The 2020 class boasts three pillars of the modern era: Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and the late Kobe Bryant. As someone who grew up in their era, this is a tribute to their impact on the league and this lone Australian boy.
Regularly, I’d go down to the local gym by myself for hours on end imitating my favourite players to the best of my ability before the polite turning off of the lights warned me I was staying beyond my welcome. I was a latecomer to basketball, picking it up in my mid-teens, but there was honestly nowhere I felt more at one with than on a court getting up shots, you could almost call it therapeutic.
Tim Duncan was also a latecomer to the sport. Duncan was a prolific swimmer growing up on the Virgin Islands of St Croix, but with the death of his mother, a huge motivating force behind his swimming, he lost interest and picked up basketball instead. A gift to the game a basketball, I think. Much like myself, Duncan has a degree in psychology, from his time as a “Demon Deacon” at Wake Forest University. Much life myself, his public nature of a stoic and reserved man hides a private side rich in deep, meaningful and humorous relationships. Sadly, my basketball talents didn’t mirror Timmy’s, but small wonder he’s my favourite player both on and off the court. However, never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d ever get to see him play, but a stroke of good fortune made it a reality in 2015.
Despite hesitations on giving a large deposit to a man I’d never met, I booked myself a spot on a basketball tour of the US covering both NBA and NCAA (College Hoops) in the destinations of San Antonio, Los Angeles, Cleveland and Indianapolis. My dream of seeing Timmy would come true, but I got more than I bargained for.
We were lucky enough to view pre-game shootaround and I brought my Duncan jersey just in case. In typical fashion, Timmy finished up without much fuss and headed for the players tunnel and I voiced my “oh well” sentiments. I hadn’t dwelled for a moment before I suddenly heard the cry of “give the jersey to me” and turned around to find an usher gesturing at me, hurriedly. I gave Rita, the usher, my jersey and she tore off like Usain Bolt after TD across the court and down the tunnel. For someone closer to 100 than away from it, Rita moved like the wind and upon return handed me back my jersey, personally signed by the man himself. I was elated…and speechless! And now the jersey is framed and on my wall and a prized piece of memorabilia.
I promised a friend, whom I met on this tour, that I wouldn’t just talk about Tim Duncan (sorry! – I’ll get to Garnett soon, I promise!), so let’s give a final round of applause to the 5-time NBA champion before moving on.
Kevin Garnett couldn’t be more opposite from Tim Duncan if you tried, in fact the only thing similar about them is the position they played, Power Forward (and playing number, #21, at least for the Minnesota part of Kevin’s career). KG, like Kobe, came straight out of high school and into the NBA, which in the mid-to-late 90’s was something you didn’t do, but paved the way for a number of future players to do so – see LeBron James. Garnett is probably the most intense player I’ve ever seen, him and Kobe are like 1A & 1B. This brash, cocky, in-your-face, skinny youngster moulded into a monster that’d give you 24-14-5-1-2 (points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks) on a nightly basis during his MVP season of 2004. Garnett was a highly skilled and mobile big man; he could dribble, he could pass, he could shoot the long jumper in a time where guys his size were confined to the keyway (and before him, Dirk Nowitzki & Co. made it ‘cool’). He remained elite during a time where it felt like every night you were going up against another all-star big man. Many a duel were had between KG and TD, with Tim winning 33-19 overall. Garnett, a fiery sort and renowned trash talker, who would even talk to himself during games, effectively gave up trying to trash talk Duncan as it had no effect on him.
Garnett’s ability on both ends of the floor secured him his only defensive player of the year and championship in 2008 with the Boston Celtics. “The Big Ticket” certainly lived up to his nickname, but I’m afraid there was an even bigger show in town.
“…And now, at guard, standing 6’6” from Lower Merion High School, number 8/24, Kooobbeeeee Brrryyyyyyyaaaannnt!” Kobe Bryant was always destined for Hollywood, his internal star shone too bright, the flame of wanting to be the best on the biggest stage burned too intensely. To be honest, early on, I was never a big Kobe fan, I was more McGrady, Iverson and Carter. However, as a Spurs fan, going up against the Lakers in playoffs so many times, he always had my respect although I probably didn’t start fully appreciating Kobe until the mid 2000’s, until he turned into the now synonymous “Black Mamba”. That ’05-06 season, wow, averaging 35-5-5 for the season, putting up over 40 a game for the month of January and April, not to mention his iconic 81 point outing versus Jalen Rose and the Toronto Raptors.
It’s funny that a man touted the best player in the league for so long only ever won one league MVP (’07-08), but he won where and when it counted, another 5-time champion, like Duncan. Kobe and Duncan were like chalk and cheese, exemplified by their retirements; Kobe had a yearlong swansong capped off with a very Hollywood-esque final game dropping 60, whereas Timmy got the Spurs to do a statement announcing his retirement, but with no quotes from him and after the season had already finished. Despite winning five rings, I’m sure Bryant rued the missed opportunity to eclipse Jordan’s number of titles (6) with finals losses in ’04 to the Pistons and ’08 to the Celtics. God, he wanted to be like Mike, he wanted to beat Mike. I still find his death surreal, recently watching classic games from the ’08 finals and when he got his revenge on the Celtics in 2010, I forgot that he is no longer with us. And as I finishing writing this, on the 10th-year anniversary of my Grandfather’s passing, it really drives home how precious life is, how we need to cherish the ones we love whilst they are still here and how we need to ensure that their memories live on in the hearts and minds of those they touched.
So, when the ceremony for the Hall of Fame class of 2020 is conducted, it will surely be a sombre occasion, which is a shame because I’m sure Shaq had some killer funny stories to share. Rest in Peace, Kobe Bean Bryant.