If Great NBA Players were TV Shows

I really enjoy two things: watching (and discovering) great tv shows, and debating the all-time rankings of NBA players – inspired of course by the greatest NBA book ever: The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons.  LeBron recently claimed he would be on the NBA Mount Rushmore and I agree with him (more on that later), but as I was running through the new season of House of Cards the idea came to me to combine the two ideas.  What if NBA greats were my favorite TV series (NOTE: TV Shows not in order)?  Who would be what, and why?  Please feel free to debate, (and there will certainly be that) as we go on in reverse order.

Note: apologies to the following: Wilt, West, Oscar, Moses, Hakeem, Dr. J…

9) Shaquille O’Neal (Damages) –

Why: Shaq left things on the table, and Damages was very good, but never great.  Both were great alpha dogs, but never fully capitalized on what they could have done (Glenn Close was awesome though).  Both will go down as twisty and hard to pin down fully.  Was Damages ever Pantheon worthy?  Is Shaq?  How many titles did he leave on the table?  He and Kobe could have won 8 or 9, and Shaq’s laziness cost him at least two more which is tough to stomach.  Both Shaq and Damages are fun, entertaining, very complex and ultimately do not stand up to the other shows or players on this list in the same way. 

8) LeBron James (House of Cards) –

Why: LeBron’s legacy will be hard to figure out even though he will end up top four all time.  He is a better player than Larry Bird.  He may be a better player than Magic Johnson and his defense alone should put him into the top three.  We may never see him fully reach his ceiling because his talent is virtually limitless.  House of Cards is incredible, and its ceiling is also virtually limitless.  Could it end up as one of my top five favorite shows ever?  Yes, yes it could.  Will it have enough great seasons for me to find out?  I am not entirely sure.  One thing is certain: both of these guys will move up because their ceiling for greatness is so much higher than the next few guys / shows on the list. 

7) Kobe Bryant (Lost) –

Why: From the outset, neither Kobe Bryant nor Lost had a ceiling as the greatest ever.  Both were entertaining in their own right, and both reached their highest possible peak (Lost with the greatest season finale ever, and its multitude of twists and turns / Kobe with his two post Shaq titles).  Both had their ups and downs, Kobe in the years following Shaq’s departure, and Lost when it briefly became an unfocused mess.  Questions abound around both: how many titles did Kobe leave on the table through his arrogance?  Why didn’t Lost solve all the mysteries?  What did it all mean?  How good is Kobe?  Both are hard to slot in an all-time manner because you have to feel they left things on the table and you must factor in that both had ceilings they reached.  Those ceilings were not as high as others (LeBron, anyone?!) but they made the most (for the most part) of what they had. 

6) Tim Duncan (Sons of Anarchy) –

Why: Tim Duncan is a fundamental player who is underrated as one of the greatest players ever.  He has won four titles and narrowly missed out on a fifth.  He made his name through being absolutely, 100% dependable when it mattered most.  Sons of Anarchy is one of the best shows on TV in that you know exactly what you are getting: pure entertainment.  There is some deep complexity, but mostly this is a show about men being violent and struggling to hang on to what they love most.  Mostly though, it is an adrenaline rush (based on one of the most classic ideas in literature, Hamlet) – that said, I have debated with @madadub about which Sons season is Pantheon worthy.  Not too many shows that have that ability.  Try to pick out a Duncan Pantheon season and inevitably you will have to ask yourself the same question: “which one?”

5) Larry Bird (Breaking Bad) –

Why: Bird saved the league, and Breaking Bad is one of the most consistently entertaining shows ever.  Bird loved to play around and win titles, Breaking Bad is an incredible examination of a man descending into evil and making no apologies for it.  Both had multiple Pantheon level seasons, and both go down as among the greatest ever.  Additionally, Bird and Bad had down times (Bird because of injury, Breaking Bad because it simply could not produce content as amazing as those that had come before).  However, you could never count either out.  They came back with a vengeance, time and time again.  They are impossible to ignore and their signature moments and greatness touch a ceiling few others have ever reached.  Were they consistent forever?  No, but their best was better than 99.9999% of anything else that came before them.  No one had more fun playing basketball than Larry Bird, and no one had more fun on a TV show than Bryan Cranston. 

4) Magic Johnson (The Sopranos) –

Why: Magic was a 6’9 point guard who could play any position, consistently rose to the occasion when it mattered most, and won five titles.  The Sopranos was one of the best shows on TV, is responsible (with OZ) for introducing the antihero to mainstream culture, and was often great (a few stumbles).  Each was blessed with an enigmatic leader (Pat Riley and David Chase) and each ended abruptly without any real explanation as how they ended.  (NOTE: Magic obviously had a reason).  Both peaked at the perfect time and were exceptionally popular, and it has been their legacies which have made them withstand the test of time.    

3) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (The Shield) –

Why: Kareem and the Shield are two of the most consistently great things of their era.  Both sort of sneak up on you – the Shield because it was so great and built to a fantastic conclusion, and Kareem because he was good for so long.  Neither gets the historical relevance they probably should, even though Kareem was alpha dog for titles with the Bucks and then, ten years later with the Lakers (a lot harder than you think); or the Shield created an antihero and series that got better and better with team, leading to one of the greatest final seasons ever.  Even though they are underrated that does not mean they are not great, and both, undeniably are.   

2) Bill Russell (Oz) –

Why: Russell is arguably the second best player in NBA history, and won 11 titles, a record which will never be broken.  He also played at a time when he was able to dominate slower, weaker players who were 6’7.  In today’s NBA he would still be good, but there is no way he wins 11 titles.  Russell is, therefore, absolutely a pioneer of the NBA; just like OZ was absolutely a pioneer for all the shows which came after.  It was HBO’s first move into drama and it was a brilliant show, the first four seasons of which could rank with anything ever done on TV (the fourth season in particular is pantheon worthy).  Was it always great?  No, but against subpar competition it stood heads and shoulders above and had seven solid years that took a title year in and year out.  The show pushed the boundaries of good, bad, love and philosophy, all detailed brilliantly by wheelchair man “Augustus” and created some of the most indelible (anti-hero) characters in TV history.  Everything which came later owes itself to Russell and Oz, they set the way and the standard for what could be done both in basketball and television. 

1) Michael Jordan (The Wire) –

Why: Over time both have taken increasing criticism even though they are without a doubt the greatest of all time.  Now that they are long finished, we always seek the next great thing, which is why people ask if LeBron is the greatest basketball player ever, or they say Breaking Bad is better than The Wire.  For the record: Michael Jordan is the greatest NBA player ever and The Wire is without doubt the greatest TV show ever.  We have never seen anything like either before and we are unlikely to do so again: The Wire because it showed us all a segment of the world that spoke to an entire country and the systemic problems within it; Jordan because he was pathologically driven to vanquish his opponents and then did.  Even though we are forced to debate their greatness every few years, Jordan due to the Wiz time and the Wire because of Season 5, there should never be any doubt.  The Wire submitted 3 Pantheon Level TV Seasons, 1 Great Season, 1 Very Good Season – show me any other show that has done so.  You simply cannot.  Meanwhile, Jordan’s entire career was essentially the Pantheon (minus the Wiz time and the whole Bobcats thing).  There should be no debate: Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player ever and the Wire is the best show in the history of television.  Case closed. 

 

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Kobe – A Re-examination

Since 2001 I have been one of the most anti-Kobe Bryant sports fans, and it was not even close to me liking him at all.  Now though, things have changed – but not for obvious reasons.

            The reasons I dislike Kobe are myriad and very straightforward: firstly, I did not like the way his selfishness destroyed the Lakers title dynasty.  Kobe was going to be a great player, of that there was little doubt, but his skills and those of Shaq complemented each other perfectly.  They won three straight titles together, and had they continued to play on the same team, it is highly likely the Lakers would have won at least three more had they been able to stay together.  When the Lakers broke up and the team chose to keep Kobe over Shaq (who at the time was the most dominant player in the league by a wide margin) and gave up the best coach of all time in Phil Jackson to ensure Kobe’s happiness.  The selfishness Kobe exhibited in ruthlessly destroying his own team, and they were gutted until 2008, was only matched by Jackson throwing him under the bus in his book The Last Season.  By now it is clear that his arrogance had killed the team, not any manipulations by Shaq or Jackson.  Kobe alone thought he was good enough to keep the team playing at a high level, and he was definitely not ready to be the alpha dog especially AC and the destruction of his reputation.  What he did, in callously destroying his legacy was shocking – we knew athletes were selfish and arrogant but never before had it played out in such a dramatic way.  The floundering Lakers were quickly contrasted by Shaq’s new team, the Miami Heat who went on to win the title over the Dallas Mavericks in the next couple of years while the Lakers were stuck in 9th seed purgatory.  At this time, Kobe was the most hated player in any league, period.  The only place he was ever cheered was in LA, and even then fans had to pretend he had not destroyed their team.  Kobe it seemed, thought the key to greatness was simply statistics and for a while he seemed destined to go down as a modern day Wilt, who vacillated between a team player and a gunner whenever it suited his needs.  He even seemed to lose “best player of the generation” to Tim Duncan who quietly became the best power forward the game has ever seen while Kobe was desperately trying to get personal accolades at the expense of winning seasons. 

            Then, suddenly, he got it.  He knew what mattered: six titles.  The Lakers rehired Phil Jackson after Kobe made peace with him and then stole Pau Gasol from the Grizzlies (easily one of the most lopsided trades in the history of the NBA) and Kobe was suddenly playing defense for the first time in his career and becoming more efficient with the ball.  The Lakers were relevant again and won a title; then lost to the Celtics, then won another.  Kobe had 5 rings and was desperate for a sixth when he was surpassed again.  LeBron became the clear alpha dog, and the story, he was such an all encompassing player and personality that Kobe was quietly flying under the radar.  All of this allowed his image to be rehabbed, and suddenly, a generation of kids was being born who only knew Kobe as a guy for whom winning was everything.  They had no idea about Colorado, or how he killed the Lakers for seven seasons – all they saw was the player he had become: a guy who maximized his skills and could do almost anything on the court.  His selfishness hurt him, both in terms of personal achievements (he won only 1 MVP Award) and titles (again, he left something behind when he broke up the Lakers).  Was he still a selfish player?  Absolutely: he shot 6 for 24 in Game Seven with the title on the line and nearly ended up handing a second title to KG and the Celtics.  Another thing people suddenly loved about him was the fact he seemed like a throwback, a hard-nose, old-school player who may not have been the most athletic guy around but was capable of suddenly catching fire and hitting threes or a fade away with two or sometimes three defenders draped all over him.  Was his ceiling ever as high as that of LeBron or MJ?  No, it never was, he simply lacked certain skills – passing for one, but when he needed to, he could score like no one else in the game. 

            By this point, when he was desperate for another ring, and LeBron had gone to Miami to team up with Wade and Bosh, things finally turned for Kobe.  Even if you hated him, you had to respect his comeback.  Few other players in the league would have been able to turn perceptions about him around.  Few others would have been able to rob another team blind and get another superstar to help win more titles.  Few others would be able to shoot 6 for 24 and still win MVP.  Will Kobe win another title?  Probably not as the Alpha Dog, which leads to an interesting historical conundrum: he won 5 titles and was Alpha Dog outright for 2 and maybe co-alpha dog for another which does not put him anywhere near the MJ level (6 titles as Alpha Dog) and might just tie him with LBJ for Alpha Dog titles when all is said and done (Duncan for the record has 4 Alpha Dog titles).  When the Lakers got Dwight Howard, it seemed like Kobe was destined to face LeBron and the Heat in the Finals, until he and Dwight tried to kill each other ten seconds into the season and the whole thing became a complete nightmare that ended with Kobe tearing his Achilles and Dwight booking it for the Rockets (Kobe spent the whole season trying to prove he was still alpha dog and basically killed the Lakers chances…again through his selfishness.  Dwight was not the player he thought he was, nor was he made to be teammates with Kobe).  Even after an injury that would have ended most players’ careers, Kobe tried to come back, only to get injured again simply because his body was not fully healed and may never be again. 

I went to a game in LA, and it was one of the toughest experiences to stomach, as the Kobe love and “he got fouled!” on every possession was hard to take.  However, he won that game.  He won a lot of games.  Kobe is a player who demands respect, even if you do not like him.

            A whole generation of kids is now 11 and 12 years old, and the only Kobe they know is the one for whom winning is everything, and who demands everything from his teammates and a player who comes back from injuries that seem impossible to return from.  He is simply Kobe, scoring machine, defensive nobody.  The innocence of these kids makes Dwight Howard and LeBron into the bad guys, and has Kobe’s team letting him down.  Sadly this stops them from recognizing the brilliance of LeBron James and the fact that none of them will ever see a better player in their lifetimes than him.  Kobe has put his past away to the point that for most of the younger generation, it simply does not exist; all that remains is the fact he was a winner (3 straight titles!) and rarely includes Shaq in the discussion.  Time has been on Kobe’s side and few players have used it more effectively.  Here we have a generation that can enjoy the Kobe of the last ten years without  the prejudice of the past invading their enjoyment.  For them there is no selfishness, just leadership and skill; his arrogance is confidence; his teammate under the bus throwing as…well…guys should always bow down to Kobe.   It is sort of like people in Los Angeles who have decided to pretend that Colorado never happened (not that we know what happened there at all because it has smartly been closed forever) and they choose simply to see the good in one of the most intriguing NBA Stars in history.  Even the most spiteful Kobe hater cannot possibly deny he is one of the seven or eight best basketball players of all time (for the record 1) Jordan; 2) Russell; 3) Kareem; 4) Magic; 5) Bird; 6) Duncan; 7) Kobe; 8) LeBron – to be completely honest, one more title or MVP moves LBJ past Kobe).  Interesting Kobe aside: he only won one MVP Award.  One!  Did he ever even truly own the league or was he simply a guy who had a ceiling and was able to reach and maintain it?

            Can there be a more divisive player in the NBA?  When Jordan retired fans felt there would never be another player like him, now I am certain there will never be another Kobe, a player who divides fans and his career in such an interesting way.  He is a player who young people can view as innocent, because they do not know any better, while the rest of us have to factor in his guilt and the way he left titles on the table.  Is there another player in history whom you can find out one or two things about that can completely change the way you view them?  Certainly no others come to mind.

            Whatever you think of Kobe Bryant, he must be respected.  He is one of the greatest NBA players in history and one of the most complex – a man who has learned the value of winning even as his own ego subverted him and threatened to destroy all of his achievements.  Yet, here he still is, a player who has survived a complicated existence, which would have crushed others and that survival, might be his greatest accomplishment of all.