31 May 2014
Ah, 1998. I remember it like I remember losing my virginity. But 1998 lasted a lot longer and it was far more satisfying.
I turned fourteen in 1998. I was one of about five kids at my school who gave a damn about basketball, and that was a heady year to be a basketball fan. Not because of the Raptors—they were still pretty bad, although they did get a lot better when they drafted Vince Carter that year.
No, 1998 was great because it was the last time the same two teams played in the NBA Finals for the second straight year. The glorious rematch between the Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz. The last hurrah for the Bulls’ Michael Jordan era; the second crushing defeat for the Jazz. Neither team has returned to the NBA Finals since then.
When I was fourteen, being a Bulls fan was a lot like being a Heat fan is today—it just wasn’t cool. The cool kids wanted to see Michael Jordan lose in the Finals, even though we all knew he was the best player on the planet. Just like how people want to see LeBron James lose today.
The similarities between the Bulls team that won the 1998 Finals and the Miami Heat team of today are remarkable. Both teams featured the best player in the world at the time. Both teams were coming off back-to-back championships, gunning for a third straight. Michael Jordan had the criminally underappreciated Scottie Pippen by his side; LeBron James has Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, whose combined talents on a good day are about equal to having Scottie Pippen. The Bulls had Steve Kerr knocking down threes at will; the Heat have Ray Allen. The Bulls had Dennis Rodman wreaking havoc under the basket; the Heat have Chris “Birdman” Andersen. (Sure, Birdman is nowhere near the talent Rodman was, but he looks just as intimidating.)
And there’s no shortage of people who would love to see the Miami Heat lose in the Finals this year, just like there was no shortage of people who wanted to see the Bulls lose in 1998.
But back in 1998 I wasn’t just rooting against the Bulls—I flat-out loved the Utah Jazz. John Stockton and Karl Malone were the bacon and eggs of the NBA—maybe not the most exciting combination, but certainly a winning one. They played a predictable, by-the-book style of basketball and Stockton and Malone ran the pick-and-roll to perfection. Every team in the league knew what the Jazz were going to do, but they were so good at doing it that most teams couldn’t stop them—except for the Bulls, of course.
Karl Malone was a superhero to me. He was—and still is—built like a tank. Biceps and shoulders the size of boulders, but he could run the court like a gazelle. The second most prolific scorer in NBA history. An avid hunter who killed bears and deer—presumably with his own two hands—in the offseason. He was also a pitchman for Rogaine, which I thought was pretty neat.
And how much more Utah could you get than John Stockton—a slight, mild-mannered white guy who played by the rules in the middle of Mormon country. Well, he played by the rules as long as you didn’t count all the cheap shots he took at opponents when the refs weren’t looking. He also continued to wear short shorts after they had gone out of style. That’s as bold a statement as endorsing Rogaine.
Plus who could forget Jeff “Horny” Hornacek, one of the best free-throw shooters in the league and a serious threat from behind the arc? (All right, I admit it. I just wanted to throw “Horny” out there, but Hornacek was a great player and he’s now a great coach.)
Today’s San Antonio Spurs are a lot like the Jazz of old. Not only are they on the brink of a rematch with a two-time defending championship team, just like the ’97-’98 Jazz, but they’re lovable in spite of how boring they are, just like the ’97-’98 Jazz. Tony Parker and Tim Duncan are Stockton and Malone 2.0.
Duncan didn’t come to be known as the Big Fundamental by being the flashiest guy on the basketball court. He goes about his business with the calmness and efficiency of a seasoned accountant. (I should point out that I don’t have much insight into how accountants go about their business, but I imagine them to be the Tim Duncans of the 9-to-5 world.) Duncan doesn’t have the physicality of Malone, but like Malone, he can run the court better than most big men could ever hope to. Both players are surely among the best power forwards to ever play basketball.
Tony Parker is certainly a flashier, more athletic point guard than Stockton ever was, but like Stockton, he’s the glue that holds his team together. And if you overlook things like the nightclub skirmishes he gets caught in the middle of in the offseason and his now-defunct marriage to Eva Longoria, he even seems as mild-mannered as Stockton.
The Spurs are now one win away from a rematch with the two-time champs, just like the Jazz of yore. But is the context of a potential Spurs-Heat rematch similar in any way to the 1998 Finals? Absolutely. I wouldn’t be writing all of this if I didn’t think so.
See, in 1998, everyone had the feeling that this was the last chance for the Bulls or the Jazz as we knew them to win a championship. The stars on each team weren’t exactly spring chickens. Michael Jordan and John Stockton had been in the league since 1984, Malone since 1985. Pippen seemed young by comparison, having been in the league for a mere 11 years.
That feeling turned out to be true. The Bulls won the championship, but the team was torn down for a rebuild. Michael Jordan retired—again. Phil Jackson, the Bulls’ coach, signed on as coach of the Lakers. Scottie Pippen was traded to the Houston Rockets. Steve Kerr was sent to San Antonio, where he won another championship the following year. Dennis Rodman signed with the Lakers. The Jazz continued to play respectably for the next few years, but they were never considered championship contenders. Karl Malone had one last shot at a championship after he signed with the Lakers in ’03/’04, but the Detroit Pistons made him a three-time loser.
It was the end of an era. The basketball gods of the mid-’80s would never dominate the league again.
If the Spurs make it to the Finals this year, the sense of urgency from 1998—the sense that this could be the last time—will be just as real as it was 16 years ago.
People have been counting the Spurs out for years now. Even when they won the championship in 2007—Tim Duncan’s fourth—they were thought to be too old. Duncan has been in the league since 1997. He’s 38 now—geriatric by NBA standards. Even in the twilight of his career he’s still an elite talent, but eventually Father Time will catch up to him. The Spurs’ Manu Ginobli is in a similar situation. Still a great player, but he’s 36. Like Betty White, he can still put on a hell of a show, but how much longer can it possibly last?
It pains me to say this, but if the Spurs were produce at the grocery store, they’d be on the clearance shelf. Sure, they may taste good today, but you have no idea what shape they’ll be in tomorrow.
The Miami Heat may not be quite as old, but their future is just as uncertain. Dwyane Wade’s body is giving up on him. He shows flashes of brilliance in the playoffs, no doubt, but when he needs to rest half the season just to get to the playoffs, you really have to question how much gas he has left in the tank. Chris Bosh still has a few good years left in him and says he wants to stay in Miami, but he, Wade and James all have options to enter free agency this summer. There’s no guarantee the Miami Heat you’re watching now will be the same team you’re watching next year.
So for the sake of 14-year-olds everywhere, I hope we see a rematch in the NBA Finals this year. This could be the last chance for the Heat and the Spurs as we know them, and I want people who were my age in 1998 to have memories like the ones I have. Let’s all huddle around the TV and watch some old guys try to win it all.
I’ll never forget watching Game 6 of the Bulls/Jazz rematch, the most-watched game in NBA history. The Bulls were down by one point with about 10 seconds left, and my heart shattered into a million pieces when Michael Jordan sunk a championship-winning jumper seconds later.
Other kids need to have a memory like that. It’s those memories that build character. Just like losing your virginity—it may not have been a good experience, but you’re glad it happened.