The Steele Drum

September 11, 2009 4:12 PM

The Greatest Generation

With no disrespect intended to the two tremendous coaches being enshrined in Springfield, Mass., today – Jerry Sloan of the NBA’s Utah Jazz and C. Vivian Stringer of three Final Four teams – the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame class of 2009 will be identified by the three Dream Teamers inducted: Michael Jordan, David Robinson and John Stockton.

And even while Jordan is eclipsing the other two more-than-worthy inductees, the everlasting impact of all three can never be overshadowed. They were key figures on that groundbreaking, never-to-be-duplicated 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team. And they, in turn, are icons of the greatest era in the history of the sport.

They are part of the NBA’s Greatest Generation.

That has turned out to be a curse as much as a blessing for the game, on nearly every level, unfortunately. Every generation of player – every player, in fact – has been diminished, put down, denigrated in comparison not just to the players from this class, and to the players from that Olympic team, but to every player from that era. Depending on whether you shave a year off on either end or squeeze a player in on either side, the era basically is defined as 1979 – the year Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entered the NBA together – through 1998 – Michael Jordan’s last season as a Chicago Bull and the year before the NBA’s disastrous labor stoppage.

Just about two full decades of a mind-blowing stream of players in their prime, playing the game not only the way it should always be played, but the way the founders (including Dr. Naismith himself) could only see it being played in their dreams. That group stretched the limits of the imagination, of the physical, the mental and the psychological, yet kept the game itself grounded in its fundamentals and its essence.

Skeptical? Misty-eyed with nostalgia about the Celtics dynasty, of the days of Russell and Chamberlain and Cousy and Robertson and West and Baylor and the other players who were the building blocks of the pro game – not to mention the legends of the college game who set the stage for the greatness of the pros?

Don’t be. The Greatest Generation couldn’t have existed without having climbed on their shoulders. But they clearly took what the previous generations have created and created something even more radiant.

Think of that nearly 20-year run. Think, for starters, about the Dream Team. Magic. Bird. Jordan. The Admiral. Stockton. Karl Malone. Patrick Ewing. Charles Barkley. Chris Mullin, Clyde Drexler. Scottie Pippen. (And Christian Laettner, who should give his gold medal back, or to Isiah Thomas.)

Of those 11 players, 10 (all but Mullin) were named in 1996 to the NBA’s list of its 50 Greatest Players. This year’s three-man induction brings the number in Springfield to eight, and Malone and Pippen are on deck. Mullin, again, may have to wait, although that should hardly diminish his career accomplishments.

That’s just the Dream Team. They mixed it up in their careers, in their primes, with these future enshrinees … (take a deep breath …) Thomas, Joe Dumars, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Moses Malone, Dominique Wilkins, Hakeem Olajuwon, James Worthy, Alex English and Adrian Dantley. Their finest days were slightly past, but also sharing the court were Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving and George Gervin when they still had plenty left.

That’s just the Hall of Famers. These guys were merely excellent: Byron Scott. Mo Cheeks. Michael Cooper. Mark Aguirre. Tim Hardaway. Mitch Richmond. Buck Williams. Dennis Johnson. Derek Harper. Andrew Toney. Kevin Johnson. Bernard King. Dennis Rodman. Reggie Miller. Mark Price. Gary Payton. There’s probably a list of players left off who deserve apologies.

Plus, these players were coming in at the end of that blessed stretch, and in some cases had established themselves already: Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Alonzo Mourning, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen. Again, surely some worthwhile names are left off.

There simply has been no comparable stretch in NBA history; that wave of players had a hand in some of the most memorable moments ever, and in every championship team, and their names litter the record books. No Olympic team since has been able to match it – including 2008, and that’s right, I said it – which has been a problem for the U.S. team, particularly in 2004 when it got “only’’ a bronze. The NBA players and teams since have suffered in comparison, worst of all the players stuck with the label, from wherever such labels come, of being “the next Michael.’’ Currently strangling on it: LeBron James.

It isn’t their fault. The bar was set too high.

In the next several years, these players will all have moved into their rightful places in immortality in Springfield. Future stars and fans will absorb their accomplishments and wonder if any wave of players will ever match The Greatest Generation.

May we all live long enough to see that.

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