Let me set the scene.
It’s 1987 and the NBA Play Offs are under way.
The Celtics and the Lakers rule the roost, although this would be the last time that particularly familiar double-headed dynasty met in the Finals for another 21 years.
The up and coming Pistons reach the Eastern Conference Finals, while the up and coming Michael Jordan (he developed quite well, didn’t he) and his Chicago Bulls would be swept in round one by the Celtics.
This was truly a golden era with the likes of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Moses Malone, Julius Erving, Isiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins, Charles Barkley, Akeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Alex English, Patrick Ewing, Adrian Dantley, Joe Dumars, and Dennis Rodman featuring – future hall of famers, one and all, and yes, big thanks to the internet for the comprehensive list!
There’s nothing especially unusual about this story so far, but we’re getting there, because in 1987 I’m 14 years old, I’ve been playing basketball at school for a grand total of just two years and here in the UK, I’m about to watch the NBA on television for the very first time!
Saturday night, quite late if I remember correctly so I may have been forced to video it (yes, on to a tape), BBC 1, presented by Sally Jones (whatever happened to her?) and I get, in a one hour programme, my first ever look at the pinnacle of professional basketball. That’s not to play down basketball in the UK, but it wasn’t great then, and it just doesn’t seem to have come on as far as it could since, sadly, but the NBA was the ultimate then as it is now.
So, I got my first glimpse of Jordan and Bird et al, and well, I was blown away. It was incredible, seeing these big names on the small screen was a dream come true and a whole new world from what I had seen of basketball so far – a whole new ball game, if you will.
I was hooked.
I played as often as could and went on to represent not just my school, but my district and then my county. The Play Offs returned to UK television screens in 1988 and my interest remained high, right through the years of the Dream Team, Bulls’ success and with the changing of the guard. The ‘names’ then became the likes of Shaq, Kemp, Mourning, Pippen and Hardaway – the new breed. Coverage became more comprehensive on this side of the pond and we even began to see live games on the satellite sports channels.
I embraced NCAA basketball too, reading everything I could about the Final Four, Bobby Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers, and even owned official jerseys and merchandise and a few pairs of Air Jordans. Not exactly a super fan, but as a lad in England who loved football (soccer), my parallel passion for basketball was pretty significant.
Then, I finished studying, and playing, and went to work full time, and that was that. For reasons that are lost in the mists of time, and I genuinely mean that, I honestly don’t know why, but basketball stopped being a part of my life. Strange, huh?
Fast forward to 2014.
Earlier this year I saw that the audio version of Lazenby’s book on Michael Jordan was available, so I got it and that’s where it all started, the memories were rekindled, and then I began looking back at old clips on YouTube (Dazzling Dunks and Basket Bloopers with Marv Albert and Frank Layden anyone!), Hall of Fame speeches and downloaded the e-book of The Jordan Rules, a title I had always wanted to read.
Then I decided to see if any of those names I remembered from the past were still involved today, and was heartened to see names like McHale, Kerr, Price, Scott, Jordan, Bird and Ewing, though perhaps not as many I was expecting. But, regardless, I was now exposed to the 2014 version of the NBA….
And then I discovered Grantland. Firstly through a long interview with Larry Bird, then that with Horace Grant and on to the podcasts and season previews.
Guess what? Basketball got me, I’m hooked again.
Live TV coverage in the UK is now far more accessible and, for a month at least, I’ve bought a League Pass so I can also watch games on my mobile / tablet from the comfort of my bed – for most start at around midnight over here. I’m exhausted!
I’m enjoying the Bulls the Rockets and the Hornets, and have been impressed with the Warriors and also the Kings, and the coverage these days, in the internet age, is as glossy and comprehensive as I would expect it to be for something like the NBA, and it really puts our Premier League to shame in many respects, but that’s another subject altogether.
The most extraordinary thing perhaps, in terms of the personalities involved and much of the narrative, is what I’ve missed in the past twenty or so years.
Here are a few examples:
• I knew Kobe Bryant existed, obviously, but had no idea he had risen to such heights or fallen to such injury lows. (NB I just read Phil Jackson’s book and that helped)
• I didn’t get too excited about LeBron James leaving Miami to return home to Cleveland, for the simple reason that I didn’t really know that much about Lebron James in the first place!
• The first time I saw Steve Nash play was in ‘The Finish Line’! The Grantland interview with Nash was fascinating and I actually feel very sorry that the bulk of his career happened without me watching. He seems like a great pro and a really sound guy.
• Charles Barkley is great value.
• Yannick Noah’s son is a basketball player – who knew.
• When did everyone start wearing compression tights to play basketball in?
• How come some of the team kits are more like t-shirts than traditional vests?
• Am I imagining it, or do teams shoot the three a lot than they used to?
• Loads of the old names are on Twitter – and Dominique Wilkins answered a question I sent him – that’s a pretty cool highlight (sorry).
• Pelicans and Thunder – where did they come from?
• I wasn’t aware that the Hornets had undergone a name change – twice.
• Inflatable mascots – brilliant!
And so on.
Anyway, from an NBA perspective, and perhaps this is the key point, I am enjoying every minute. Despite the list above, and it could have been much longer believe me, it almost feels like I haven’t been away. I still think the game is unrivalled for athleticism, excitement, team play, individual brilliance and atmosphere.
It might take me a little while to catch up properly, but I will.
As someone once said…