I heart the NBA. Some of it, anyway. OK, a good bit. It's Valentine's Day and I'm here to shoot my arrow in the league's direction, and to my pleasant surprise, there are more targets than I realized.
The NBA is approaching All-Star Weekend, the celebratory time when David Stern and the owners like to gush how good the league is, unless they're negotiating a labor deal and moaning about all the problems. After watching its approval rating plunge to Chris Brown levels -- what a coincidence, he was the halftime entertainment at the lockout All-Star Game last year -- the NBA is trying to roar back into your heart, and if nothing else you've got to give it a hug for effort. And it's doing it with, look out now, LeBron James, the antichrist just 18 months ago, leading the way in smashing, triple-double fashion.
There's plenty to like and even love about the NBA, and the first reason is pretty obvious: It's not college basketball. The players still uphold the perception of being the best athletes anywhere. The game moves at Russell Westbrook-speed because coaches resist the urge to overcoach and control every possession; Hubie Brown is behind the mic and not on anyone's bench. There are just enough superstars to keep you hooked every other night, and they're not all wasting away on the Lakers, either.
This isn't the '80s with Bird and Magic, or even the '90s with Michael and Sir Charles, and there's no sense in whining about that. That Golden Era is over, perhaps never to return in our lifetime. But what we're seeing now is special in its own right. LeBron James is having one of the best runs in history: season MVP, Finals MVP, NBA championship, and so far this season is making us believe he can top all that. New York has a reason to celebrate basketball again, L.A. can celebrate too -- over the Clippers, anyway.
And so we offer up a Lover's Guide to the NBA, citing blissful examples that make the game good and special and keep the heart fluttering fast.
The LeBron James-Dwyane Wade Hookup. There have been times when great players with similar styles hooked up and turned into disaster as teammates. Not everyone is Jordan and Pippen. Or Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe -- and anyway, those two hardly spoke. For some duos, their games clash on the court, their egos get bruised off the court. Not so in Miami, where LeBron and Wade are a match made in hookup heaven. Have they really been teammates for three years? Or all their lives? It seems like the latter. They keep each other on radar at all times. Their hookups are already legendary, especially in the open court. There's nothing more thrilling than Wade finding LeBron on the fast break for an elbows-above-the-rim dunk. Sometimes the ball never touches the floor. When it comes to the break, Wade said recently: "Nobody runs it better than us." I think he meant the '86 Celtics, too.
Lob City. It never gets old watching DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin take turns spiking passes from Chris Paul and others. The lob instantly gave the Clippers a brand identity, whereas before, they were known for career-ending injuries, losing and their buffoonish owner. There's a reason to watch them now. They've led the league in dunks since Paul arrived. Even a smurf like Eric Bledsoe dunks off lobs. It's a 48-minute instructional video on passing, catching and throwing down. Magic Johnson called this "the new Showtime," which is either a high compliment or Laker sacrilege or maybe both. Whatever, it's entertainment worthy of an entertainment town.
Swap City. The NBA trade deadline is a red circle on the calendar because on that date, things will happen. You don't see this very often in football, which confines that business to the off-season. In the NBA, trading places is a very in-season thing. A team looking for an edge can find one in February. The deadline gives hope to playoff contenders and title contenders that something can be done to upgrade themselves, if their GM is clever enough. And it allows a struggling team to tank and start over next season. Start the rumors!
Ray Allen's shooting form. If someone needs a silhouette for a shooting logo, Allen's the perfect model. The catch, the rise and the release, it's all done in perfect harmony and rhythm, and completed in a split second. The process is a study in physics and one man's unwavering discipline to finding the proper form all the time. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra calls Allen an "oh (bleep)" shooter, meaning, if you leave him open, that's what you mutter to yourself.
Tim Duncan's fundamentals. There's money in the bank when Duncan aims for the glass. The game's ultimate old school player has made millions perfecting one of the game's most basic shots, one you rarely see anymore unless it's done accidently from 30 feet. The bank shot won't exactly fire up the crowd, and it's not considered cool, but it does win a lot of games. In another few years when he retires, the bank might leave, too, landing somewhere in the fundamental junk pile in heaven, next to Kareem's sky hook.
Dirk Nowitzki's Funky Form. A guy with over 25,000 career points shoots like someone just shoved him in the chest. He's the only player who shoots off-balance on purpose. Actually, Dirk is very much in balance, in that his release point remains the same. But his body is all over the place: falling away, fading, leaning, bending sideways, off the wrong foot, etc. It's an acquired taste but when you see it so many times, it seems so weirdly wonderful.
JaVale Being JaVale. When you aim at the wrong basket, and run the wrong way downcourt, and forget who has the ball, and trip over your own foot, and throw a behind-the-back pass that never arrives, and miss a few dunks, that's called "pulling a JaVale." JaVale McGee, lovable goofball, is an athletic marvel with amazing hops who's capable of the spectacular, both good and, well, not so good. As Nuggets broadcaster Scott Hastings said: "He does things that make you go, 'wow.' And then he does things that make you go, 'wow.'"
Celtic Tradition. I'm rarely down with things that remind you about the distant past because so much is rooted in a stubborn resistance to change. That said, I have a weak spot for Madison Square Garden sticking with an organist over manufactured music. And there's nothing about the Celtics sticking with history and the no-frills basics that bothers me, either. If anything, it's rather refreshing how they resist changing their colors and uniform and also how they constantly respect and honor the Celtic greats of the past. When you go to the Garden and stare at all the banners and retired numbers, you know why. You don't see this in Charlotte.
New Blood November. About 75 percent of the NBA season is like the Sacramento Kings' roster: lots of dead spots. But not the first month, when we see the unveiling of a new year. November is like April for baseball fans, because it's for the newcomers: rookies and players who changed addresses over the summer, and we can't wait to see what they're like. That's the beauty of November, to watch someone like Damian Lillard instantly win admirers and begin building a rookie of the year campaign, and James Harden leaving OKC and getting his own team in Houston. The next best month? That would be April. The season's over and the playoffs begin.
James Harden's Weave. We don't mean a hair weave, although Harden's beard does look suspicious. Instead, this is about Harden's ability to do figure-eights through traffic and reach the rim, all while keeping the ball in his left hand like a yo-yo. Even when the defense plays him left, he still manages to sneak by. Does anyone read the scouting reports?
Jack Nicholson and Lou Adler. They sit, Buddha-like, next to each other courtside at Laker games, their passion for decades. One is a famous actor, the other a legendary behind-the-scenes entertainment producer, and they rarely miss a game. They're true fans who don't spend their time giving interviews during timeouts just because they're famous, who would sit in the upper deck if they couldn't afford the high-rent district at Staples Center. Actually, when the All-Star Game was held in LA a few years ago, Nicholson couldn't get his usual seats because the Clippers hosted the game. But he seemed more than thrilled to sit several rows up in the stands, where the view was different but the game was the same.
Brothers Van Gundy. They're the best, always full of opinion that comes unfiltered, often delivered hilariously and on-point. Jeff is the most honest TV analyst in any sport because he's refreshingly agenda-free except when it comes to discussing his brother. Yes, when Stan was coaching in Orlando, Jeff was hopelessly conflicted. But at least Stan was more than willing to speak up. Stan was by far the best quote among NBA coaches, never afraid to tweak David Stern or even Dwight Howard. The brothers deserve their own NBA talk show. Just put mics at the family dinner table.
Dee-troit Basket-ball. NBA player intros are now full-blown Hollywood productions, and nobody does it better than Detroit. Just about the only good reason to attend a Pistons home game is for the hair-raising spotlight introductions. It's downhill after that. At least PA guy John Mason knows how to fire up a crowd, which these days amounts to a few thousand hopelessly addicted fans. And he's worth a listen for the entire game, too. Famous for his trademark out of bounds call that goes in favor of the Pistons, Mason has a schtick that's actually catchy instead of corny.
Christmas Day. Other than the die-hards, nobody really gives the NBA any bounce until Christmas, when football graciously backs away and allows the NBA its moment in the snow. Admittedly, having to work on Christmas must be crummy for the ushers and ticket-takers, and we have much sympathy for them. But fans are in a state of bliss because games are played from noon to midnight nonstop, with great matchups galore. Kobe and LeBron are always under the tree.
Big Little Men. It's always a show when a normal-sized human crashes the tall man's party and knocks over all the furniture. These fish-out-of-water moments only make the game more fun. Therefore, major props to Kemba Walker, J.J. Barea, Isaiah Thomas, Nate Robinson and most of all, Chris Paul, for ignoring those who said it couldn't be done.
Give Me Some Nasty Pop. He's a lovable grump who never seems to be in a good mood, even when he is. If Gregg Popovich won the lottery he'd whine about not buying two tickets. He never hesitates to make referees, his players and especially nervous sideline reporters uncomfortable. It's all part of his charm. Truthfully, Pop has a dry sense of humor, although you really need to sift through the grunts and frowns to know.
Charles Barkley and Friends. "Inside The NBA" airs once a week on Turner and is the only pre- and post-game show worth seeing in any sport. It's part-circus, part-slapstick and part-debate, all kept in place by air traffic controller Ernie Johnson, as versatile a host anywhere on TV. Of course, the star is Sir Charles, who speaks his mind and takes his shots, even at his co-workers, the clownish Shaquille O'Neal and professorial Kenny Smith. The highest-rated NBA pregame show is more watchable than the game.
Kevin Durant's Massive Ego. Imagine the gall of this guy, who thinks his backpacks are cooler than the one your kid takes to school. OK, that's a cheap shot: Durant is about as ego-free as it gets for a star of his highness. He needs to be, in order to deal with testy teammate Russell Westbrook, who thinks he's a better player. If Durant had Kobe's mentality it would never work with Westbrook and OKC would crumble. Instead, Durant seems like an average Joe: humble, soft spoken and kisses his mother before games. What's not to like?
Ricky Rubio's Vision. He can throw a bounce pass through a car wash without the ball getting wet. With one hand. And one eye open. Rubio is a modern-day Maravich, throwing lobs, no-looks, behind the backs and his specialty, between the legs of defenders. People actually pay to watch him pass, not that there's anything else worth the price of admission at a Timberwolves game. He should be in the All-Star Game every year, whether he deserves it or not, just to give us a show.
Kobe Doin' Work. When his eyes narrow and the smirk appears, it means Kobe Bryant is about to embarrass someone in front of their family. This usually happens late in a tight game, when all eyes are on him. With the game on the line, Kobe is one of those special treats that come along once or twice a generation. His talent mixed with greed and ego becomes something to behold and allows him to beat almost any defense and make any shot, regardless of the degree of difficulty. I don't even know why his coaches bother to draw up a play. That's insulting. We know what's coming.
Draft Lottery. Oh, come on, now. Admit it: You love to see a dozen tortured NBA executives sweating through this kitschy show designed to help the poor and the downtrodden. This is an original reality show concept that unites the fellowship of the miserable every May just for the chance of getting lucky and landing the first pick. They sit next to each other and smile and act friendly when truthfully, they'd rather be anywhere else. Like, for instance, the playoffs. Still, the drama is sadly entertaining and suspenseful. And the fake happiness shown by the sap who gets the No. 2 pick is worth your time. Even though he's retired from lottery duty, they need to keep a podium seat for Elgin Baylor every year.
The Hoosier 'House. The best arena is Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis and it really isn't close. The artsy rotunda, the glass cases on the mezzanine filled with nostalgic props and the timeless touches inside the arena give the place the look of the historic old barn at Butler University. You almost expect Jimmy Chitwood to appear and shoot a jumper from the key. Too bad the Pacers, a winning team with good guys, are near the bottom in attendance once again; they were 28th out of 30 last season. What's up with that? Is there something else to do in Nap Town that I don't know about?
OKC Fans. If there's any solace to Seattle losing the Sonics, it's the fans in Oklahoma City. They've been terrifically warm and hospitable toward the team ever since the, ahem, Sonics relocated. Sure, it's easy to buy tickets and root hard when your team is winning. But the OKC fans not only support their guys, they're respectful toward the other team. They're about as close to a college crowd as it gets in the NBA: loud, faithful and painted in team colors when the playoffs begin. It's refreshing to see. They ought to give themselves a standing O.
The Laker Girls. Still swaggy.