When I studied abroad in England I tried to learn how to smoke. Everyone my age smoked at the time, and I wanted to figure it out, to be more than just a social smoker, to be a real smoker. It seems absurd now, but these are the things we do when we’re young. I bought a pack of cigarettes, Marlboro reds, for the records, went out to the quad of the dorms, lit one up and smoked it. When that one was gone, I lit another and smoked it too. Then I got light-headed, went back inside and gave up on cigarettes.
Basketball wasn’t like that at all for me. Basketball was a slow growth. I remember what got me into basketball, and it’s well suited to this year, since it’s something that’s come up again: a Laker’s superteam. When an aging Karl Malone and Gary Payton joined up with the dynamic duo of Shaq and Kobe it infuriated me. It was as close to cheating as you could come, this teaming up at the end of their albeit storied careers to tack a ring onto the end of their resumes, riding the coattails of this bright young things into the record books. So it pleased me to no end that a group of no name journeymen, Chauncey Billups Detroit Pistons, assembled under the flag of one of the most neurotic and loveable coaches in the league, the NBA’s answer to Woody Allen, Larry Brown gave the Lakers whatfor in five very lopsided games.
The next year I followed the Pistons very casually, watching what games I could, being galled by their lack of offense and impressed by their stingy defense, maddened by Sheed’s refusal to work it in the post (a proto-Josh Smith in that regard) where he was unguardable. Instead, bored by the ease with which he could score on anyone down low, he constantly drifted out to the three point line, just because he could. I watched as many of the playoff games as I could, and missed the final quarter of game seven, where they lost the Spurs. A devastating blow to the archetypical blue collar franchise, the last time that a team without a true star would appear in the NBA Finals.
I followed the Pistons until 2008 when they traded Chauncey Billups and emotional anchor Antonio McDyess for mercurial all-star Allen Iverson, a chip Joe D had always coveted. Treading water at the top of the Eastern Conference clearly wasn’t enough for Joe and the franchise, but it proved to be their undoing for almost 5 years. Iverson bombed, as would prove his pattern from there on out, and the free agents that would come to fill his and Ben Wallace’s (who signed with conference rivals the Bulls and then proceeded to clog cap space and underperform, his final act of loyalty to the franchise that made him nearly a household name) cap space, Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva were certainly the beginning of the end for the Piston, and the start of a long period of rebuilding (one they still haven’t escaped from but whose light at the end of the tunnel is, at least, visible from here).
I was still a casual fan then, and didn’t know anything about the intricacies of basketball, free agency, media management or any of the backstory behind stars like Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury. but I learned. I learned from talented writers like Marc Stein and Bethelhem Shoals, and Bill Simmons. I learned some of the history, some of the myth and of course was deeply influenced by the enduring legend of Michael Jordan, a legend I’d eventually come to view as a stain. I also learned to dislike a young player named LeBron James, after he eviscerated us in his legendary game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, an irony considering that James’ darkest moment would come to mark my highest respect for him, as well as that catalyst for my near complete immersion into the world of basketball and the NBA.