September 16, 2009
OK, we know the first decade of the 21st century doesn't really end until 2011. We think. But we also know there have been 10 full NBA seasons played since the phrase "Y2K" was on all of our lips (1999-2000), and here at Ball Don't Lie we've decided to use this as an offseason excuse to rank some of the best and not-so-brightest of the 10 campaigns in question. The result? Why, top 10 lists!
That has to feel good, right Dwight? Look at the man's smile.
It hasn't been the easiest decade, but we've had a bit of fun, right? What follows is one man's list of the finest feel-good moments of the last 10 years. And though I may have overlooked some gems, let's not quibble over rankings. Do you really want to waste an afternoon arguing over kittens in a box vs. kittens playing with string?
10. Mike D'Antoni hired as Knicks coach
Yes, even us hatas have some heart.
Because Knicks owner Jim Dolan is a bit of a twit, New York fans have had to deal with too much nonsense, for too long. Isiah Thomas, you may have heard, miserably ran things as the GM and eventual coach from 2003 to 2008, and though previous administrations put the team in the playoffs pretty consistently, those Knicks outfits were a pretty tough watch.
2008, however, brought in Mike D'Antoni. And though his rebuilding attempts didn't provide many wins in his first campaign as coach, he did supply a fun style of ball that made you want to tune in -- after years of being asked to tune out by team management. Knicks fans deserved so much better for so long, and while D'Antoni alone won't be enough to turn things completely around, it was a nice starting point.
There's a good chance that you weren't watching, last April, when the Warriors came into Arizona to take on the Suns. Sure, two of the fastest teams in the NBA would likely present a nice game, but this particular contest was on the last night of the regular season, and both clubs were out of the playoffs at that point.
It was a fun time out, as you'd expect, but a statistical oddity sent the event over the top. Grant Hill, in his 14th season, would be playing his 82nd game in a campaign for the first time in his career. This wouldn't have seemed like a big deal a decade prior, but after a series of ankle injuries shelved him for the overwhelming majority of the decade, it felt good to watch the 36-year-old touch ‘em all.
8. The dunk contest returns
The 1997 version of the slam dunk contest was pretty dull. Michael Finley(notes) attempted a cartwheel Bob Sura(notes) raised the roof, and Kobe Bryant(notes) won things with a between-the-legs spectacle that served as a low-rent and low-tent version of the same trick Isaiah Rider tried years before.
1998? The NBA decided against even having a dunk contest. 1999? Labor strife did away with the entire All-Star weekend.
2000? That was fun.
7. Timberwolves pay tribute to George Mikan
I can't find a single photo chronicling the event.
I can't even find a good shot of the statue the Timberwolves debuted as a result. No video, either.
What I can tell you is that, in April of 2001, the Minnesota Timberwolves hosted the Los Angeles Lakers on a Sunday afternoon, and the two squads decided to pay tribute to the legendary George Mikan at halftime of a nationally televised contest.
Mikan was in attendance, a rarity at that point in his life (he passed away a few years later), but in great sprits as the two teams (the once and future Minnesota NBA franchises) feted the Hall of Famer.
A Mikan statue was unveiled, cheers all around, a good time had by all. Pity that just eight years later I can't find much evidence of it actually happening.
6. Golden State tops the Mavericks
If you're a Mavericks fan, it was quite the horror show. But to most of the basketball-watching public — even if we appreciated the Mavericks, and weren't exactly in the market for a gimmick — it was a fabulous time out.
The eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors made the opening round of the playoffs seem like a late-stage rally, downing the heavily favored Mavericks, a team with title aspirations that had won 67 games during the regular season. Toss in the drama that comes with the current coach of the Warriors (Don Nelson) having run and coached the Mavs for nearly a decade prior, matching wits with his protégé (and former Warriors guard) Avery Johnson on the Dallas sideline, and you have a pairing straight out of central casting.
We usually don't care for such things, but because the play was so good, this series was so much fun.
5. Gregg Popovich hacks, eh, Shaq
Though he's a dour sort a good chunk of the time, at least publicly, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has long showcased a dry wit that you can't help but admire. That, and all the championship rings. And the dry wit. He's like Dick Cavett, with bling.
That said, few coaches seem prepared to waste a possession, a team foul, a personal foul on a starter for a gag. And if you had to pick the sort of coach to try it, for a gag, Coach Pop would seem far, far down the list. Even in the first game, the first possession, of a long season.
But there he was, to start the 2008-09 campaign, asking Michael Finley to bear-hug Shaquille O'Neal(notes) to start the first game of the season, the first contest following Shaq's bitter protestations regarding San Antonio's hack-a-Shaq philosophy from the previous year's playoffs.
Nearly a year later, it's still hilarious. And it's impressive what a white beard and a double thumbs-up can get you. I hear that's how Michael McDonald got into the Doobie Brothers.
4. Shaq and Kobe cut the crap
There wasn't really a date for this, the thick ice between two of the best players of our era started to melt slowly during the middle part of the decade, some in-roads were made during some regular-season games, and it took until February of 2009 for the two to at least feel comfortable joshing in public.
It may have been an act, but you got the sense (as the two shared the 2009 All-Star Game MVP) that both players felt sheepish about just how horribly they had handled their chance at a Bulls-like dynasty. Shaq and Kobe could have won six or seven rings together; instead they petered out at three while tossing veiled and unmitigated insults at each other, constantly.
Both sides were wrong. Both sides had fine, appropriate points, but both sides screwed up. And even if it was all an act, even if you're still upset that the two adults couldn't have handed things better from 1996 to 2004, it was nice to see the pair at least pretend to get it right.
3. Charles Barkley takes on Dick Bavetta
Things started innocently enough. Doug Collins couldn't call a game for TNT, so Charles Barkley had to sit in. The game, a miserable contest between the Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Lakers, was bloody awful. So Barkley, suddenly comfortable even as a broadcast team rookie, set to bashing all he saw.
Dick Bavetta got some of it. The then-68-year-old referee was chastised on-air by Barkley for being, well, a 68-year-old referee. Days later, Bavetta received word of Barkley's take, and offered to take on the former All-Star in a foot race. A lengthy back-and-forth ensued, leading to a dash for charity that took place during the 2008 All-Star weekend.
Who won? Watch this clip.
2. Zo returns
It's not that Zo returned, it's that he kept returning.
Returned to the court in April of 2001, after we thought we'd never see him play basketball again, much less play basketball the same year after being diagnosed with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis. He returned to the court again in 2004-05 after missing all of 2002-03 and most of 2003-04 while suffering from the disease, and eventually undergoing a kidney transplant. He kept coming back.
He could have handled some of the aspects of his comeback a bit better, to put it lightly. There were trade demands, a contract buyout (if Mourning didn't want to the play for the Toronto Raptors, fine, shouldn't he have to give money back to get out of his contract? Not the other way around?), and a whole lot of preening and flexing after the first and toughest part of an and-one went down.
But he was also someone who had the game he loved taken away from him. Twice. Thought to have to be forced into retirement, twice. So you had to excuse him as he tried to make every second count.
1. Mo Cheeks to the rescue
Not only is it the feel-good moment of the decade, but it might be the coolest thing I've ever witnessed.
An otherwise uneventful early round playoff game between the Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks, provided the setting. Thirteen-year-old Natalie Gilbert was set to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" prior to the contest, providing a rendition of a song that both teams had heard at least 90 times that season alone, to say nothing of thousands of times before. Nothing against the exercise, but imagine having to stand at attention for your national anthem every day before work. You'd tend to tune it out after a while.
Though she started off expertly, Gilbert flubbed a few lines in the second verse, and seemed a bit shell-shocked. Kind of par for the course, when you're asked to sing a song this tough, in front of 20,000 (albeit supportive) fans. Cheeks, then the coach of the Trail Blazers, came to her rescue. Put his arm around the girl, encouraged her, even had to push the mic closer to her on two occasions, and helped her through the rendition.
The result was quite moving, to this day. Try watching this clip, for perhaps the hundredth time, and not get all misty.
Everything about what Cheeks did just defined cool. He had to be 25 feet away from Gilbert as she first started to break up, separated by team employees, camera crews, wires, obstacles, whatever. But he managed to bound over there in seconds. Cheeks has never wanted much to do with the spotlight, from his playing career until now, and yet he didn't hesitate for a second to make himself part of this story. Because this kid, this scared kid, needed help with her story.
For character to be revealed so swiftly, like that, so definitively, it just makes you feel ... well, good.
Questions? Comments? Furious and righteous anger at a world, not to mention top 10 list, gone wrong? Swing by later today at about 3 p.m. Eastern for a BDL mini-chat regarding this very list.