-time NBA World Champion and four-time MVP could have easily won two more titles, as well as an additional MVP award, by this point in his career if he would been just a bit more, well, “can’t get right” in his approach. However, his size naturally brings a level of intimidation that makes up for his perceived demeanor- though those that adhere to the belief that he is “un-clutch” have decreased exponentially over the years with each championship.
New Orleans Hornets PF Anthony Davis’ physical measurements have a built in level of intimidation as well. However, when the real junkyard dog came to town, as in the form of Golden State Warriors PF Draymond Green, Davis was less than his normal self at times, even against a smaller but more passionate and aggressive player. Although this league is far more fraternal midseason than their counterparts in days past, that mean streak can develop naturally.
For example, many opposing NBA bruisers tried to take it to the high-flying Blake Griffin when he first came into the league. Maybe it was all the commercial deals he got, his movie star good looks or just plain jealousy, but Blake was beaten up, talked about and belittled in the media by his fellow power forwards and centers in the league. But a funny thing happened over the course of this season. Griffin has developed a mean streak and killer instinct that has become almost as lethal as the midrange jump shot that he has developed. But, as was demonstrated by a late game turnover against the San Antonio Spurs in Game Two of their series, he’s still growing as an NBA killer. However, battles against the Memphis Grizzlies and their mammoth frontline of C Marc Gasol and PF Zach “Z-Bo” Randolph, as well as being schooled by elder statesman, all-time great Tim Duncan, and teaming with fiery floor general Chris Paul, appears to have helped Blake get tougher and nastier. It has been a joy to watch.
I know this might seem like a silly thing to say about millionaire athletes, but they just seem too damn happy out there. Scowling isn’t a bad thing if you really mean it. Neither is the hard, clean foul to an opponent who dares to drive down the lane.
When we look at players like 2015 NBA MVP Stephen Curry, 2014 NBA MVP Kevin Durant and 2015 NBA MVP runner-up James Harden of the Houston Rockets, we see they possess incredible abilities the likes of which few, if any, have ever exhibited to this level of proficiency in NBA history. But each seems devoid of that inner flame, that burning consternation, that sizzling heat source deep within their gut powering their game like a nuclear reactor.
The only 2015 MVP candidate to outwardly contain this attribute appears to be Oklahoma City Thunder PG Russell Westbrook. Don’t get me wrong; one does not have to be a scowling, foot stomping, hard fouling, tech-getting mad man to harness that energy. You want to use it to propel the team forward, not to cause headaches for them.
Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs has that flaming intangible and demonstrated it on a regular basis, even in losing the first round series against the Clippers, and he’s known for being a quiet, calculating assassin not unlike a ninja, as opposed to a loud and boastful samurai. But for my team, either would do.
As we proceed deeper into the NBA playoffs, I’ll not only be clamoring to see the best players in the game, but those with that little extra intangible deep inside as well. Because, when all is said and done, this is as integral to being an NBA Champion as skill and coaching ever were.