Thursday, May 14, 2009

Rivalry Lost?

Six years ago, on the eve of the 2003 NBA draft, the draft that was poised to save the NBA, to put the Jordan era behind us, to take the league from the "thug-ball" that the pre-blog sports journalist seemed to fear so much, the story was not about the potential of Dwayne Wade; or the anticipation for the career of number two overall pick, Darko Milicic. The anticipation and unprecedented promise was brought by two teenagers: Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony. We heard they were friends, we heard they were rivals, we heard about their lone high-school match-up in which James outscored Anthony, but his team came up short. More than anything, we heard about a potential Magic vs. Bird rivalry – a pairing teeming with contradictions:

- The duality of James and Anthony would redefine the individual in the NBA.
- The future of the NBA, the NEXT chapter, would be defined by homage to the past, and, hopefully, if we were lucky enough that this rivalry should pan out, the future would be an ideal representation of the past.
- A league full of young, brash, self-aggrandizing, precocious children of the hip-hop era, who were supposedly ruining the league with their "biting-the-hand-that-feeds-them behavior, would be saved by two young, black, kids, who were superstars by the time they were old enough to buy a pack of cigarettes.

But the media, the hype machine responsible for creating the iconography of James years before his first game, with little else to talk about during anti-classic Spurs/Nets finals, spurred on this potential rivalry. The Rocky Mountian News said, "They could be the future of the NBA. Or they could be like the past, when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird carried on a dramatic rivalry after entering the league in 1979." The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said that the two were "poised to stage the next great rivalry."

This was the new era: Lebron and Carmelo.

At about this same time, Kobe Bryant's career appeared like it might be on an early decline. First, the Lakers' dynasty was crumbling. Their three-year stretch of invincibility was shattered that spring after an early exit to the San Antonio Spurs. Then later that summer, weeks after the draft that welcomed the supposed savior partnership into the league, Bryant was charged with rape, leaving both the Lakers' future, and Bryant's career in treacherous uncertainty. The twenty-five year old Bryant already had his three rings, but his shaky relationship with both his Lakers co-star and his coach left a lot of us thinking that maybe this is it: a Hendrix-esque career that dazzled us for a short period of time and was over before it ever really got started. The idea of a potential Bryant/James rivalry was so far-fetched at this time, that it was never even a spark inside a columnist's head. Forget the fact that Bryant is a mere six years older than Anthony, one of the hardest working players in the game, and one who takes almost every challenge personally (hence his feuds with both O'Neal and Jackson), he was part of the "thug" era. He was Iverson, Sprewell, O'Neal, and Marbury. Bryant was a part of the old guard, and no one was hoping that six years later, it would be a duality involving him, and not Anthony, that would be the dream Finals.

After Anthony and James finally did meet in the regular season, the hopes for the rivalry were reduced. After all, their respective teams won a total or thirty-four games in 2002-2003. That's a sum; aggregate; COMBINED. The idea that these two kids, whose combined AGES were merely thirty seven, would take these two teams, with their combined zero Finals appearances, to the Finals, in the same year, seemed somewhat preposterous. Hope and hype gave way to realism and awareness.

Marc Stein of ESPN said, "It's the most unrealistic expectation yet to be placed on LeBron James. And Carmelo Anthony shares it with him. Let's all please stop with this stuff about these two recreating Magic vs. Larry." Mark Heisler of the L.A. Times sarcastically treated their first regular season match-up, more as a dais for roasting the hype. He joked " Yes, the league that gave you Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell and Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird now proudly presents ...LeBron James vs. Carmelo Anthony?" He went on, " . . . be careful what you televise, buy commercial time on or tune in to, you just might get it . . . There was the Goodyear blimp beaming, "The Future is Now ... LeBron vs. Melo," and providing shots of the glittering Cleveland skyline.
This was unusual for an indoor event but the blimp had a nice view of the adjacent baseball stadium as well as the Gund Arena roof, under which James and Anthony dueled to see whose future this was."

So we had a problem. We had a hyped duality that was primed to save the league, but the mainstream sports press (and most logical observers) were insulted by the presumptions that this seed would sprout to fruition, hence saving the NBA and ridding the league of the evil-doers (see: Artest, Ron). These two kids, and more importantly these two teams, were not ever meeting in the Finals. Give it up, stop talking about, and let's enjoy watching Shaq, a rapist, and two aging veterans run the table and win their rightful rings.


Now its 2009. Lebron is MVP. Kobe is last year's. Kobe lost last year's Finals. Lebron lost two years ago. Kobe and Lebron shared the captain title in the Olympics. Lebron and Kobe star in the new Nike commercial portraying the two as puppets. Meanwhile, Carmello, the supposed second half of the holy duality, came into this season with a career 4-20 playoff record. His two biggest stories in his career were a "Stop Snitchin'" video he did, and his sucker punch thrown at Madison Square Garden. His career has not been, per se, a disappointment, but by no means has he lived up to his potential. And now he sits 4 wins away from the Finals, and most likely a meeting with James. It is finally here. The potential has lived up to the hope and we sit a mere eight victories away from the rivalry that WE built six years ago. We should be looking at our creation and beeming with paternal pride. And yet, the hype about 2009, the story, the theme, the prayer, is that Carmello, one step away from where we never believed he'd get, will lose to Byrant's Lakers.

You don't need me to tell you, it has been ordained by higher forces that the Lakers will meet the Cavaliers in the Finals, and this must happen. Cynics are calling for a Nuggets-Celtics Finals. Traditionalists are hoping for Lakers-Celtics. Purists are calling for a Rockets-Cavs. But the hype, the commercials, and public discourse is all discounting any scenario that is not: Lebron and Kobe. Bethlehem Shoals of freedarko and The Sporting News's The Baseline says of the potential, "So turn down the commercials, stop reading the columns, and tell all your friends that Denver's going all the way. As long as you can admit, in your heart of hearts, that LeBron vs. Kobe would be a pretty amazing series to be forced to sit through."

Wait? What happened? What happened to these two guys saving the league? What happened to it never being possible? What happened to the Holy Duality!?!?!? It's Lebron and KOBE? I thought he was going to jail? Or getting older? I thought he destroyed the Laker dynasty, set the league back, and was considered one of the least popular players in the league? I'm confused. But what I'm more confused about is the lack of anyone bringing up the fruition of all of the prayers from six years ago. This very well could be it. The true start of a rivalry that was abruptly put on hold on a snowy November night in Cleveland six years ago, when Denver defeated Cleveland by fourteen and Lebron's 7 were a low-light in his 3-11 shooting night.

Obviously, if the Nuggets can take a game from the Lakers/Rockets and maybe stir things up, we will start to remember, but I want it now. The only two teams in the conference finals are led by Anthony and James and I want to know where everyone went. Where are the believers, the optimists, and the faithful? Where are the cynics, the realists, and the naysayers? Where is the league, so adept at training our eyes towards certain characters, stories, and settings? Why wait? Why root against it? Sure, Kobe vs. Lebron would be amazing, but so would Lebron vs. Anthony—at least that's what you told us six years ago…

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