Effective immediately, I will no longer be answering questions here related to Transformers: Robots In Disguise or any other Transformers-related properties. Thanks for your interest, thanks for watching our show, and I hope you enjoy the remainder of our episodes.
I’m no fan of the Los Angeles Lakers. Given my devotion to the Phoenix Suns, that’s no surprise to anyone who even remotely knows me. And in particular, I’m no fan of Kobe Bryant. So you might think I might be the proverbial pig in slop at the current state of the franchise in Kobe’s final season. But I’m not. Because the only way I can feel, watching this team as I’m forced to do because I live in Los Angeles, is sad.
Tonight, the Lakers lost to the Philadelphia 76ers, something no other team has thus far managed to accomplish this season. And they did it in ugly fashion. In his first game since announcing he’ll retire at the end of the season, and in the hometown stop of what is now his farewell tour, Kobe came out firing, and initially, he was hot, scoring 16 points in the first half. But his shot deserted him in the final two quarters, and he finished with 20 points total… on 26 shots.
That’s why I’ve never been a fan of Kobe’s game. As brilliant as he has been on the court, he’s irredeemably selfish, and he always has been. Given his equally legendary competitive drive and stubbornness, that’s perhaps to be expected. He came into the league wanting to be the best player the league has ever seen, and set out to reach that goal by making himself better at every individual aspect of the game. Already a freak athlete, he developed shots from all over the court, became adept at the spectacular pass, and could even lock down the opponent’s top scorer. His work ethic and drive are legendary. But he has never been lauded as a leader by anything but example, and he has never been accused of being a great teammate. “Aloof” and “demanding” are two words frequently used to describe him.
This season, with his scoring ability only surfacing at rare intervals, and with Coach Byron Scott apparently so filled with respect for Kobe’s overall body of work that he’s unwilling to even try and rein him in, Kobe has a chance to change those impressions of him in a meaningful way that could cement his legacy as something other than “an incredible player, and one tough son of a bitch.” Notice, the word “team” is nowhere in that description.
It’s clear the Lakers are going nowhere this season and likely for the next couple, no matter how high the draft picks they get. It’ll take time to reload on quality free agents that will make them a contender, too. The focus needs to be on developing young players with great potential like Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and D’Angelo Russell – none of whom appears likely to be a superstar, but all of whom are legitimate quality NBA players.
As much of a “Laker through and through” as Kobe claims to be, he could – and should – be the linchpin of that development. He should be imparting the wisdom of a long career, setting those young players up on as many possessions as he can, putting them in positions to succeed. As a kid playing on rec league teams, one thing that was always drilled into me was the idea that, if your shot’s not falling, you need to find another way to help the team. Encourage your teammates. Set screens. Box out. Make the right pass. And Kobe could do all of that, and he could even do it in a way that satisfies his thirst for individual achievement – He could set a goal to reach a personal best in assists. It would frame Kobe, in our last impression of him as a player as he rides into the sunset, as someone who has matured into a good, unselfish teammate – one title he’s never claimed.
Would Kobe do that? Not likely. He simply isn’t wired that way. Devoted as he is to his legacy, Kobe seems intent on going down swinging, critics, coaches and organization be damned. I’m sure he feels he’s earned it. But he’s in no way helping his team, and there’s no greater crime on the basketball court. He’s stunting the Lakers’ growth. And that’s going to be a large part of how he’s remembered, because selfishness has been a pattern with him for two decades. And that’s truly sad.
Those who know me know I’ll go to pretty much any lengths to find an interesting piece of Phoenix Suns ephemera. So it shouldn’t be any surprise to learn that last week I traveled to Chicago for the annual National Sports Collector’s Convention, the premiere destination for the discriminating sports memorabilia-ist.
I went with visions of game-worn Van Arsdale warm-ups, Hawkins high-tops and signed Barkley elbow braces dancing in my head. In truth, in terms of the amount of Suns stuff to be found, I was a bit disappointed, but that’s probably a function of the show’s location more than anything else – Bulls fans had plenty to be happy about. But there were nuggets (of the non-Denver variety) to be had here and there if one was willing to look hard enough… and we true Suns fans are known for our persistence.
The convention floor was absolutely choked with trading card dealers – You couldn’t swing an autographed Sammy Sosa bat without hitting one (f you were willing to risk arrest). Collectors sat on dealer-provided stools at the booths, flipping through boxes and boxes of “common” and collectible cards for pretty much any sport you can imagine in relative comfort. Most card dealers also had sealed original boxes of sports cards from almost any year cards had been made. I saw one box of unopened basketball cards featuring an entire set from 1988 selling for more than $9000. Although there were plenty of basketball cards, and thus Suns cards, to be found, I decided to skip card-shopping – for the most part. I couldn’t pass up this non-Suns gem from 1976, for reasons that I hope are obvious.
Some card dealers had autographed cards featuring Suns players, but I skipped those as well. Not that I didn’t want to dive in and scoop up every signed Walter Davis card I could find, but because autographs are difficult to verify, even at card shows, where everyone is an expert. Most dealers won’t stay in business too long if they’re found selling unauthenticated merchandise, knowingly or not, but you never know…
I spent considerable time in a booth that offered game-worn jerseys from all sports, but while I found plenty of Bulls uniforms and warm-ups (mostly from non-star players), and some from New Orleans, Charlotte, Utah and other garden spots, I didn’t find anything from Phoenix. Nor was I likely to at the show, said the booth’s proprietor. “Not much demand for Suns stuff in the Midwest,” he told me.
Still I pressed on, moving between the Mickey Mantle jersey and the Joe DiMaggio jersey for sale (each for more than six figures) and it wasn’t long before I found my first purchase.
This Hoop Magazine was the game program from a Warriors/Suns contest in 1975. Because the game took place in Oakland, the program is focused on the Warriors, so there’s not a ton of Suns content, but the cover of then-Suns superstar guard Charlie Scott is pretty terrific, and some of the photos and ads inside the magazine are great artifacts of the NBA at that time.
After more dogged scouring of the aisles, I located my next memento, and this one is genuinely rare and doesn’t come up for sale very often on auction websites.
It’s another Hoop magazine, this one a game program from the 1976 NBA Finals, which of course was the classic series between the Suns and the Celtics. It’s a program I’ve long coveted, so I jumped at the chance to buy it. Once again, the amount of Suns content is minimal (because the magazine was put together before the Finals participants had been decided), but there’s a good article about Charlie Scott’s career revival as a member of the Celtics; a photo spread on the NBA rookies of the 1975-76 season, including a game shot of the Suns’ own Alvan Adams;
As the day wound down, I had an appointment to keep in order to obtain the souvenir I wanted most. I had registered for it months in advance, paying the going rate. Many sports stars of yesteryear (Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, Isiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins, Cal Ripken, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Brian Urlacher, Emmitt Smith, Aeneas Williams, Barry Sanders, members of the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team, Mike Tyson and more) were on hand to sign autographs ($150 for Joe Torre) or have their photos taken ($200 for Roger Clemens). But there was only one star I was interested in meeting. He had never been a Sun, but his spot in the franchise’s history is nonetheless memorable.
I had ticket number 3 for his photo session, so I lined up at the appointed time with other diehard fans. When it came my turn, the usher on duty walked me over to the long-retired NBA legend like I was a toddler on my way to meet Santa Claus. One of the league’s 50 Greatest Players (as voted in 1996) smiled politely at me, looking a little bewildered, like a man who fell asleep on a plane and woke up somewhere completely unexpected. But I extended my hand for a shake and told him, “You broke my heart in 1976,” and his smile became warm and his eyes twinkled as he wrapped his hand around mine. “Phoenix,” John Havlicek answered.
For younger readers, John Havlicek was near the end of a storied career with the Boston Celtics when the overachieving Suns miraculously found their way into the NBA Finals in 1976. Even then, “Hondo” was a do-everything player and the soul of the Boston team, who could score, rebound, defend, and was known for always remaining in motion. He played the entire series with painfully torn tissue in his foot, and still commanded the floor almost every minute of every game, nearly winning the legendary Game 5 with a running bank shot at the end of the second overtime before the Suns’ Garfield Heard made the “Heard Shot ‘Round the World” to send the game into a third extra period. It was the series, and the game, that made me a basketball fan, and a Suns fan, for life. And Havlicek was bona fide hoops royalty who had key role in it.
Havlicek shook my hand, the photo was snapped, and I was ushered away as the next fan, no doubt with his own cherished recollection of the man, stepped up. Minutes later, I collected my photo and headed for the convention center exit with my minor haul.
There hadn’t been much in the way of Suns stuff to collect at the country’s biggest annual sports memorabilia show, but I left thrilled at having had the chance to relive one of my favorite Suns memories… with an NBA legend who remembered it, in his own way, just as fondly.
This Saturday sees the premiere of the episode of Transformers: Robots In Disguise that set the record for “most snickers in the recording booth.” I can’t recall if I was aware of all of the possible innuendos in the script, but leave it to voice actors to spot all of them… and riff on them… endlessly. Lines from the episode still get brought up when we all get together. That said, it’s a fun episode even without the accidental euphemisms, and includes one of the more bizarre Decepticon team-ups you’re likely to see. Personally, I think these two ‘Cons should have their own talk show.
Last weekend, I listed to a satellite radio station devoted to pro basketball, and the three hosts were debating an interesting topic with callers: Who were the most important players at each of the five positions in the history of each NBA franchise, and then who would be first off the bench for those franchises’ “ultimate starting five?” Such discussions are right in my wheelhouse, as I often pass long car trips, elliptical exercise sessions, and endless script notes meetings, by pondering such questions. So I thought I’d come up with my own answers, and present them here for anyone who’s interested (and I don’t imagine there are many of you). Any player who played for a franchise was eligible to be selected, no matter if they played in the franchise’s current city or some city it once resided in. Thus, players for the St. Louis Hawks were eligible for the Atlanta Hawks’ all-time five. Buffalo Braves alums might find a place on the Los Angeles Clippers’ all-time team. Players from the ABA era of the Pacers, Nets, Spurs and Nuggets are also eligible. Some choices were no-brainers, while others required real intellectual wrestling matches.
The hosts of the radio program did an admirable job, considering how little time they had to come up with six names for each club – I have the luxury of sleeping on the topic. Some of the obvious names they missed were, no doubt, a result of the “top of the head” nature of the discussion. But the hosts also succumbed to a pretty common syndrome in making their choices. All of the hosts, clearly under the age of 40, seemed biased toward the players they grew up watching, giving them greater weight than players before their day or the ones who have come since. It’s understandable. There aren’t YouTube clips for a lot of the greats of yesteryear, and we take current players largely for granted. Memory is more persuasive than highlight reels, so the heroes of our childhood always seem more titanic and unstoppable than perhaps they really were.
In any case, I’ve tried to be as impartial as I can, but no doubt I’ll name some late-1970s 2nd Team All-NBA player over a superstar from the modern day, or forget the name of some 1950s pioneer. Still, one man’s opinion.
PG LENNY WILKENS. Wilkens, the third great guard to come out of the 1960 NBA draft (after Jerry West and Oscar Robertson), starred for the club when they were in St. Louis. He wasn’t a scoring ace, but he was a consummate playmaker who improved in quality of play and statistics as transitioned into the later stages of his career.
SG LOU HUDSON. Sweet Lou was a prototypical big guard who could score from anywhere and would probably have excelled in any NBA era. Pete Maravich merited consideration here, but Hudson was with the team longer, with comparable stats.
SF DOMINIQUE WILKINS. Sorry, Josh Smith and John Drew. Not even close.
PF BOB PETTIT. The Hawks have had some great power forwards over their history, including Bill Bridges, Dan Roundfield and Kevin Willis. But Pettit was an out-and-out superstar, the anchor of one of the few teams to interrupt the Celtics dynasty of the 50s and 60s, an MVP as well as a rebounding and scoring menace.
C DIKEMBE MUTOMBO. The choices for the Hawks at center are pretty thin. Moses Malone and Walt Bellamy spent time with Atlanta, but both were at their best with other teams. Mutombo was arguably at his prime with the Hawks, among the league leaders in rebounding and blocked shots.
6th PETE MARAVICH. Narrowly edges Roundfield for me, because I’d want a scoring jolt off the bench just a little more than Roundfield’s rebounding and defense.
PG BOB COUSY. Dennis Johnson, Tiny Archibald and JoJo White have all run the point for the Celtics, but how can you deny the man who set the mold for the position?
SG JOHN HAVLICEK. Hondo played small forward for much of his career, but moved to shooting guard later on and remained as essential to his team, if not becoming moreso, than ever before. He could do anything that was required – score, defend, rebound, pass – and was phenomenally durable. I think he’s actually underrated at this point.
SF LARRY BIRD. I love Paul Pierce, but when you consider Bird’s brilliance as a player as well as how he helped transform the sport, it’s not really a contest.
PF KEVIN MCHALE. I guess this could be a case of bias on my part, since McHale was so much a part of my basketball-watching youth, but McHale’s footwork and post moves are fairly indisputable as among the best of all-time.
C BILL RUSSELL. God love Robert Parish for his longevity, but Bill Russell was… you know, Bill Russell.
6th SAM JONES. With as many legendary players as the Celtics have had, it’s almost impossible to select the “best of the rest.” So I’m basing my choice on what I feel the above five would most need to complement them, and my feeling is backcourt scoring. Therefore, I’m taking Sam Jones.
PG JASON KIDD. He’s one of the best in the history of the league at the position. It’d be a shocker if he wasn’t the best in the history of just about any team he played on.
SG JOHN WILLIAMSON. “Super John” is the best of a narrow crop at the position for the Nets. He was a streaky shooter with a knack for getting hot in the clutch who was key for the Nets in winning ABA titles.
SF JULIUS ERVING. They say if you didn’t see Doc in the ABA, you didn’t see him at his best. But newspaper and magazine accounts attest to his overall brilliance, especially in big games. He wasn’t just the Nets when he was with them in the ABA, he was the league, the key factor in the merger with the NBA.
PF BUCK WILLIAMS. When the Nets were in New Jersey, and when they were truly awful for most of the 1980s, Buck Williams was their brightest star. He was consistently one of the hardest workers and best rebounders in the league, and he competed no matter how poor the talent around him.
C DERRICK COLEMAN. It’s saying something about the dearth of talent the Nets have had over the years that the best center in their history is widely regarded as one of the NBA’s great underachievers.
6TH RICK BARRY. He’d be on the starting five if it wasn’t for Dr. J. He only played two years for the team, but he did lead them to a league title, commanding every aspect of the game almost as much as the Doc.
PG MUGGSY BOGUES. Baron Davis was better in almost every sense, except he didn’t mean as much to the franchise as Muggsy, who was the face of the club for many years.
SG DELL CURRY. One of the first real three-point specialists, Curry was instant offense and a threat to score from any range for the Hornets in their early years.
SF GLEN RICE. As pure a shooter as has ever played. He didn’t do a whole lot else, but the Hornets don’t have much at the position to choose from.
PF LARRY JOHNSON. Johnson was at the heart of the first really good Hornets teams, unstoppable in the post.
C ALONZO MOURNING. ‘Zo was the heart and soul of every team he played for, and he helped establish the Hornets as a real NBA team.
6th ANTHONY MASON. I can’t name him for the Knicks, but he deserves to be acknowledged because he was such a special and versatile talent.
PG DERRICK ROSE. Much as I want to give this to Norm Van Lier, that’d be my 1970s bias speaking, and I can’t pass over a league MVP, even if he is injury-prone, in favor of Stormin’ Norman.
SG MICHAEL JORDAN. I’m taking this space off, if you don’t mind.
SF SCOTTIE PIPPEN. This one, too, except to say he might be as underrated as Havlicek.
PF DENNIS RODMAN. Of course this list is heavy on the Bulls’ championship teams. They won championships!
C ARTIS GILMORE. Artis gets a bad rap, often cited as “soft.” But I don’t know how soft you are when you average 22 points and 11 rebounds over the course of four seasons. Critics say Artis should have averaged more, given his height and strength, but maybe it wasn’t so much him being soft as it was the complete lack of talent around him on the Bulls squads? Did anyone think that going one-on-five every night might make an exhausted center appear less than constantly aggressive?
6th BOB LOVE. Jerry Sloan, Reggie Theus, Horace Grant and Joakim Noah are all worthy of being considered here. But “Butterbean” had a long career with the Bulls and carried them offensively.
PG MARK PRICE. The Cavaliers had a pretty amazing run of point guards in the 80s and 90s, when you consider Price, then Terrell Brandon, then Andre Miller. Price, however, was the most complete. Kyrie Irving may have this spot one day, but not yet.
SG AUSTIN CARR. The top pick in the 1970 draft was the Cavs first star player, and their offensive go-to-guy for nearly a decade. He’s known as “Mister Cavalier,” for heaven’s sake.
SF LEBRON JAMES. As if there was any other choice.
PF LARRY NANCE. I’m buying heavy on the 1980s/90s Cavs because it was their longest run of sustained success, and Nance was such a big part of it, his number was retired by the franchise. He could run like a deer, block shots with the best, defend all over the frontcourt and had a nice mid-range game, to boot.
C BRAD DAUGHERTY. Another core member of the 80s/90s Cavaliers, who knows how good Daugherty might have been if he hadn’t been injured so often? He was a premier center in his day, and one of the best passing big men ever. Zydrunas Ilgauskas played a lot longer, but he wasn’t the type to take over a game the way Daugherty could any given night (when he wasn’t in a hospital somewhere).
6TH CAMPY RUSSELL. Unbelievably, on Ranker.com’s list of the top 35 Cavaliers of all-time, Campy Russell – the other cannon alongside Carr in the Cavs’ double-barrelled offense of the 1970s – isn’t even listed. That’s an injustice.
PG JASON KIDD. The first player to be named to two All-Time Teams, Kidd led the resurgence of the Mavs, alongside Jimmy Jackson and Jamal Mashburn, in the mid-1990s. He wasn’t there long, but he already had the skills of a perennial great.
SG ROLANDO BLACKMAN. Blackman was quietly the offensive mainstay of the great Mavericks teams of the 1980s. Teamed with Derek Harper in the backcourt and Mark Aguirre up front, Blackman made the Mavs incredibly potent and hard to guard.
SF MICHAEL FINLEY. No knock on Aguirre, who had his best years with the Mavericks, but Finley was the face of the franchise as Dirk Nowitzki developed, and was a rock solid part of the team’s core when Nowitzki and Steve Nash matured in the early 2000s.
PF DIRK NOWITZKI. Break time!
C TYSON CHANDLER. This comes down to the center who anchored the team defensively for their sole championship, but didn’t play for the team for very long, and James Donaldson, who performed admirably in the middle for the club’s best teams of the 1980s. Championship wins.
6th DEREK HARPER. I’m so tempted to go with Sam Perkins here, or even the late Roy Tarpley (whose impact on the franchise, good and bad, was significant), but Harper fronted the team for a very long time, playing at a high level, and was a killer on defense.
PG FAT LEVER. Denver hasn’t had a ton of great point guards. Chauncey Billups and Allen Iverson both played there late in their primes, and didn’t have their best seasons for the club. Mack Calvin had one amazing season with the team in the ABA, but only one. Michael Adams had some good years in Denver, and one absolutely spectacular one in which he averaged more than 26 points and 10 assists. But Lever spent his prime in the Rockies, and was a threat to run up a triple-double every night.
SG DAVID THOMPSON. The Skywalker was the second highest flyer in the ABA after Doctor J, and also the second largest gate attraction. What was amazing about him was how high above the rim he played as a guard. When Denver moved to the NBA, it was largely Thompson’s skills that made them a force from the very start.
SF ALEX ENGLISH. So glad English played for the Nuggets, because if he hadn’t, I’d be forced to put Carmelo Anthony here, and I’ve never been a fan of ‘Melo’s game. English was maybe the quietest superstar scorer in the history of the game. Nobody put up more “I have no idea how he scored 36 points” nights. And he did it for years.
PF DAN ISSEL. Issel was the prototype “stretch four,” the big man who could move out to the corner and destroy you with long bombs. He was also a tremendous rebounder and phenomenally durable.
C DIKEMBE MUTOMBO. Our second “twice-appear-er.” Mutombo averaged a double-double in each of his five seasons with the Nuggets, helping transform them from an also-ran into a dangerous playoff team.
6TH CARMELO ANTHONY. Gahh.
PG ISIAH THOMAS. The engine of the Piston championship teams.
SG JOE DUMARS. The quiet assassin, on defense as well as offense.
SF GRANT HILL. Bailey Howell and Dennis Rodman merited consideration here, but both doubled as power forwards. Hill’s natural position was the 3, and he indisputably had Hall of Fame years in Detroit as a triple-double threat nightly.
PF DENNIS RODMAN. I very badly wanted to put Dave DeBusschere here, but you can’t argue with Rodman’s phenomenal numbers and his on-court impact, not to mention his two rings with the franchise – DeBusschere got his later with the Knicks.
C BOB LANIER. Yeah, I know everyone else would say Laimbeer, but fans forget how dominant Lanier was as just about the only bright spot for the Pistons in the 1970s. I say “just about” because…
6TH DAVE BING. No one would blame you if you wanted to put Ben Wallace here, but Bing was Rookie of the Year and twice named All-NBA first team. At his peak, he averaged around 26 points and 7 assists a night.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
PG STEPHEN CURRY. In my first draft, I had Tim Hardaway here, largely based on stats and a mistaken belief Curry hadn’t played long enough. But he’s now been a Warrior longer than Hardaway, and for the sheer amount of fear Curry inspires in other teams, he gets the nod.
SG CHRIS MULLIN. I guess I think of Mullin more as a small forward, but most sites list him first as a shooting guard. Holy crap, Curry and Mullin in the same backcourt. The mind reels.
SF RICK BARRY. Paul Arizin from the franchise’s Philadelphia days could have this spot, but Barry was one of the most complete players in league history and, along with Larry Bird, one of the two best passing forwards that ever played. He led a team of pretty unheralded players to one of the biggest upsets in NBA title history in 1975.
PF LARRY SMITH. Ugh. The Warriors do not have a great history of power forwards. Of the pure PFs to play for them, I have to take Smith, a dominant rebounder (and not much else) in his day.
C WILT CHAMBERLAIN. Wilt spent the first half of his career with the Warriors in Philadelphia and San Francisco, ringing up some of his gaudiest numbers there.
6th NATE THURMOND. Maybe the most underrated center to ever play. Nightly, he went against Russell, Chamberlain, Abdul Jabbar, Unseld, Reed, and then later in his career with the Warriors, Lanier, Walton and Cowens. And he held his own with every single one of them.
PG CALVIN MURPHY. There has never been a better, tougher, 5’ 9” baton-twirling scoring machine to ever play in the NBA.
SG TRACY MCGRADY. I’m not ready to give this to James Harden yet.
SF CLYDE DREXLER. The list of candidates here isn’t very long, so I have to go with the player that helped the team win a championship, even if he was at the end of his career.
PF ELVIN HAYES. The radio program I mentioned earlier didn’t even mention Hayes, choosing instead to cheat and put Moses Malone or even Ralph Sampson here. Hayes was an unstoppable scorer and rebounder early in his career, which he spent with the Rockets.
C HAKEEM OLAJUWON. It’s a tough call, between the Dream and Malone, who won MVP and rebounding titles with the Rockets, but Olajuwon won actual titles, spent his entire career with the Rockets and redefined the position.
6TH MOSES MALONE. Consolation prize.
PG FREDDIE LEWIS. No, not Mark Jackson. The Pacers existed before the Reggie Miller era, you know. Lewis was a scoring threat and on-court leader as a mainstay of the team that writer Terry Pluto called, “The Boston Celtics of the ABA.”
SG REGGIE MILLER. I tend to think Miller was a little overrated. He was a streaky shooter who happened to hit some of his biggest shots when the lights were brightest. Still, that’s a skill in and of itself, and that plus his durability and long tenure with the team earns him a spot.
SF ROGER BROWN. Another of the great Pacers players from the ABA years. Brown was an unstoppable scorer.
PF GEORGE MCGINNIS. McGinnis, also an ABA superstar, was the forerunner of Karl Malone. Chiseled and graceful, he was unstoppable in the post and on the boards. For a time, the big debate was over who was the better player, McGinnis or Julius Erving.
C MEL DANIELS. Daniels was the man in the middle on those amazing ABA clubs, and everything revolved around his rebounding and defense.
6th JERMAINE O’NEAL. The Pacers’ marquee star of the 2000s, O’Neal came into his own in Indiana, averaging a double-double and serving as the defensive presence in the middle.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
PG CHRIS PAUL. After almost forty years, it wasn’t until Paul arrived that the Clippers started to be taken seriously as a franchise. That should tell you something.
SG RANDY SMITH. Smith goes back to the club’s days as the Buffalo Braves. One of the best athletes to every play the game, Smith was also drafted in professional soccer. He cold defend both guard spots, score on anyone, and jump over the moon.
SF DANNY MANNING. Okay, I’m fudging a bit, but Manning was legitimately versatile across the front line and skilled in every aspect of the game but staying healthy. Besides, I refuse to give this spot to Corey Maggette.
PF BLAKE GRIFFIN. Along with Paul, Griffin catalyzed the small fan base that was there for the Clippers, and created new fans by the thousands. Though his game is still developing (a frightening prospect), he seems to be the evolutionary successor to Karl Malone, except a better passer.
C BOB MCADOO. McAdoo won scoring titles and an MVP as a Brave. He helped cement an interesting NBA era of small, mobile centers, and was perhaps the most mobile and unstoppable of all of them.
6TH LLOYD FREE. Free wasn’t with the Clippers for very long, but he broke out in San Diego after languishing on the bench in Philadelphia. A lights-out scorer, he lent the franchise credibility after it moved from Buffalo and McAdoo was gone.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
PG MAGIC JOHNSON. When coming up with a roster like this for the Lakers, the big conundrum isn’t Mikan vs. Wilt vs. Kareem vs. Shaq, but rather what to do with combo guard extraordinaire Jerry West, one of the most dominant players of the 1960s and early 1970s, and only the model of the league logo. But the fact is, the Lakers have had a better pure point guard, and a better pure shooting guard, though West may have been better overall than either of them. Magic was a point guard still unlike any the NBA has ever seen, not to mention a premier leader.
SG KOBE BRYANT. Bryant is one of those rare, ferocious, will-to-win guys capable to putting an entire team on his shoulders not just for a game or a run of games, but for an entire season. As much as I can never bring myself to root for him, there aren’t many players I’d want to take the last shot as much as I would Bryant.
SF JAMES WORTHY. Worthy put the franchise over the top with his arrival in the early 1980s, upgrading the position from the very capable hands of Jamaal Wilkes. As an explosive wing player, he was the perfect complement to Johnson.
PF ELGIN BAYLOR. As much as Johnson had no precedent, Baylor was the precedent for seemingly everybody. The first true high-flyer, Baylor used body control, speed and underrated strength to become a new breed of NBA scorer and rebounder. He was before Hawkins, Erving, Jordan, Bryant and James. He set the mold they equaled or exceeded. He was there first.
C KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR. Kareem simply dominated the 1970s from a statistical standpoint. His prime is almost criminally under-discussed because the decade largely gets dismissed in NBA historical discussions (usually treated as equal parts comedy for the ABA and tragedy for the rampant drug use), because Kareem’s detached demeanor was interpreted as disinterest, and because he made the game look so effortless. The simple truth is, he was that much better than anyone else. And he stayed great well into his 80s.
6th JERRY WEST. Thanks for being a team player, Mr. West. Apologies to Laker greats of previous generation, such as Slater Martin, Vern Mikkelsen, Jim Pollard and even George Mikan, who suffer by comparison only in terms of athleticism, not in terms of their value to the franchise in its early, dominant years.
PG MIKE CONLEY. The Grizzlies haven’t been around long enough to have much of a selection at any position, but Conley has been good enough, long enough, to be considered the best the team has had at this spot. He’s matured into a fine point guard, if not a statistically dominant one.
SG MIKE MILLER. Miller never really improved on his Rookie of the Year season, partially owing to injuries. But he was a bright spot for the Grizzlies in some bad times.
SF SHAREEF ABDUR-RAHIM. The classic “good stats guy on a bad team” played the same role for several clubs, averaging nearly 20/10 everywhere he went.
PF ZACH RANDOLPH. Randolph’s throwback low-post game helped propel the Grizzlies to perpetual contention in the early 2010s.
C MARC GASOL. It took him a while, but Gasol the Younger developed into a Sabonis-like center with great passing skills, a soft shooting touch, and even stronger defensive instincts. He gets the nod over his brother because his teams were better.
6TH PAU GASOL. Gasol played brilliantly for the Grizzlies; He just didn’t have much talent around him until he made the move to the Lakers.
PG POOH RICHARDSON. You know, enough of this “the team hasn’t been around long enough” argument. The T-Wolves have been in the NBA since the late 1980s – They should have had a better point guard than Pooh Richardson by now. Not that he wasn’t a good player, scoring in the teens and averaging around 8 assists, but he’s an all-timer only in the frozen north.
SG WALLY SZCZERBIAK. Wally was about as much of a supporting cast as Kevin Garnett ever got in most years. He was a shooter and not much else, but he could ring it up from three, averaging better than 40% several times.
SF ISAIAH RIDER. I guess?
PF KEVIN GARNETT. Power forward is where the Wolves have seen their best players, between KG, Kevin Love, Tom Gugliotta, and Christian Laettner. But KG stands above all.
C AL JEFFERSON. The best true center the T-Wolves have ever had, Jefferson put up 20/10 regularly.
6TH KEVIN LOVE. Not the complete player Garnett was, but Love was a better pure scorer and a great instinctual rebounder.
NEW ORLEANS HORNETS
PG CHRIS PAUL. The best player in the short history of the franchise. He gave them a face, an identity, and one hell of a quarterback.
SG TYREKE EVANS. Slim pickings here. The best of the bunch is Evans, a multi-talented former Rookie of the Year who scores in the teens, and assists and rebounds in the six per game region.
SF PEJA STOJAKOVIC. Slimmer pickings. Peja had his best years in Sacramento before coming to the Bayou, but he still could knock down the three pointer.
PF ANTHONY DAVIS. Based on a small sample size, I know, but Davis is already so dominant on both ends of the court that, barring catastrophic injury, it’s almost impossible to imagine him not maturing into one of the better players in league history.
C TYSON CHANDLER. Chandler was an imposing defensive force, a solid team player, and an underrated performer in the pick and roll.
6th DAVID WEST. If Paul was the heart and soul of the Hornets, West was the guts, a lunch-bucket player who was strong in the post, usually against bigger players.
NEW YORK KNICKS
PG WALT FRAZIER. At this point, Clyde is probably better known for his sense of style than his play, but there were a few years when he was the best guard in the league. He was a brilliant defender, and could take over a game offensively at will – but that simply wasn’t the style of his Knick teams.
SG RICHIE GUERIN. A tough call over Earl Monroe, but Monroe played his real prime in Baltimore, while Guerin has his best high-scoring years in New York.
SF BERNARD KING. Purists will tell you Bill Bradley gets this spot for being part of the great early 1970s teams, but Bernard King was the Knicks in his years there, at his most unstoppable offensively and an underrated rebounder, to boot.
PF DAVE DEBUSSCHERE. I love Charles Oakley, okay? DeBusschere was actually a pretty similar player in style, bringing it every night, guarding bigger players, maybe a better scorer. But DeBusschere won titles.
C MARVIN WEBSTER. No, I’m kidding. It’s really PATRICK EWING. A tougher call than you might think. Willis Reed has the titles, and was a capable scorer and rebounder who battled much bigger centers. But Ewing had a longer career, was probably a better defender, was very consistent, and put up with a lot of crap.
6th WILLIS REED. Reed was also a superb leader, vocally and in his maximum effort on the court. Apologies to Harry Gallatin, Dick McGuire, Dick Barnett and Walt Bellamy… There were just better choices at each position.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
PG GARY PAYTON. This franchise’s history includes a lot of years in Seattle, and Gary Payton was the undisputed leader of the club in his years there. A defensive hellion, Payton made himself into an offensive superstar and steered some of the best teams in the organization’s history.
SG FRED BROWN. Seattle’s scoring ace of the 1970s didn’t care if he started or came off the bench, who guarded him, or how many minutes he played. He was getting points regardless, many of them from “Downtown.”
SF KEVIN DURANT. The ultimate matchup nightmare, the 7-footer who can score, handle and rebound. He’s also an underrated defender.
PF SHAWN KEMP. A surprisingly hard call. The Sonics/Thunder had some really good power forwards, from Bob Rule, Tom Meschery and Spencer Haywood to Tom Chambers, Xavier McDaniel and Serge Ibaka. Heck, even Jack Sikma played some power forward when he first got to Seattle. But Kemp put the flash in the best Seattle teams of the 1990s. He could outrun, out-jump and out-muscle just about anyone he played against, and was terrifying in the open court.
C SPENCER HAYWOOD. Sikma played longer and is more identified with the franchise, but have you looked at Haywood’s numbers? They were obscene.
6TH JACK SIKMA. With apologies to Walt Hazzard, Dale Ellis, Ray Allen and Russell Westbrook.
PG PENNY HARDAWAY. Maybe the closest thing to Magic that we’ve seen, but a better scorer. If his health had held out (and if he’d had a franchise center to play with his entire career), who knows how good he could have been?
SG TRACY MCGRADY. Nick Anderson played longer, but McGrady had some of his best years in Orlando, ringing up impressive scoring numbers, and pretty good assist and rebounding totals, too.
SF RASHARD LEWIS. Orlando’s late 2000s run to the Finals was due in no small part to Lewis’ marksmanship.
PF HORACE GRANT. Grant was the right veteran leader for a team on the verge, helping take them to the Finals in the 90s. He could guard the opposition’s best post player, leaving Shaq free to freelance.
C DWIGHT HOWARD. He gets the nod over Shaq because he stayed longer. Howard isn’t the scorer O’Neal was, but he’s a better rebounder, and probably a better shot-blocker.
6TH SHAQUILLE O’NEAL. How could you not put him somewhere on the list?
PG ALLEN IVERSON. This might be the toughest team in the league to come up with sa Top 5 for. They’ve had brilliant players at every position. Iverson beats out rock-steady Mo Cheeks and early star Larry Costello here for his statistical contributions, his maximum effort every night, and for having to suffer through some horrendous seasons of little or no support.
SG HAL GREER. Greer was what you call a perennial, someone who could be relied on for 22 points every night for a decade.
SF JULIUS ERVING. Talk about your embarrassment of riches! Neither Billy Cunningham, Chet Walker, nor George Yardley make this list? That’s how much Doc meant, not just to the franchise, but to the city and the league. His best years may have been behind him when he got to the NBA, but he was still good enough to win a league MVP, and once Moses Malone showed up to flank him, Doc put up scoring numbers nearly the equal of his ABA tenure.
PF CHARLES BARKLEY. Dolph Schayes, I’m sorry. Barkley was a once-in-a-lifetime player. When’s the next time we’re going to see a 6’ 4” player put up those kind of rebounding numbers? Right. Never.
C WILT CHAMBERLAIN. The rings may not be there, but the numbers are, and we’ll never see their like again.
6TH MOSES MALONE. He joined a loaded Sixers team and put them over the top – way over the top. And he continued producing at the same level for the rest of his stay.
PG STEVE NASH. The Suns have had a pretty astonishing run of point guards in their 40+ year history: Hall of Famer Gail Goodrich, Paul Westphal, Dennis Johnson, Kevin Johnson, Jason Kidd, even Stephon Marbury. But Westy wasn’t a true point guard, and while KJ turned the franchise around, he did it with a lot of veteran talent around him. Nash, however, paired with a bright coach, took charge of a young team, and helped change the way the NBA looked at offensive basketball. The two MVPs don’t hurt, either.
SG PAUL WESTPHAL. This was Westphal’s natural spot, and in the five years of his prime that he played for the Suns, he was perhaps the best all-around guard in the league, selected to the All-NBA First Team three times.
SF SHAWN MARION. The Matrix could guard five positions. Five! And his jumper was ugly but effective and he was a great rebounder and a feared dunker in the open court. If he handled the ball a little better, he might have been Scottie Pippen.
PF CHARLES BARKLEY. Everything Barkley did in Philadelphia, he did in Phoenix. But he led the Suns to the Finals, something he never did for the Sixers.
C AMAR’E STOUDEMIRE. Apologies to Alvan Adams, who manned this position so ably for so many years. Amar’e wasn’t really a center and never liked playing the position, but his athleticism was so key to the Suns’ high-powered offense that no one of comparable size could guard him. Sure, he didn’t rebound particularly well, or defend, but those Suns weren’t built to do either one, really.
6th KEVIN JOHNSON. So hard not to put Walter Davis here (or Dick Van Arsdale, or Tom Chambers, or Connie Hawkins, or..). But KJ was one of the scariest point guards in the association in his day, and perhaps the fastest player in the league. He could get to the rim on anyone, and his outside shot had to be respected.
PG TERRY PORTER. Porter wasn’t the flashiest point guard ever to play, but he may have been one of the most consistent. He directed a team of talented, largely unheralded Blazers to two NBA Finals appearances, and was strong enough to overpower almost anyone who played against him.
SG CLYDE DREXLER. I tend to think the Glide is a little overrated, but there’s no overstating what he meant to this franchise in the 1980s, and he was a spectacular open court player with a surprising knack for steals.
SF JEROME KERSEY. It’s tempting to put the entire 1992 Blazers team on this list, actually. Kersey was a poor-man’s Pippen for this team, but slightly larger and not as good a shooter. Super athletic and versatile, Kersey made up for what Center Kevin Duckworth lacked in mobility.
PF MAURICE LUCAS. LaMarcus Aldridge played for Portland longer and had better cumulative numbers, but he didn’t have the emotional impact Luke had on the Portland franchise and community, both on the court (where his own team revered him and every other team feared him) and off (where fans loved him). Without him, the Blazers don’t sniff the title in 1977.
C BILL WALTON. And without Walton, healthy at last, the Blazers don’t sniff the playoffs. Everything revolved around him, offense and defense. Unmatched in fundamental soundness, when he was at his best, there may have been no one better, ever. Unfortunately, he was so rarely at his best.
6th LAMARCUS ALDRIDGE. Gets the nod over Sidney Wicks, Geoff Petrie, Mychal Thompson and Jim Paxson for longevity, and over Cliff Robinson for having slightly better stats.
PG OSCAR ROBERTSON. I’ll take another break here except to say, “Averaged a triple double for a season.” A season!
SG MITCH RICHMOND. Talk about toiling in obscurity. Name another meaningful player for the Kings during Richmond’s time there. Whatever limited success they had was totally due to Richmond’s scoring efforts.
SF JACK TWYMAN. A largely forgotten star of the 50s and 60s, Twyman was a superb scorer and solid rebounder in his prime.
PF CHRIS WEBBER. Webber had his best years with the Kings, and his multiple talents finally came to the fore. His all-around brilliance helped make the Kings contenders in the early 2000s, and he was as much a matchup nightmare as Shawn Kemp – only Webber had a better handle. Side note: If Maurice Stokes’ career hadn’t been tragically cut short, who knows how good he might have been. In his three seasons, he averaged 16 points and 17 rebounds.
C JERRY LUCAS. Sam Lacey and Vlade Divac are rightly revered by Kings fans for their contributions to the franchise, but Lucas gave them his best seasons, and they were amazing. As a Cincinnati Royal, Lucas averaged nearly 20 points and 20 rebounds per game. Why the Kings haven’t retired his number is a mystery.
6th TINY ARCHIBALD. I’m partial to any player who leads the league in points and assists in a season. Anyone who does that should get the starting nod, but… Oscar Robertson. Tiny won the MVP while on a club with a losing record in 1973.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
PG TONY PARKER. James Silas had some great moments for the Spurs in the ABA, and Johnny Moore led the NBA in assists one year, but you can’t argue with the Spurs’ success in Parker’s years, and his role in helping them achieve it.
SG GEORGE GERVIN. One of the coolest super-scorers and coolest personalities in NBA history, the Iceman was more than just the finger roll. He had almost unlimited range on his jumpshot and a knack for drawing fouls. If you played the Spurs during Gervin’s tenure, he was always Problem One.
SF SEAN ELLIOTT. The Spurs have had players who had shorter runs of better statistical results (Larry Kenon, Mike Mitchell), but Elliott was a key part of the foundation of the current success of the organization. Kawhi Leonard may have this spot one day, but not quite yet.
PF TIM DUNCAN. Waiter, another iced tea, please.
C DAVID ROBINSON. The guy who really put the team on the path is continues along today. A killer on offense and defense, Robinson had all the fundamental skills, plus he could run the open court like a deer. His name needs to come up more in the discussions about the elite centers in history.
6TH MANU GINOBILI. San Antonio’s Swiss army knife, with a baffling array of drives to the basket and a maddening tendency to be in the right place at the right time all the time. Would make this list on his flopping skills alone.
PG DAMON STOUDAMIRE. Mighty Mouse only played two seasons for the Raps, but they were pretty awesome. He averaged 20 points and around 9 assists, for a team that was terrible – which is putting it kindly.
SG DEMAR DEROZAN. DeRozan’s still proving himself, but he’s the go-to guy on a team that seems to be slowly improving. Besides, there isn’t much to pick from in franchise history at this position.
SF VINCE CARTER. Toronto’s first megastar, Carter was a scoring supernova for most of his time there, and one of the league’s top dunking attractions. His commitment was a little suspect, and he never rebounded well for a guy who could jump as high as he did, butwho else can you choose from the Raptors?
PF ANTONIO DAVIS. Davis gave some muscle up front to a few of Toronto’s better teams, but he probably had his best years in Indiana.
C CHRIS BOSH. The best, most reliable player in Raptor history, he wasn’t a true center, but that’s where he played for the Raps. Supremely mobile and effective at both ends of the court, with a nice outside jumper.
6th JOSE CALDERON. I kind of picked his name out of a hat, but ten points and seven assists a game are decent, if not mind-blowing.
PG JOHN STOCKTON. I like teams that make it easy for me.
SG PETE MARAVICH. Poor guy. As an expansion franchise, the Jazz traded their entire future for the Pistol and crippled themselves – and Pete – in the process. He still had breathtaking skills and numbers, and he was the face of the organization, but he never had anyone to play with that even approached his level.
SF ADRIAN DANTLEY. A scoring powerhouse, he was a Barkley-esque undersized forward without the rebounding skills, but with clever post moves and a deft touch. He and Darrell Griffith teamed to give the Jazz some of their first really good post-Maravich years.
PF KARL MALONE. Hey, I like Thurl Bailey, but…
C MARK EATON. Eaton couldn’t score, and for a guy who was 7’ 4”, he didn’t really rebound, either, but racking up four blocks per game made him a factor on the court.
6TH JEFF HORNACEK. I’m taking Hornacek over Andrei Kirilenko because without his shooting touch and ballhandling skills to take pressure off of Stockton, the Jazz never made the Finals. With Hornacek, they got there twice.
PG EARL MONROE. More consistent than John Wall, Monroe was a star attraction in the 1960s and helped make the Baltimore Bullets a consistent threat to the dominance of New York, Philadelphia and Boston. Monroe had an astonishing array of spin moves and it seemed like he could hit jumpers while facing any direction.
SG GILBERT ARENAS. Head-case issues aside, Arenas was a cold-blooded shooter unafraid of any circumstance. Kind of a slightly poorer-man’s Allen Iverson statistically. Okay, kind of a ball hog. But effective.
SF GUS JOHNSON. The frontcourt positions are where the Wizards have always had their best players, and Johnson was a mold-breaking small forward, super-strong, fearless on the boards, and a devastating dunker.
PF ELVIN HAYES. Hayes moved to Baltimore in his prime, and was a strong a player, if not stronger, than he’d been in Houston, only he had the added advantage of playing alongside a bona fide center in Westley Unseld. Hayes perfected his automatic turnaround jumper with the Bullets, and used it to help them win a title late in his career.
C WES UNSELD. Unseld never had great scoring numbers, but his rebounding ability was off-the-charts, especially considering he was only 6’ 7”. He was also one of the best at the position in history at starting the fast break. He won MVP and Rookie of the Year in the same season. He was a rock. And I don’t just mean how he looked.
6TH WALT BELLAMY. This is tough. The candidates for this spot that played a long time for the franchise don’t quite have the numbers. The candidates with the numbers didn’t stay very long. So I’m going with Bellamy, another largely forgotten Hall of Famer, who averaged around 26 points and 16 rebounds per game for the Bullets, impressive numbers when you consider he was getting them against Russell, Chamberlain, Thurmond, Lucas, etc.
There you have it. If you ask me tomorrow, I might change my mind about three or four of these selections, but it’s all debatable. Now the question becomes… Which franchise’s Top 5 and Sixth Man would win if all of these played in a tournament? It’s pretty hard to argue with the Lakers over the Sixers.
But that’s just one man’s opinion.
Thirty years ago last week, a touchstone event of my adolesence occurred, one of those happenings where pretty much everyone my age or thereabouts can tell you where they were and what they were doing when it happened. Relatively speaking, there wasn’t a lot of coverage of the anniversary… It didn’t command the front page of CNN.com or anything, but I did see a few blog posts about it my music and pop culture chroniclers. At the time, however, Live Aid dominated the summer of 1985 as much as any other story.
As a teenager, I was pretty locked into my twin all-consuming interests of sports and comic books, and didn’t really pay too much attention to the rest of the world. I’d vaguely heard about the “Do They Know It’s Christmas” recording that’d been made to benefit African famine victims, and maybe I’d heard the song once or twice, but it didn’t make much of an impression on me, and neither did the cause. I wasn’t a huge radio listener, and the few cassettes I played on my single-speaker boom box tended toward the classic rock of Bob Seger, Billy Joel and the Eagles. Nor was I a big consumer of MTV at that point. My family didn’t have cable, so I only saw the hottest cultural craze of the moment was when I visited friends who did. It was a curiosity to me, like messages from another planet.
My hometown of Phoenix did have a UHF video channel, Channel 61, which showed videos smothered in the snow and static of a weak signal. The first video I remember seeing was Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” I’d never seen anything like Boy George, and I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to again. Few of the videos the channel aired were by the top artists of the day, though some introduced me to niche artists I’d become a fan of later, such as Graham Parker.
I think I started tuning in to the music community’s movement to help Africa’s famine victims with the release of “We Are the World” in the spring of 1985. I wasn’t very interested in the song itself as I was with the historical significance of the artists coming together – even if I didn’t really know much about many of them. Bob Dylan and Michael Jackson in the same room? Crazy! Lionel Richie and Bruce Springsteen sharing the same microphone? Unbelievable! Cyndi Lauper and Kenny Rogers in the same sentence? Bizarre! I did my part and bought the cassette of the all-star song, but musically, I was more interested in the Huey Lewis and the News single on the flip side.
As “We Are the World” took over the charts and the air waves, Live Aid coalesced, and everyone started to get excited about the lineup as the artists were confirmed. Anticipation started to build. Would Phil Collins really be able to perform in England and then catch a Concord flight to Philadelphia that would allow him to participate in the concert from the American side as well? Were Dire Straits and Sting, two of the acts of the era, really going to share the same stage? Could Mick Jagger and Tina Turner duet without blowing up televisions across the world? And who the hell was this Udo Lindenberg who’d be performing in London between Crosby, Stills and Nash and Judas Priest (Answer: A German drummer – I had to look him up just now)?
In the summer of 1985, I took my sheltered self to Evanston, Illinois for the National High School Institute at Northwestern University. Several dozen high school juniors from around the country (“Cherubs,” in NHSI parlance), joined me for six weeks of intensive instruction in the art of journalism (There were other programs at the Institute at the same time, focusing on theater, engineering, and other disciplines). Like any gathering of teenagers, there were nerds, jocks, cool kids, and party animals. We all found our smaller groups to hang out with, but everyone got along, as we were all sharing in the same NHSI experience. It was great exposure to kids my own age of different backgrounds from all over America, and it opened up my world a good deal.
As July 13th, and the Live Aid concert, approached, I geared myself up, which mostly amounted to making sure I had extra batteries for my Walkman. I assumed that, on the day, most of my classmates would be doing what I’d be doing: planting myself in front of a television or listening to the radio for as much of the event as possible. But, perhaps for no other reason than teenagers generally have short attention spans, interest in Live Aid seemed pretty tepid. My peers came and went during the day, regarding the concert with light curiosity. I didn’t have to worry about anyone stealing my chair. I watched as much of the concert as my waking hours allowed me, starting in the lounge in our dorm, then wandering around campus while listening to the radio, watching more of the show in the student union, then coming back to the dorm for the finale. The lineup wasn’t the most diverse, shall we say. There were few black artists, particularly on the American side. Tina Turner and Run-DMC participated, but Prince, Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson did not. Country music wasn’t really represented, and but there were nods to Blues (BB King) and heavy metal (Black Sabbath and a shockingly bad Led Zeppelin reunion).
Not that I cared who was there and who wasn’t. Most of the acts were new to me, in that I was hearing or seeing them for the first time, or I was having a chance to experience their music for the first time in a way that wasn’t an occasional radio spot. I can remember watching Spandau Ballet and finding them as unlikable as their music (I’ve since revised my opinion – slightly). I remember Elvis Costello (who to that point I thought was a weirdo) singing “All You Need Is Love,” and I remember becoming a devoted fan after the first verse. I remember newly-solo Sting performing with just his bass and Branford Marsalis on the saxophone, holding me transfixed through “Message In a Bottle,” while it seemed the crowd only wanted to see Phil Collins (he came on two artists later, after Rick Springfield). I vividly remember U2’s set, and their epic performance of “Bad,” during which Bono pulled a young woman from the crowd to dance with him. I’d never seen a band make a performance so personal and emotional. I hadn’t been to many concerts in my life, and I didn’t know they could be more than just an evening in a building singing along to blaringly loud versions of favorite radio songs. At Live Aid, U2 showed me there were possibilities in live performance I didn’t know existed. Queen confirmed that for me shortly thereafter. I’d always considered them kind of transgressive, but it was impossible to resist Freddy Mercury’s charisma and ability to command an audience. Their power blew me away, and their performance was the highlight of the concert, as far as I was concerned.
But there were still hours to go. I remember thinking lead singer Jim Kerr of Simple Minds was extremely odd in his mannerisms on stage, but that the band as a whole was crazy good musically. I remember Madonna joking away her scandalous recent appearance in adult magazines. I remember Phil Collins making it to Philadelphia safely (thank God) for his second performance. I remember Jagger and Turner being not exactly as scandalous as they were later credited with being. And I remember being happily exhausted when the concert finally ended… and I had a list of artists whose music I was determined to explore further.
A week or so later, I went to the mailbox at the dorm and found something unexpected: An issue of Rolling Stone addressed to the student that had occupied my room during the previous school year. He’d evidently not canceled or forwarded it. On the cover were photos of some of the biggest Live Aid names, and the headline, “The Day the World Rocked.” Inside were pages of coverage of the event, much of it behind the scenes, the logistics of how it all worked, and how the performers interacted. I read it six times before the end of the summer program, and I’ve read it countless times since. I think it spurred in me an interest for all things “behind the scenes,” whether about sports, films, music or historical events. When I returned home, I subscribed to the magazine immediately, and I haven’t missed an issue since. Obviously, Rolling Stone is (now) about as mainstream as it gets, so it’s not like I was discovering a secret trove of underground knowledge. But it broadened my horizons nonetheless, expanding me creatively, culturally, socially and politically. And all because, during a formative summer, there was Live Aid.
It gave me the world.
If you haven’t seen the final episode of Mad Men, you probably want to stop here until you have.
I’ve had a curious relationship with Mad Men during its seven season run. I’ve seen every episode, looked forward to the Sunday nights it’s been on, taken part in the speculation about what might happen, loved the look, was entranced by the mood. But I never really invested in the characters; never found someone to really root for. I disliked some of them, didn’t understand others, felt sorry for a lot of them, but I never truly liked any of them or wished I could spend time with them in person. Like real life, I suppose, they were all selfish at the core, and capable of real, casual cruelty. I found those dark moments to be predominant, as opposed to the flashes of consideration and genuine connection between the characters. That, plus the fact that I found the show oddly cold — part of its charm, no doubt — kept me from caring deeply about the future of any of the cast. They were deep and fascinating characters… But I didn’t worry about them and I didn’t cheer for them.
I never, ever liked Don Draper, for instance. Nor did I sympathize with him at any point, no matter how often it was made apparent to me that he’s a damaged man, looking for something to fill up his soul. To me, that doesn’t excuse how he treated, or how he kept such a distance from, Betty, his children, Peggy, Megan, or any of his work colleagues, up to and including Roger. I understood the charisma from the purely physical aspect of Don Draper’s appearance, but I never found him charming or even particularly slam-bang good at his job. To me, he seemed like a big, arrogant phony in all aspects of his life, and I often felt the lives of others would be better if he wasn’t in them. That said, I was always curious if and how his character would develop, what his journey was leading to.
I suppose the week-to-week pot shots the Sterling-Cooper denizens and their family members took at each other were true to life, but I felt like I saw so much more of those than I did acts of kindness, and I found myself thirsty for those – really wanting a sign that these characters liked each other and wanted to help each other, aside from looking out for their own interests. I feel the closest thing to a genuine friendship between any of the regulars was Peggy’s relationship with Stan, but that felt more familial to me (even though Stan definitely didn’t want it to be).
I guess I just found the series too cynical to take it into my heart, or consider it one of the greatest dramas of all time, as so many critics and bloggers are quick to deem it. Damn good, and an impressive stylistic achievement, but for me, not up there with The Wire, or Hill Street Blues, or My So-Called Life, or The West Wing in my personal list of favorites.
I think it’s possible to read the series finale as either overwhelmingly cynical and depressing, or as tonally jarring, with segments that seem wildly divergent from what we’ve seen the series to be.
Unlike a lot of recappers, I didn’t read Don’s smile at the end segueing into the famous Coke commercial to be a sign that he’d thought of the slogan – That itself is a pretty cynical reading. Rather, I took it as his total embrace of the burgeoning Me Decade self-help crap, and that he was now one of those blank-eyed, smiley-faced kids in the ad, which I always found creepy and cult-like. Don has always been on the lookout for the thing that would make him whole, and he’s marked time by coming up with quickie, improvised slogans (improvising and creating something out of nothing has always been his great talent), while trying to fill that void within himself with external stimuli – cigarettes, booze, money and sex. Having been there, done that, and still not found fulfillment, he’s at the end of his rope, the end of America, and the end of the series looking over the Pacific wondering “What’s next?” His decade is gone and he has no anchor. Flailing, Don reaches out to Peggy, the one person he knows has always understood him the most, and Peggy tries to talk him back into his old life, the things she thinks are important to him. But Peggy doesn’t understand Don completely, and nothing less than complete connection will suffice at this moment. Only when a total stranger perfectly(and randomly) articulates the pain Wordsmith Don has experienced for so many years but didn’t know how to express verbally, does Don find the connection he’s craved. And it’s not really with Leonard, but with the sense that at last, he’s not alone. And, based on the environment in which he found that connection, Don’s also finally found a message he thinks he can buy, and he’s so desperate for it that he doesn’t even seem to notice that the message has its own profit-making motive. He can come and go as he pleases because he’s “paid up until the end of the week!” Don has assimilated, found the one true family he’s always wanted — but for how long, if it leads to the empty phoniness of a Coke commercial?
To me, the more daring choice would have been to not show Don at all in the finale. Let our final image of him be sitting at that bus stop, smiling, a tiny speck in the center of America, just disappearing into the country, always questing and never finding, but having learned to enjoy the quest. Of course, that would have left my ideal finale pretty thin, since I felt there were so many perfect goodbyes prior to that – A fade out as Betty climbs the stairs to heaven and/or her next class; Pete’s reconciliation with Trudy (more on that in a bit); Peggy’s confident arrival at McCann with her past under her arm in the form of Cooper’s art; Ted Chaough’s air of contentment as one of a bunch of suits at a meeting he doesn’t have to run; Joan taking her cool quarter mil and running away forever with Richard. If Don were taken out of the equation, I’m not sure what the idea finale would have been… An hour’s shot of the empty Sterling-Cooper offices? It would have been daring television, sure, but probably not satisfying (or interesting).
So Don got his “happy” ending. What about everyone else? Peggy passed on the chance to be her own boss – 1980 seems far away, but she’s worked too hard to get to this point to risk everything on a venture that may or may not succeed – but found true love… In a manner so uncharacteristically schmaltzy of this series that I thought it might be a dream sequence. Stan professing his feelings so baldly can be excused (his love for Peggy has always been apparent), but her quick realization that she feels the same for him was so weird (“I never think about you”) that it’s possible to take it, too, as cynical. It’s like she takes all the impulsiveness she displayed in agreeing to the whirlwind Europe trip earlier in the season and applies it here to feelings for Stan. It felt more “why not?” than “this is how I’ve always felt and never knew it.” And that doesn’t bode well for Stan, whose emotions have always been genuine. Then again, it’s also possible – and more likely – that series creator Matt Weiner figured, if anyone deserves a happy ending, it’s Peggy, so here you go, kid.
Joan got a happy ending, but at the cost of the two things she’s always wanted most – romantic love and stability. Richard’s early-season lack of interest in her career goals was a red flag, even though he tried to convince himself he was okay with it. And Joan’s invested too much in establishing herself as a professional, and done too well at it, to walk away. She may yet find her romantic love, but she’s going to take care of the stability herself.
I guess Roger got a happy ending, but he never reconciled with his daughter, he didn’t get the relationship he wanted with Kevin, his friends and the company he grew are gone, Marie is crazy, and he has to deal with stepdaughter Megan glaring at him every Thanksgiving. I’m not sure how happy all that is.
Pete got his happy ending – a fresh start in Wichita and a reconciliation with Trudy that, like Peggy and Stan’s coupling, bordered on the unbelievable. Pete may be genuinely a changed man, but Trudy’s experience of him is as a consummate bulshitter and schemer. Why would the speech he gave her strike a nerve and convince her to step backward? Because she hadn’t found anything else to do? Because life in the suburbs alone was difficult? She shouldn’t trust Pete to mail a letter, let alone be a transformed husband. Again, the event was so jarring and out of character with what I’d believed the show’s emotional underpinnings to be that it took me out of the emotion and the moment (and yes, I realize this happened in the next to last episode, not the finale).
Betty did not get a happy ending, but it’s one she accepts. Sally gets the worst ending, and there’s no two ways of reading. An adult too soon (a role she’s been moving toward, and one she takes on fully after she tells Don about Betty’s illness, and there’s no going back), she won’t have to take care of her mother forever, but she might have to take care of her brothers forever (I hope she really teaches Bobby how to cook – and do dishes). Sally won’t have the relationship with either of her parents that she’s wanted. Sally will never get to Madrid. Her life seems destined to become a list of places she hasn’t visited – It’s difficult to see her ever being happy.
About the only person who’s truly happy is Harry Crane, and he’s been that way since he became Head of Television a few seasons back, giving him license to cat around and act like he’s way more important than he should be (and he was likely rewarded for it because those were the times and that kind of behavior was characteristic of a “successful” person). Now he even has a tin of cookies. Blecch.
If I take the extra-cynical view of the finale, it’s heightened in tone from what the series established, but fits in with the larger, grim messages of the show: We’re all alone; We all have holes inside of us that we’ll spend our lives trying to fill (sometimes we get there, or get close, sometimes we don’t); Everything we gain materially fades away. But if I take everything that happened at face value (which I feel the show taught me never to do – Don wasn’t going to jump off the Time-Life roof in the final scene because the show was never, ever that literal), then the finale, in places, is a total departure, tonally, from everything that had come before, which to me invalidates a lot of the experience.
In my book, Mad Men goes down as a fascinating, messy, frustrating experience that I observed with interest but didn’t live. Not the happiest ending to my watching of the show that I could think of, but one I’ll remember and ponder for a long time, and maybe that’s happy enough.
After graduating from college, I spent two years in a hospital.
Let me back up.
I graduated from Northwestern with a journalism degree, which I believed would lead me to a stable, practical career. Finding the job market that year to be the worst ever (Every year is the worst year for the job market, as employers love to tell you), I moved back to my hometown of Phoenix. spent the summer doing odd jobs here and there, as well as pounding the pavement, and generally didn’t feel stable, or that I had made a practical choice.
But I answered an ad in the paper (That’s how we rolled, back in the Print Age), interviewed for a job in the Community Relations department of John C. Lincoln Hospital in Phoenix’s Sunnyslope area, and somehow won the post. The title was “Writer,” which I was very proud of, and the responsibilities primarily involved writing (hence the title) and editing newsletters and fundraising magazines for the hospital. Writing features of the “Bob was sick. We made Bob better. Aren’t we great?” variety. Maybe not the most exciting material, but it seemed more creative to me than straight reporting. It came with a regular paycheck and health benefits. It was like I’d walked into a blazing neon sign reading, “STABLE AND PRACTICAL.”
It was a good job. It was a very good job. It allowed me to buy a car, get my own apartment with friends, and start a professional life.
But it wasn’t for me.
Even while diligently taking journalism courses and working at internships, I knew in my heart of hearts that, while I wanted to make a living telling stories, what I NEEDED was to tell my own stories. Not stories about “Bob” (though I’m thrilled he’s doing better), but about robots and superheroes, cops and crooks, fathers and daughters and all the other things I could imagine and more. If there’d been a major called, “Imagination Exploitation” that promised a stable and practical career, I’d have jumped at it. But it just didn’t seem feasible to me. I knew how many people WANTED to make a living writing in the entertainment industry… I didn’t think there was any way I could stand out from all of them and actually DO it. How would I get noticed? Putting on a tight sweater and sitting at a malt shop counter like some ’50s starlet didn’t seem like an option for me.
But I was going crazy at the hospital. I wasn’t doing what I wanted and needed to be doing, and that frustration was showing. I wasn’t exactly a great coworker to my office mates, I wasn’t accepting notes from my boss gracefully, and I was almost literally climbing the walls. One of my responsibilities in the department was to help put together video presentations for awards banquets and the like, and as such, I was given the dispensation to go out and buy a few books on filmmaking — Not that I’d ever use them in actually making the videos myself, but they were diverting to read at lunchtime. One book had a section on universities with film programs, graduate and undergraduate, along with application information. I re-read that chapter several times over several weeks. And, with an attitude of “if it happens, great, and if not, great,” I applied to four schools. I specifically remember picking four schools where I wouldn’t have to actually make a film myself, because that seemed expensive, and I was almost certain I’d drop a camera on my foot, which would be even more expensive, and make people mad at me, to boot. I wanted a screenwriting program. And, a few weeks later, I was accepted to the one at the University of Texas at Austin.
Now I had to put my money where my mouth was. Was I willing to give up my stable, practical career? Under cover of a cousin’s Bat Mitzvah in Dallas, and looking for any reason to say “no,” I visited the campus. A good friend from college, Matt, who was attending UT as a law student, drove me around and helped me scout apartments. Two older cousins and longtime Austin residents, Lois and Lem, gave me their views of the city and introduced me to a UT screenwriting professor, Robert Foshko, who sang the praises of the university. Rents were cheap (I know they aren’t now, Austinites, but this was the weekend of the LA riots), the campus was lovely, the department seemed great. Further, Austin was becoming a hot spot for the film community. Independent film was just becoming a thing, and because of locals like Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez, Hollywood was starting to drift in for scouting trips, and it seemed everyone in the city was on the verge of being “discovered.”
I returned to Phoenix, considered my practical career and my stable position at the hospital… and I decided that if I didn’t give myself at least a chance to do what I really wanted and needed to do in life, I’d regret it forever. So I wrote a resignation letter and rented a U-Haul, and later that summer, I bid a tearful farewell to my health benefits, as well as any pretense of stability and practicality, and set off on I-10 on the long journey to Hollywood via the Lone Star State.
More to come…