Preface: Yeah, this is long. Read it on the toilet, nothing like reading about my childhood on the porcelain throne.
It was probably around 2008 when I really started to get into the NBA. The Bulls had drafted Derrick Rose and Chicago basketball was headed back in the right direction. It couldn't of happened at a better time since I was almost ten and was incredibly impressionable, so I fell in love with the league pretty fast. YouTube highlights, hours of the same episode of "SportsCenter", and NBA Live on my PSP fueled my interest, and it's only grown over time.
The league has changed so much since I first became a fan, and the players from my childhood started getting ushered into retirement a few years ago. There are few things harder to watch than your favorite athletes getting old and eventually not being able to run up and down the court; it's kind of like watching your dog get old, except you don't put down Shaq when he starts taking his time going up the stairs.
On a lighter note, I'd like to reminisce and take a look back at my favorite players from when I was a kid and name them to my All-Childhood First Team. It's an honor that none of these players will ever know about or be able to accept, but I'm gonna do it anyways.
Point Guard: Steve Nash
Career Stats (per game): 1217 G, 14.3 points, 3.0 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 49/42.8/90.4
(Some) Accolades: 2x MVP, 8x All-Star, Basketball Hall of Fame
I don't know why, but I loved the Suns growing up. I used them so much in NBA Live 09; Steve Nash, Shaq, Amar'e, Jason Richardson, Goran Dragic, Leandro Barbosa, there's too many to name. A "timeless" team that is much better in my memory and that's how I choose to remember it. For so long they were my second-favorite team, but once Nash left and they became a warehouse fire, I kind of jumped ship. I still kind of root for them to pull it together, but I pray for diehard Suns fun. Stay strong, and stick with it.
The best player on the Suns was obviously Steve Nash, and he was so fun to watch. The Suns played fast, and even though I missed the Mike D'Antoni "Six Seconds or Less"-era, they always looked fluid. (A lot of this is probably because I didn't understand a lot of the intricate details of the game and focused on what looked cool, but I was ten, not a professional scout.) Nash was flashy yet calm in his demeanor, and he was an absolute warrior on the floor. He was a great three-point shooter in an era where shooting didn't make-or-break teams and made everyone around him better. 37-year-old(ish) Shaq was an All Star playing next to Nash; if that doesn't say anything about his team-boosting prowess, I don't know what does. I wish I would've had the opportunity to watch actual prime Nash during his back-to-back MVP run, but I loved what I got to see. There were a lot of disheartening early playoff exits, and for years I had to deal with my two favorite teams disappointing me every April and May, but I wouldn't give it back. Every year I could look forward to watching Nash in the All-Star game and I still remember watching him win the Skills Challenge during All-Star Weekend 2010. The speech afterwards was inspirational, I think?
When he agreed to go to the Lakers in 2012, I was thrilled. He would be pairing up with Kobe Bryant (my favorite player ever), Pau Gasol, and the newly-acquired Dwight Howard, who was still able to dominate. The results were obviously disappointing and that "superteam" ended up marking the beginning of the end for two of the previously listed three players (Pau was a two-time All-Star with the Bulls after). The fact that Nash lost his career to a pulled back from picking up luggage is so sad, and it still hurts my soul that he had to go down at kind of a low point.
I don't think another point guard will ever beat Nash as my favorite all-time. One of my biggest regrets is never seeing him play live, but I guess that's also out of my control because it would have been beyond dangerous for me to drive myself to the United Center in fifth grade. It sucks that he never won a championship as a player, and even though I despise the Warriors' dominance, I'm glad Nash finally got a couple of rings as a shooting consultant.
For some reason I remember a Steve Nash TNT interview segment from like 2011 or 2012 and he said he hadn't eaten a candy bar for like two years and it was super impressing at the time. Not at all sure why it left such a lasting impression.
Shooting Guard: Kobe Bryant
Career Stats: 1346 G, 25.0 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 44.7/32.9/83.7
(Some) Accolades: 1x MVP, 18x All-Star, 5x Champion, 2x Finals MVP
Kobe's last game was a rough night for me. I'll openly admit that I cried... a few times. Pre-game, mid-game when it hit me that it was over, and after the "Mamba Out" mic drop. (Fuck. Alexa, play "In My Feelings".) Kobe's ability to dominate opponent's not only on the court but in their heads while simultaneously scoring at will is the closest we've gotten to Jordan. The post-Achilles tear Kobe was hard to watch at times, but whenever he had a good game it was like a present. He so badly wanted to still be the best player on the court that he shot the Lakers out of games, but it can't take away from his legacy.
The Lakers were starting another bid at a three-peat as I started getting really into the league. In the first three seasons after I became an NBA fan, the Lakers were in the Finals. There was such heavy coverage of the Lakers and they were featured on so many primetime games while being a staple in the playoffs that it would be hard for me to not watch Kobe. I'm sure that my fandom seems so widespread, but it's hard to just tie yourself down to one team all the time. It's a disservice to yourself as a fan to not watch other teams and players and appreciate their respective skill sets. Kobe and the Lakers were like that for me, and even though them and the Bulls weren't exactly friends, I couldn't help but root for them. They had what felt like such a complete team from top to bottom, and Phil Jackson hadn't gone crazy yet. Kobe led this team into battle every night, and they were a herd of basketball killers for a decent stretch of time. Watching the Lakers win two championships as a kid had a different feel to it; obviously it felt more "Hollywood", and I wish I was able to experience the Frobe and Shaq era. (Imagine if Twitter was around when Shaq referred to the Kings as "the Queens".)
As mentioned earlier, I was so happy when Steve Nash and Dwight Howard joined Kobe, but I didn't know it'd be the end of Kobe's dominance. That stretch of injuries starting with the Achilles was so sad, and every time he made his return I always held out hope that Kobe would get back to scoring whenever he felt like it. It never really happened, but his last game was a great return to peak Kobe that I grew to love. It's still crazy to think that year-20 Kobe put up 60 points in a game in front of an absolutely packed and rocking Staples Center and then gave a moving Shakespearean monologue at half-court. "Mamba out." The tears are starting to well up in my eyes.
Kobe is always going to be my favorite player; nobody will surpass him. It's great to see him staying involved in media and basketball (in some aspects), and it seems like he's taking the Magic Johnson route in terms of post-career business. Maybe him and LeBron can team up on a project in the future. If I keep seeing Kobe slander on the Twitter timeline I'm going to have an aneurysm, so please refrain from shitting on his legacy. Kobe's going to have a big statue in front of Staples Center, he's better than you.
Small Forward: LeBron James
Career Stats (so far): 1167 G, 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 50.4/34.4/73.9
(Some) Accolades (so far): 4x MVP, 14x All-Star, 3x Champion, 3x Finals MVP, 2004 Rookie of the Year
There have been three stages of LeBron fandom in my life: I loved him during his first stint with the Cavs, hated him turning his time in Miami, and eventually came back around after I saw him play for the first time when he re-joined Cleveland. Not choosing the Bulls as his free agency destination in 2010 was unforgivable to me at the time, and today it's wild to me that LeBron was once the NBA's villain.
I shouldn't like LeBron, mainly because he's had quite the habit of knocking the Bulls out of the playoffs, but it's hard to hate on sheer greatness. I'd root against him whenever the Cavs played the Bulls, but the series would never last more than five games and I'd always be left in awe by the ass whooping dealt to the city of Chicago. Him and Joakim Noah going at it was a highlight of those years and I still wish the Bulls could've stolen just one series from LeBron.
Even without social media, I was still able to (sort of) understand how big LeBron was. There was still so much coverage of him, especially leading up to his first free agency, and ESPN was usually rolling a highlight tape of his dominance the night before. "More Than a Game", the 2008 documentary detailing LeBron and his high school team, was watched multiple times on my minuscule iPod Touch screen and you already know I had a jersey. It seemed like just about everyone loved LeBron, until, you know...
He left for the Miami Heat to team up with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. I still remember finding out over the radio in the car and then seeing just how livid the entire state of Ohio was the next day on SportsCenter. I wasn't really mad that he joined the Heat, I was mad he didn't come to the Bulls and proceeded to go on a LeBron sabbatical. I despised him and the Heat; they even got me to root for the Thunder and Spurs in the Finals. It wouldn't be until he returned the Cavaliers in 2014 that I'd come back to the light side. When I got the chance to see him play live in Chicago (shoutout Bob Weed), it was unlike anything I ever saw. He looks even bigger in person, just an absolute unit of a human being. That night I realized I was taking fun away from myself by not embracing who he was as a player, and since then I've returned to the bandwagon.
It's been unreal to see LeBron's career trajectory unfold, and to think he got drafted when I was in pre-school and is still the best weeks from my twentieth birthday is mind-blowing. LeBron is the best to ever do it, and if you're anti-LeBron, go see him play if you can. I promise it'll change your mind.
Power Forward: Amar'e Stoudemire
Career Stats: 846 G, 18.9 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 53.7/23.6/76.1
(Some) Accolades: 6x All-Star, 2003 Rookie of the Year
(The lack of high-quality pictures of Amar'e on Google is quite simply appalling.)
I told you I loved the Suns. To me, there may not be a more perfect play in the history of basketball than the Nash-Stoudemire pick-and-roll. Amar'e's speed and strength cutting to the basket after a screen for Nash capped off with a beautiful lob is art, and there should be an exhibit dedicated to them in the Louvre.
There's not a lot about the Suns that I haven't already said, but I'll just reiterate how fun those teams were. Nash, Amar'e, and Shaq were a killer Big Three for like two years, and I really wish they could've gone to the Promised Land. I still vividly remember the 2009 All-Star Game in Phoenix where Shaq danced with the JabbaWockeeZ to start the night, crazy to think its almost been ten years.
If Suns owner Robert Sarver wasn't so damn cheap, the D'Antoni coached, MVP Nash and All-Star Amar'e-led team definitely could've won at least one ring, and that would've helped Amar'e out a lot legacy-wise. He's another guy who I only got to watch at near-peak performance for a couple of seasons, but I obviously soaked up every second of it. Even Knicks Amar'e was fun to watch (for like a season and a half but still).
It really sucks that injuries took ended Amar'e's ability to play at a high level fairly young (28), but his healthy years were filled with highlight plays and high-tempo excitement. His goggles are, to me, iconic and I'll always remember the All-Star games and playoff runs.
During pickup games at home, "06 Suns" is a call for a pick-and-roll. Influential!
Center: Joakim Noah
Career Stats (so far): 626 G, 8.9 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 49.0/0.0/69.9
(Some) Accolades: 2x All-Star, 2014 Defensive Player of the Year, 2x NCAA champion
Yes, Derrick Rose was the prodigal son of Chicago and everybody worshipped him, but Joakim was my guy. He's my all-time favorite Bull and that will never, ever change unless they somehow clone a higher energy version of him and put him on the Bulls. Joakim did all the little things for the Rose-era Bulls and eventually became their leader. I'm still holding out hope that Joakim will end his career with the Bulls because I feel his time with the team ended too abruptly, and I want him to end things on a "high"-note with the team. (High. Get it? Joakim's off the gas. No way he doesn't have a dab pen in the locker room.)
The 2010-11 Bulls team that went 62-20 is my favorite team ever. Coach of the Year Thibs, MVP Rose, Joakim, Boozer, Taj Gibson, Ronnie Brewer, CJ Watson, oh my god they were so deep. I could spend all day talking about this team. I rarely missed a game on TV and they should've won the Finals, but I don't want to get into it for the sheer fact that I'll fall into a dark depression. Those god damn Heat and LeBron plowed through the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals and it felt like the city of Miami ripped my heart out of my chest. The next year shit truly hit the fan for the Bulls with Rose's first injury, but Joakim never gave up.
Every time Rose went down there was talk of the Bulls giving up on the season and tanking. Not Joakim. The amount of hustle he brought every night was incredible, and having a player that other fan bases seemed to hate was so amusing. He wasn't technical and he has one of the weirdest jump shots ever, but Joakim made an impact. He was a consistent double-double guy, and once he introduced passing into his game, triple-doubles weren't out of question. Joakim's energy would will the team to win and he made those around him better. Before Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets) emerged as the big man passer in today's NBA, there wasn't a better passing center (in my eyes) than Joakim. His passes were by no means pretty, but his court vision and feel for his teammates allowed him to make plays, and he averaged 5.4 assists during the 2013-14 season, fairly high for a center.
My favorite Joakim season was 2013-14. Rose went down yet again, and Luol Deng was eventually traded to the Cavs. The towel looked like it was thrown in and talks of tanking began. Things looked bad, but Joakim somehow turned things up a few notches and became an MVP candidate. He led the Bulls to a 48-34 record and racked up a ton of accolades in the process. Not only was he an All-Star, Joakim ended fourth in MVP voting and was named Defensive Player of the Year. He was also named to the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive First Team. Joakim also put up four triple-doubles, tied with Steph Curry for second in the league. Triple-doubles have seemingly become more normal now, but that season they weren't happening every night, and the fact that a center was top of the league was beyond impressive.
Watching Joakim go to the Knicks and ultimately fail was tough to watch, but I'm glad he's gotten another shot with the Memphis Grizzlies. I can't think of a better fit for him than the Memphis grit-n-grind and hopefully he can provide valuable veteran insight for a team that has shocked a lot of people this season.
I have a life-size Joakim Noah Fathead and I'm far from ashamed.