A Very Bright Future Amid Dark Clouds

When your favorite sports team, which won six championships in the 1990's and was led by the greatest athlete of a generation, manages to win exactly 20 percent of its games in the last three seasons, it's easy to become apathetic towards the game you love.

As a Chicago Bulls fan however, it was easy for me to rekindle my spirit for the game of basketball when I watched the NBA All-Star Game two nights ago.

I wasn't expecting to catch more than a few cheap thrills: a Vince Carter facial here, an Allen Iverson crossover there. Yet what I saw on Sunday night was a new and exciting batch of superstars taking the reigns of basketball stardom from the old guard.

Long gone are the days of MJ, Magic, Larry, and Sir Charles. The NBA is now the league of C-Webb, KG, Kobe, Iverson and co. How fitting that the two remaining all-stars from the heyday of Dream Team I, Karl Malone and David Robinson, played a combined 14 minutes, or about exactly half the time that Tim Duncan spent on the court.

It's easy to be cynical about a sport in which 19 year old kids earn millions of dollars for little more than sitting on a bench and looking interested, and where news of drug busts and wife beatings are no longer shocking. But at the same time, the years of being able to look towards professional athletes as role models have long since passed.

The NBA is a league still trying to define its identity in the post-Jordan era. The golden age that started with the Celtics-Lakers rivalry in the 1980's and continued with the Bulls domination during 1990's is over, and is not likely to be duplicated any time soon.

Yet despite this mini-crisis of sorts, the Association remains the most exciting league in the world, save for perhaps the NFL. And better yet, it's being led in the new millennium by a class of superstars that is just as deep and exciting as the original Dream Team coterie.

Parity, talent, and competition usually create excitement, and judging by this standard, the NBA is in the nascent phase of a new 'silver age.' The drafts from 1992-1996 yielded a bonanza of new stars that now define basketball like the 1984-1985 classes of Jordan, Olajuwon, Malone, Barkley, Ewing, and Stockton did for the past 15 years.

The likes of Shaquille O'Neal, Alonzon Mourning, Chris Webber, Grant Hill, Allen Iverson, Kevin Garnett, and Kobe Bryant, along with Vince Carter from the 1998 draft, now stand poised to leave an indelible mark on their sport.

Usually All-Star Games don't matter much. Funny though how no one seemed to mention that to the Eastern and Western Conference players before tip-off on Sunday. In addition to good defense and emotion, the NBA stars provided the fans with a game to remember.

Led by Allen 'The Answer' Iverson, the East squad came from 21 points behind with eight minutes left in the game to win a thrilling 111-110 match-up. Kobe Bryant and Stephon Marbury went mano a mano in the last minute. Finally Dikembe Mutumbo forced the Lakers sensation into an awkward pass to Tim Duncan with just seconds remaining, and his desperate last second shot was blocked by Vince Carter to end the game.

What is perhaps more exciting than the All-Star Game (and the Bulls' pathetic 6-42 record) though, is the second half of the season and the potential playoff match-ups in store. A Knicks and Sixers conference final series looks likely, and will no doubt be a classic. New York in the playoffs is electrifying (see numerous close games, brawls, and psychological wars waged by feisty coaches).

The real marquee match-ups will come in the Western Conference though. The Blazers, Lakers, Spurs, and Kings are all bona fide threats to winning the crown, and most likely will face off against one another come the conference semifinals and finals. Yet teams like the Mavericks, Suns, Jazz, and T-Wolves will all provide entertaining first-round series that will dwarf any potential excitement generated in the Eastern Conference's first two rounds.

Whatever materializes these next four months, one thing is certain. Despite those who say the future of the NBA is on shaky ground, the league has a secure foundation of talent and appeal that will carry it successfully over this decade and beyond.

For sure it faces challenges, such as confronting the loss of it's most marketable and recognizable star ever, as well as high school kids and college freshmen forgoing an opportunity to improve their games, and instead entering the draft and diluting the NBA.

Instead of redefining the NBA as a league of the 'next Jordan' (i.e. Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant, or Kevin Garnett), Commissioner David Stern should rather focus on rivalries and multiple superstars. He has, as is obvious from Sunday night's All-Star Game, a vast pool of talent to play with.

Right now though, I'm just looking forward to my favorite time of the year - the months of May and June - when the NBA playoffs come around.

If I were a betting man, I'd put my money on the Blazers beating the Spurs in seven, the Sixers defeating the Knicks in six, and the Blazers winning the NBA title over the Sixers in six. But seeing as I'm not a betting man, I'm just going to pop in the NBA Live 2001 CD on my computer and try to rebuild the Chicago Bulls myself through franchise mode. Improving on that 20-percent winning percentage shouldn't be too tough.