Posted by Neil Paine on June 4, 2009
Sometimes I mark the passage of time in my life by the sporting events that happened in a given year. Is that weird? Maybe so. But still, I'm prone to associating particular years with certain happenings from the world of sports -- for instance, I hear 1997, I think of Tiger Woods' historic victory at Augusta. 1998? Michael Jordan's "last shot". 1985? The start of the Celtics' dominating run to championship #16. Oh, and I was also born that year, can't forget that. But mostly I think of the Celtics.
A few years back, Doug Drinen wrote a great piece over at PFR called "My life story, one Super Sunday at a time". Basically, the premise was that he was like me (which should scare you, Doug) in the sense that he marked the passage of time in his life via a special sporting event, in his case the Super Bowl. He remembered where he was, how he felt, and who he was rooting for each year, and it was sort of a touchstone that he could come back to again and again, never exactly the same but also never really all that different. Come to think of it, the Super Bowl sounds a lot like a holiday when you phrase it that way (and I wonder what Chomsky would say about that fact?).
The Super Bowl is a special case, though. It's one game, for all the marbles, it always happens on a Sunday evening with 2 weeks of incessant hype leading up to the game itself. In other words, it's truly an event. Can we say the same thing about the NBA Finals?
In 1993, Michael Jordan was at the top of his game and his Bulls were facing the Suns of Charles Barkley, the MVP and another very popular player. Predictably, the series was highly memorable and set new records for television ratings. I was very young at the time and just starting out as a player in church and rec leagues, so I'm not sure what I remember of this series -- if anything. But I do remember watching Michael Jordan, and knowing how special he was from how everyone treated him and talked about him. I went to a camp a few weeks later led by former Knicks and Hawks guard Mike "Stinger" Glenn (a true gentleman if there ever was one, btw), and everyone was infatuated with Michael. They gave out Jordan posters to every kid, including myself. So, yeah, I'd say that was as memorable a time as any Super Bowl.
Jordan unexpectedly retired before the 93-94 season, and the ratings slipped, but the 1994 Finals were still memorable -- 7 games, the Knicks and Ewing vs. Olajuwon and the Rockets. I don't remember much from the time, except that I read about it in NBA Inside Stuff magazine after the fact, and prized the Hakeem card that came with the magazine. In 1995, things basically felt the same, even with Jordan returning, because the Bulls didn't make the Finals. But Shaq/Penny fever was at its height going into that Houston series; I recall kids wearing Penny Hardaway jerseys and Shaq's goofy old Reebok shoes on the playground. The Rockets won, but I remember barely caring because it was a sweep and the hip Magic were on the losing end.
1996 was a highly memorable year for me, because Jordan came back and I was playing (and following) more basketball than ever. The Celtics sucked, so I rooted for the Bulls to smash any and all records en route to the crown, which they eventually did. You can't really put into words how important it was that MJ was back. I mean, really back. Dominating the souls of all would-be-challengers back. Thus began the heyday of hoops in my youth.
1997 and 1998 felt like one long Finals series. Although the Bulls faced challenges along the way (injuries, Jerry Krause-instigated animosity, contract situations, etc.), to the 11-year-old boy it felt like a foregone conclusion that Jordan and the Bulls would be back in the Finals in 1998, and that they were facing the Jazz again made it especially cool -- like I say, it was like they were having one long series that lasted 2 years, and you knew Jordan was going to come out on top. I was on vacation in Florida for Game 6, when Jordan hit The Shot Part IV (or whatever it's supposed to be called), and I can remember just going nuts, just completely crazy, when he hit the game-winner. The people below us had to be wondering what the hell was going on (assuming they weren't watching too, in which case they knew exactly what the hell was going on).
1999 was weird. I was better than ever at hoops (which had a lot to do with growing to about 6'3" the summer before), but it translated to an increased interest in the college game because of the lockout. I watched the Knicks-Spurs Finals, but I had zero rooting interest and really didn't pay that much attention. Apparently I wasn't the only one -- the TV ratings were the lowest they had been since 1981.
2000 was memorable, in a kind of bad way. Again, the C's were awful, so I spent most of my rooting interest cheering against the hated Lakers; soon I latched onto the team I felt had the best chance of knocking off L.A., the Portland Trail Blazers. It helped that one of teammates was a big-time Laker fan, so we engaged in a playoffs-long taunt-fest that culminated in the brutal 7-game Western Conference Finals. With Portland up big early in the 4th, I had the poor sportsmanship to call my buddy and really give him hell about the Lakers' certain, impending defeat. Huge mistake. The next morning, I get a call that consists of nothing but a 3-minute long laugh on the other end. After that, the Finals were sort of anti-climactic.
In 2001 I continued to wish poor fortune upon the Lakers, and, happily enough, until the playoffs they looked like a team in disarray. Then they flipped the "on" switch. My teammates (most of whom also harbored ill will towards L.A.) and I were briefly enthused when our tiny hero Allen Iverson led Philly to a shocking Game 1 victory in the Finals... but it was short-lived. I'll always remember Tyronn Lue getting stepped over, though.
By 2002 the Celtics had finally climbed out of the Pitino hole and made an exciting run to the Conference Finals, which had me fired up, but they lost a really disappointing series to the Nets, of all teams. Despite the bad taste left by that loss, I predictably rooted for Jersey against L.A. , but we all knew they didn't really have a chance. Maybe it was a good thing, because they spared the C's the ignomy of a similar thrashing at the Lakers' hands. The most memorable moments of that entire postseason, by far, came in the WCF between L.A. and Sacramento. I watched the "Robert Horry Game" over at a friend's house, and we were giddy about the prospect of Sacto knocking off the champs... A few seconds later, so much for that. I'm not a Kings fan, but I can say that Horry dagger was one of the more deflating feelings I had experienced as a sports fan to that point.
2003's theme became "anybody but L.A.", so I was delighted when the Spurs knocked off the Lake Show in the semis. From there, it was like deja vu -- another loss for the Celtics against New Jersey, another time where the East was so bad that you knew whoever came out of the West was going to win it all. I wanted to see the Mavs, boasting 2 of my favorites in Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki, beat the Spurs, but Steve Kerr went off in the elimination game. I remember watching the Finals with my Dad but being really unenthusiastic about it that season.
In 2004, the Lakers again made a crazy-lucky run to the Finals (this time it was Derek Fisher, not Horry, delivering the improbable shots), but in a bizarre twist, a pre-Finals bet had me rooting for the Lakers in that series. And naturally, the only time in my life I pull for them, they lose. %$#!@ Lakers.
I wanted to like the 2005 Finals, I really did. Even so, it wasn't a great series, though it wasn't as horrible as some people make it out to be. I felt it pitted the two teams that were playing the best at the time (I thought Miami had the better season, but they lost that tough 7-game ECF to Detroit), one of whom was the defending champ. But I couldn't help but sit there watching it and say, "why isn't this a better series?" 7 games, Spurs and Pistons? It should have been great. And I'm not one of those fans turned off by defensive play, either. It just wasn't that good. Only one game (another Horry moment) was really that close down the stretch, and I had zero rooting interest either way. It was just a disappointing Finals.
I had admired the Mavs throughout the Nash era, and even rooted for them in 2006, well after Stevie Wonder left the fold. A buddy of mine was from Dallas, so we really got enthusiastic about the team as the playoffs went on. And what wasn't to like? Dirk Nowitzki looked like he was going to go down as having had one of the more memorable playoffs in recent history... until approximately the closing 6 minutes of Game 3 vs. Miami, that is. From there, it was all Dwyane Wade -- oh, and Dick Bavetta, Bennett Salvatore, Danny Crawford... You get the idea.
2007 was only memorable because of the way LeBron James propelled the Cavs to the Finals, with his jaw-dropping outburst against Detroit in the ECF. I'll never forget where I was when he did that... but unfortunately, I can't say the same thing about the actual Spurs-Cavs Final itself. The viewing public felt the same way, responding to the sweep with the absolute worst Nielsen numbers in NBA Finals history. I respect the Spurs' accomplishments, but this was probably the worst Final of my lifetime.
Ah, and we come full circle in 2008. I was born months after a Lakers-Celtics Final, and 23 years later I was rewarded with another one, this time with the C's coming out on top. Objectively, it probably wasn't the greatest Finals series in the world, but I loved most of it, especially the memorable 24-point comeback in Game 4. Oddly enough, I actually watched Game 2 from a hospital bed after some minor surgery, so I had to subdued as Leon "Pow" Powe poured in 21 points, but seeing the series play out the way it did certainly expedited my recovery.
So what will 2009 hold? Well, we learned above that the Finals is nowhere near the cultural event that the Super Bowl is (I mean, who has NBA Finals parties? Does Bill Simmons even hold those?), and a lot of times even matchups that look good on paper can be pretty crappy in the end. But I think there's a lot of potential in this Lakers-Magic Final. Both teams are finally playing their best after some suspect work in the early rounds, and I believe there's a lot of parity in terms of the specific matchups. I'm on record having picked L.A. in 6, but I wouldn't be surprised if this goes the full seven games. And I don't know about you, but I'm ready for tip-off... Let's make another Finals memory!