Kobe is making his FINAL lap around the NBA. Just think about that for a moment. I am sitting here literally crying on the inside. I knew this day would come, but it is still pretty sad. It’s like finding your first grey hair. Or realizing that you’re knocking on 30’s door. Everyone has their favorite era of basketball. I used to say that my favorite time was the Jordan, Magic, and Bad Boy era. Despite the fact that I really was not old enough to remember that time in great detail, I still said it out of respect. Looking back in retrospect, the best era in basketball actually began when “His Airness” was hanging them up. I remember when AI was being drafted and when a young Kobe’s shared the same court with MJ. When Ray Allen was Jesus Shuttlesworth in Milwaukee. Of course how could anyone forget “Half Man Half Amazing,” AKA, Vince Carter when he defied gravity every night, with zero regard for human life?(Poor Frédéric Weis) As Michael’s time was winding down, the world knew the NBA needed new blood. It took the Bulls years to recover but the NBA proved to be left in great hands. When it came to who would take the throne and who would carry the torch, the league had quite a few options.

Post 1996, (KG, the only exception being drafted in 95), the NBA had its hands full with new talent. The 1996 draft class is arguably one of the best draft classes ever. That class featured Iverson, Kobe, Marbury, Camby, Abdul-Rahim, Steve Nash, and Ray Allen. Those were just some of the stars but the draft was a deep one, producing depth with players like Dfish and Peja. These stars were the first dosage of novocain to ease the pain that Jordan’s absence left the league. Let’s go back over the post Jordan era, mainly 96 to 2006 and analyze how significant of an impact those stars had on the NBA and the culture.

Allen Iverson single handedly changed the game in a profound way. AI’s tattoos, braids, fancy ball handling, long shorts and swag changed the game. He was a walking David V. Goliath story. At 6ft, 165lbs, he had the heart of 10 men. “The Answer” was a fearless scorer with a hood demeanor, and healthy appetite for defender’s ankles. In my opinion  he led the new era in fashion and style of play. His influence got so out of hand that, NBA commissioner saw the need to bring an end to it by implementing a dress code for players. This caused players to change clothes and turn in their fitted caps, throwback jerseys and gold chains for suit and ties. After this change players clothing would go on to get lighter, brighter and tighter over time.

Back to AI. How many of you or your friends grew hair just to get some AI braids? Or maybe you practiced his crossover time and time again, though you never could get away with the quick carry like him. I am not a big fan of change, so I hated AI at first. That’s right I said it, I hated Allen Iverson! At the time I did not appreciate what he truly meant to basketball and the African American culture. But then again who was thinking about the culture at the age of 10? When he won game 1 of the 2001 NBA finals, I was nervous but I remember being so happy when Kobe and the Lakers got the job done and won the series. Of course we all remember the infamous and disrespectful step over, when Iverson crossed Tyronn Lue over and stepped over him with a look of disgust. Who could ever forget that? I mean, I think basketball fans across the globe still feel disrespected for Tyron Lue? Luckily or unluckily for Lue, it makes him relevant in basketball history forever. My  mind eventually changed about AI And I realized exactly how important he was and how he even influenced me. Wanting to be cool like him, I cut my church socks just so I could have a shooting sleeve like him.

Kobe, AKA, The Mamba, is the last man standing from the 1996 NBA draft class. From the very beginning I gravitated towards Kobe the most. I loved everything that he did on the court because his game was such a scary resemblance to Mike’s. Kobe influenced me so much, that I even grew a fro just like him. I had Kobe Bryant Courtside on N64 (still do). I sadly know the lyrics to that awful rap song, What I live For, featuring, Tyra Banks. Personally, I feel that Kobe picked up exactly where MJ left off.  Through all the off court problems, and feuds with Shaq and Phil, we all got to watch Kobe struggle to evolve, and finally evolve in his own way. He probably never matured enough, according to any Kobe hater that you talk today but his game only got better and better. With the exception of his injury depleted seasons in the last two years, Kobe consistently excelled on a high level for a very long time. He arguably has a case for being the best player on planet Earth for 15 straight years. Don’t believe me? Check the stats! That’s what YouTube is for. Look up some highlights. Rather KB8 or KB24, rather Shaq or no Shaq, Kobe gave work on the consistent basis. I can go on forever about Kobe but let’s not forget the others. 

Vince Carter had seasons where he was just unbelievable. Let’s not forget how he attended his college graduation on the morning of game 7, of the 2001 NBA Eastern Conference Semi-finals against Iverson’s Sixers.  That game went down to the wire but ended on a Carter miss with 3 seconds left to go. After a nasty fall out with the Raptors, Vince went on to dazzle and amaze fans with his dunks, on a new team. He was traded to New Jersey and formed a trio with Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson. Vince had All-Star numbers in New Jersey, averaging 23.5 ppg from his 5 years there. He and Kidd even recorded a triple double in the same game. Vince was diagnosed with having “jumper’s knee,” before he left Toronto and over time his knees caused him to be more of a jump shooter. This reality made the great dunker play a predominant ground game and media took notice. Vincesanity has averaged over 20 points a game in 11 of his 17 season played. He has to be regarded as one of the greatest dunkers of the era and he has the right to be in the conversation for greatest dunker ever. Though Vince is still around today, on the Memphis Grizzlies, he is just averaging 4 ppg. It is safe to say that the end is very near for this former star as well.

Ray “Jesus Shuttlesworth” Allen is the era’s best shooter. He had his moments jumping out the gym, that people love to forget. Only kids or fair whether fans will call Ray just a spot up shooter.

Paul Pierce, AKA, The Truth, probably had the most automatic step back ever. He and Antoine Walker had one of the greatest comebacks in NBA history. 

Tracy McGrady, AKA T-Mac probably could do anything he wanted to on the court. If I told you years ago that it was possible to score 13 points in a NBA game in 35 seconds you probably would have called me a crazy liar. Well ONE guy did it and he did it against Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs. Unfortunately T-Mac is criticized for his failed playoffs but he was also a victim to failed duos. One with Grant Hill in Orlando and one in Houston with Yao Ming. His running mates never gained consistent health and eventually his own health just deteriorated. Nevertheless T-Mac had 8 straight seasons where he averaged over 20 ppg, including two scoring titles. During the 02-03 season he averaged 32.1. and he holds the record for the highest scoring average for Christmas games in NBA history, at 43.3 ppg.

Tim Duncan is a man of few words but many titles. He’s been fortunate to experience team consistency with one team. He has 5 titles, and he has alway been a thorn to LeBron James, as two of his titles have come against LeBron led teams. Duncan and Kevin Garnett revolutionized the power forward position in their own respective rights.

KG helped the NBA maintain heart throughout his years and he paved the way for high school kid’s bypassing college. Had Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill stayed healthy, there is no telling where they would be. J-Kidd, Jason Williams, and Steve Nash reinvented passing. While we watched Steve Francis and Baron Davis pave ways for guys like Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook. Who said point guards could not play above the rim? These guys made the game faster, and they brought competition and attitude on the nightly basis. There was not many hugs, and creative hand shakes during pregame during this era. There was no IG flicks or tweeter beefs. Guys like Draymond Green and Hassan Whiteside would have caught one to the chin, Chris Childs style back in this era.

Let’s really analyze the impact of the early 2000’s era. Remember the Dunk Contest in the early 90’s? Yea me neither. As things inched toward the new Millennium, there was a freshness of hops on the rise. The 2000 dunk contest was simply insane. I mean we seen things that we hadn’t seen before. From a 360 reverse windmill to Vince putting his arm through the rim. This era could go toe to toe with Domonique, Spud and MJ. Desmond Mason, Vince Carter, Jason Richardson and Steve Francis were just a few that made homes on ESPN highlights. This very time became the hip hop era, as Hip hop and basketball almost became one.

 “I swear sports and music is so synonymous/cause we want to be them and they wanna be us.”~ Drake

As Iverson was trying to rap, Master P was trying to ball. Fashion found its way of colliding with the NBA as well. Fabolous had everyone wearing throwback jerseys, until Jay-z and David Stern made everyone Change Clothes. Let’s not forget about those A5 and A6 Reebok commercials with AI and Jadakiss. What a time that was to be alive. Our culture had shoes and clothes flying off racks. Everyone wanted in on the profits. Adidas couldn’t keep T-Mac’s in stores and Reebok couldn’t produce Answer’s fast enough. Philly caught criticism for playing in black uniforms. Baggy shorts, headbands was the dress code on and off the court. The influence expanded into video games (NBA Live, NBA Streets), and again the music.

Hovi baby/you Kobe maybe,Tracy McGrady/matter of fact you a Harold Minor~Jay-Z

Basketball was big business and even bigger worldwide. From arena’s to parks and playground around the world, the culture was impacted by this era. The crafty street handles that was usually left to the playground was merged into professional hoops. Guys like Skip to My Lou (Raefer Alston), rarely made the league but times appeared to be changing.

In came AND 1. Guys like Hot Sauce, created their own platform and NBA players also participated. People began debating who’s handle was better between Iverson and And 1 star, Hot Sauce. As the game began to change on the court, this era also began to take the league global. Yao Ming, had all of China hold him down in all star voting each year, AI had kids outside of America  wearing headbands and baggy shorts, and  Dirk stretched the floor for big men wanting to shoot from the outside.

Some of the greatest basketball moments came from this era. Fans witnessed a Laker Dynasty, a quiet Spurs dominance, a 81 point game, The Brawl at the Palace, the Portland Jailblazers, an AI, “we talkin bout practice” speech, Kobe rape trial, and Latrelle “I need to feed my family” Sprewell fiasco. This was a time when the only thing we knew about the Warriors was that they had some cool, “The City” jerseys and hats that made for a perfect outfit. Just when the Pistons was showing the world how to win with no superstar, in came the arrival of The Chosen One, Lebron James.

But before that, lets continue back down memory lane. Remember right time, right place, Robert Horry? How about the Sacramento Queens….I mean Kings? Remember when B.Diddy was the point guard of the future for the Hornets, before CP3 came on the scene? Do you recall how pure of a shooter Peja and Hedo were? How about an awful but fly Clipper team that had Darius Miles, Corey Maggette, Elton Brand, Qrich and Lamar Odom? These guys were on the cover of a magazine with backward jerseys and du-rags? How “real” is that? Am I the only one that took this era for granted? What a difference some years make.

Do you remember when the Kings were Jwill and C-Webb before they were Bibby and C-Webb? I doubt kids even realize that the Grizzlies were in Vancouver first or that Nash and Nowitzki were a tandem first. Lets not get on the premature split between KG and Starbury. Ray Allen and Glen “Big Dog” Robinson were a problem in Milwaukee before Ray and Desmond Mason put in work in Seattle.  Tim Duncan and the Spurs became as timeless as the Undertaker in wrestling. More international players had come from their respective homelands to showcase their skills. The Tony Parkers, Pau and Mark Gasol’s, Ginobili’s, the list goes on. This was the era where we first seen an influx of global stars entering the NBA. This era will forever be an influential and a game changing segment for the NBA.

As the years went along, we started to see our beloved stars fall off the face of the map or phase out of relevance. It hurt me to see Tracy McGrady on a Spurs roster but on the bench, its killing me to see Kobe Bryant’s last year be spent on such an awful Laker team. I stuck it out with him through the tough Smush Parker and Kwame Brown years but I am beginning to think that this is worse. I could not believe that guys like AI and Gilbert Arenas were told to just stay home. Or how unbelievable is it that Stevie Franchise now looks like he needs drug and alcohol intervention? I miss the competitive nature of a Bonzi Wells and Rasheed Wallace. I miss the Antoine Walker shimmy, the Jason Kidd free throw kiss and the Amare Stoudemire chest bumps. All of that era’s stars has just about fizzled out. Dirk and Timmy are still playing well but Kobe, KG and Vince appear to be on their last knee.

 This reminds me of that scene in the movie, Life, when all the characters started to die off. Each star has gone away in his own way. From injuries, to drugs, to attitudes, to criminal activity to just plain not wanting to play anymore. Jamal Tinsley, Larry Hughes? Some knew it was their time, some left on their own will, and others couldn’t buy another contract and were forced to fade away like a baseline jumper. One by one we have witnessed our hero’s get slower and slower. Do you remember exactly when Vince became just man, instead of half man, half amazing? I am thinking somewhere around his arrival to Orlando. Suddenly things that our stars could do in their sleep became an apparent struggle. It’s painful watching Kobe brick jump shots one after the other and asking Vince to jump, is like asking a man in a wheelchair to run. 

Father Time is clearly undefeated and we are all witnessing the demise of an era. This is as sad of a time as The Last of the Mohicans. 2K ratings are dropping, interviews are not as coveted, Sportscenter sightings are mockeries instead of spectacular highlights. Former starters are now bench players, role players and mentors. We all knew it wouldn’t last forever but still. This has been extremely hard to watch and even harder to come to grips with. These guys were like super humans to us. How many of us took these players for granted, by saying things like, “Oh they will back next year?” Eventually next year became the final year and we were left asking what happened?  

When I don’t see Kobe in uniform next year is when it will finally hit me. Are you REALLY ready to watch a league absent of Allen Iverson, Shaq, T-Mac and Kobe Bryant? And quiet as it’s kept, Paul Pierce, Duncan and Vince may shoot the deuces to us at the very end of the year as well. Change is inevitable, but loss is difficult to deal with. For many of us, Steph, Kyrie, and AD just don’t do it for us. To be all the way honest, LeBron, Dwade, and Melo even feels different. The feeling is just not the same. Its #levels.  The smiles, the handshakes, the super team formation just didn’t rub many of us the right way.

Anyway as the era comes to a complete close, I thank those players for the 17-20 years of amazing memories that they gave us. Thank you ALL, for making basketball fun to watch and play. I will always feel connected to these players, because they were such a staple to my childhood. Farewell to the first, “Post Jordan Era.”

As for the younger generation that embrace Curry, Lebron, Wall, Westbrook and Durant among others I will say this… 

Appreciate these players while you have them. Go to the games, record the moments and take it all in because like my era, your players will one day be giving their final nod as well. Never take the time for granted. Ball is life!

~Gene Stamper

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