Why the NBA Suddenly Has My Interest

In case you didn’t already know, I’m from St. Louis. Although we somehow still manage to have more NBA championships to our city’s resume than 12 cities with a current NBA team, the last time St. Louis fielded a basketball team was during the year 1958.

I was not alive during 1958, and thus I have no recollection of professional basketball being played in St. Louis. Considering the fact that St. Louis was a three sport city for the first 17 years of my life and I was heavily invested in all three of those sports, professional basketball just never really interested me.

For me, the NBA has just always kind of been there, and recently I’ve been extremely critical of it. In the past, I’ve criticized the NBA for just being a dunk fest with some three pointers sprinkled into the mix. I never saw or heard of any defense being played, and when SportsCenter would fawn over a big dunk as a top 10 play, instead of a diving catch in baseball or an amazing goal in hockey, I would lose my mind and just get really angry at the NBA for being stupid.

As recently as 2015, I wanted no part of the NBA and would publicly and prominently announce that while almost dis-owning the entire sport. Basketball and I didn’t get along, and it was really a shame.

So, what changed?

Well, let’s start by taking a look at the sport of basketball as a whole. My brother has played basketball for as long as I can remember, and so the game has been in our household since the dawn of time. My dad coached and my brother played, so I have spent a lot of time around the sport in an intimate setting and couldn’t stay mad at it for longer than a week maybe.

The NBA has always been a different story for me. I don’t exactly know if I can pinpoint the reason(s) why, but I’ve just never liked the NBA.

Maybe it’s because I’ve always believed that the NBA is predictable. In basketball, if the starting 5 that you put out on the floor is better than the starting 5 that I put out on the floor, your starting 5 is going to win that matchup 97 times out of 100. And that’s just how it is.

In mostly all other sports, there is a great equalizer.

In baseball, the great equalizer is the pitcher. No matter how good a line-up is, if there is a pitcher on the mound that has it going on any given night, that line-up has no chance of hitting him.

In hockey, the great equalizer is the goalie. If you run into a hot goalie that’s just stopping every shot put on net, you won’t score and you won’t win. Teams have ridden a hot goalie all the way to a Stanley Cup title, and the goalie can change games singlehandedly.

In football, the great equalizer is the sheer physicality of the game. The amount of punishment that is dished out over the course of a 60 minute football game can be truly terrifying and can take the greatest players ever seen on a field and turn them into shells of themselves.

In basketball, the great players are going to be great. It’s rather predictable and I guess I just always found it boring. Every single year, LeBron and Kobe were going to be the show stealers, the Spurs were going to do something significant, and everyone else would just be pawns in the court of Kobe, LeBron and the Spurs.

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Photo by Mike Ehrmann for Getty Images

It was all just so predictable.

And, with that in mind, why would I want to watch teams like the Jazz or the Bucks or even the Dallas Mavericks when there just weren’t going to matter later on. Watching those teams was like doing homework that you knew the teacher wasn’t going to collect. Why put in the effort and waste my time when it just isn’t going to matter? And that lack of variety just turned me off from the game.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when it happened, but that all changed for me sometime around last year. The NBA suddenly and rapidly expanded from being just a league about LeBron, Kobe and the Spurs, and turned into a genuinely fascinating showcasing of superstars.

I found myself attracted to players such as the Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard, the Boston Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas, and the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl Anthony Towns. I suddenly started caring about who was going to win the NBA title instead of just assuming it would be a simple multiple choice test.

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Karl Anthony Towns celebrates after throwing down a dunk. Photo by Brad Rempel for USA Today Sports

Would it be LeBron or would the Warriors do it again? Boy, the Hawks and Raptors are awfully good, what if they made it to the finals? Wow, the Thunder are really good and so are the Clippers; this is really interesting.

I had the benefit of almost being born into a new age of the NBA without much prior knowledge of what had happened in the past. I didn’t care that the Clippers had perennially sucked and that they were the laughingstock of the league for years, I was interested in them now because of Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Chris Paul.

I had the benefit of not knowing the age of dominant Lakers teams and dominant Bulls teams, and thus I got to know smaller teams that would have never had a chance in that era. I got to know the Milwaukee Bucks and the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Utah Jazz, among others.

The NBA suddenly fascinated me, and everything culminated during the 2016 NBA Finals back this past June. The LeBron James-led Cavaliers delivered the first professional sports championship to Cleveland since 1970 by defeating the Warriors in a thrilling 7 game series.

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LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrate their first ever NBA Championship victory. Photo by Bob Donnan for USA Today

In a sport and a league that I normally would have paid no mind to, I was completely drawn into every single game. When the Cavaliers won that 7th game and clinched the title, I was hooked on the NBA. The very league that I had criticized and turned my nose up at for all the years of my life now had my full attention, and I’m loving every second of this season.

I am a unique fan of the NBA because I don’t have a hometown team and I don’t have a favorite team. I am as non-partisan as it gets in my fandom of professional basketball. I watch the game because I love the game. I love players more than I love teams. And I believe that’s part of the reason that I’m enjoying this season so much.

I don’t follow the highs and lows of one particular team, so I don’t experience any anger or sadness towards the NBA. I don’t have a team, so I really never lose. As long as I get to see the superstars that the NBA has to offer play quality basketball, I don’t ever lose.

And that’s also the main reason why the NBA has my full interest and why I am a fan. The plethora of superstars in the Association is incredible and more diverse than I think the game has ever seen.

Like I said earlier, I grew up in an era of the NBA that was dominated by Kobe, LeBron and the Spurs. Outside of those two players and maybe one or two others here and there, there were no real bona fide superstars that were worth paying attention to.

That is definitely not the case with the current NBA.

The league is infused with superstars, young and old, and it’s incredible to watch and witness night in and night out. And those superstars aren’t just in prominent locations like past years.

In the past, your true superstars have really only been in LA or Boston or Miami. Now, you’ve got stars from Milwaukee to Utah to Portland and Charlotte.

Last Friday, January 6th, ESPN was broadcasting a game between the Milwaukee Bucks and the New York Knicks. Normally a random game that I would have no interest in, I found myself not only watching this game but watching the game after having looked forward to it for nearly the full day leading up to the telecast. I found myself completely enamored with Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo and just had to tune in and watch him play when I had the chance.

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Giannis Antetokounmpo rises up for a dunk over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Bucks

And that’s the sort of effect the NBA has on me now.

The league is so chalk full of superstars from coast to coast that I find myself circling games to watch and tuning in night after night just so I don’t miss an opportunity to watch these players.

This past Sunday night, January 8th, I found myself watching a double overtime thriller between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Detroit Pistons. It was 12:30 AM and I had work at 9 AM the next day, so why was I watching? Because C.J. McCollum, Damian Lillard and Andre Drummond drew me in and made sure I couldn’t miss this seemingly mundane matchup.

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Photo courtesy of Portland Trail Blazers

The NBA has always been a star and player driven league. Players will always mean more to the league than teams will. The names of ‘LeBron’ and ‘Kobe’ and ‘Steph’ and ‘MJ’ will always mean way more to the overall fabric of the NBA than teams like the Lakers or the Celtics.

That being said, the NBA has never had more stars than right now. And that diverse and widespread star power has drawn in a previously uninterested and even inimical person like myself and converted me into a huge fan.

Excited to see where this league continues to go.

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Why the NBA Suddenly Has My Interest

Ryan Riffs: The Incredible Longevity of Kobe Bryant

Let me take you back to a different world for a second. Twenty years ago, for those deficient at math, was 1995, and as I teased above, the world was a very different place.

The most popular song of the year was ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ by Coolio. The most popular movies were Toy Story and Braveheart. Mel Gibson was still wildly popular and wholesome, and the members of One Direction were still wearing diapers.

Now, why am I bringing up the year 1995? Because it was the year a young kid by the name of Kobe Bryant made his NBA debut straight out of Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pennsylvania.

Wednesday night, Bryant completed his return from a scary shoulder injury to make his 2015 season debut and become the first player in NBA history to play 20 consecutive seasons with the same franchise.

I just want you guys to let that number sink in for a second. Twenty years going to work for the same employer is pretty remarkable in and of itself; but particularly in the NBA, where rosters are small and extremely competitive, money is king, and even Michael Jordan couldn’t stay with one team his whole career.

Kobe Bryant has been playing basketball at the professional level for longer than I’ve been alive. In fact, the team his Lakers played Wednesday night had two starters – Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns – who weren’t even born yet when Kobe made his debut.

And when we start diving into the legacy of Kobe Bryant, one thing really stands out to me.

There are few athletes in the world that are commonly identifiable just by their first name. LeBron James and Tiger Woods immediately come to mind, but their names aren’t nearly as universally recognizable as the name, ‘Kobe’.

Photo by Andrew Bernstein for the LA Times
Photo by Andrew Bernstein for the LA Times

Every little kid that dreams of playing in the NBA has visions of himself as Kobe Bryant at some point or another. ‘Kobe’ has just become a term that is synonymous with tireless work ethic and basketball greatness. And now, I think we should add another word to that list; loyalty.

For all the faults he does have, Kobe Bryant’s fierce loyalty should be revered and looked up to by kids everywhere. Many athletes talk about how loyal they are or how much loyalty matters to them, but none of them can really identify with it on the level Kobe can.

There has never, in 20 years, ever been serious talk of Kobe playing a single game in a jersey that didn’t say, ‘Lakers’ on the front of it. Kobe has remained true to the team that brought him into the league and gave him a chance, he has remained loyal to the hand that feeds him, and that is to be greatly admired.

So again, for all his faults and all his mistakes, Kobe Bryant is a truly special athlete that we have had the great pleasure of enjoying for these past 20 years; and one that will be remembered for far more than just the next 20 years.

…………

Following another brilliant performance at home last night by Jake Allen, the Blues goalie debate rages on. Elliott or Allen? The grizzled and proven vet or the young, talented up and comer?

Following a rough start to the season in which he gave up 3 goals in each of his first 3 starts, Allen has backed up a 27 save shutout over Tampa Bay on Tuesday night with a 23-24 performance in a win against Anaheim last night.

Meanwhile, Brian Elliott hasn’t looked particularly sterling either, sporting a mediocre 2.18 GAA and having been bailed out by a terrific offense so far this season. But with injuries to Paul Stastny, Jaden Schwartz and Kevin Shattenkirk, the Blues’ offense has significantly – and expectedly – slowed in the recent days.

So which goalie does Ken Hitchcock roll with as the primary guy in the coming weeks? Or does he even bother ‘naming’ a #1 goalie and just keeps splitting playing time like he has been?

For my two cents, Allen is the starter and the Blues need to push all their chips to the center of the table on him. He’s younger, more confident, more athletic, and, for my money, won the job down last season’s stretch run and into the playoffs.

Being an elite goalie is as much about confidence as it is about skill level. And over the course of the past 4 or 5 years, the Blues have so poorly treated Brian Elliott that I can’t help but feel his confidence is totally shot and he can never be the borderline elite goalie he once was in St. Louis.

Having Allen, and now Pheonix Copley waiting in the wings, allows the Blues to make Elliott expendable, and I think they owe it to him to give him a fresh start somewhere where he can be the de facto starter.

So put all your chips to the middle of the table with Jake Allen, give him the vote of confidence, and look to deal Elliott to a team in desperate need of good goaltending.

Allen celebrates with forward Vladimir Tarasenko after defeating the Anaheim Ducks Thursday night. Photo by Scott Rovak
Allen celebrates with forward Vladimir Tarasenko after defeating the Anaheim Ducks Thursday night. Photo by Scott Rovak

Offer him to Edmonton, a team in desperate need of a franchise goalie, and see if you can pry away a guy like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who could use a fresh start and might thrive in St. Louis.

Stop trying to please everyone with the goalie situation, there are going to be hurt feelings either way, so you might as well got a solid player back in return for them. Jake Allen should be the guy, see what Brian Elliott can fetch on the open market, and let bygones be bygones. Please and thank you.

…………..

I’ll get into this in greater detail later, but does the NSAC make sense to anyone?

Yesterday, the Nevada State Athletic Commission handed down a two year suspension to Rousimar Palhares for his repeated eye gouges and for not letting go of a submission during his welterweight title fight against Jake Shields at WSOF 22. Palhares has a history of not letting go of submissions, and being a really dirty fighter, so this suspension seems just and Palhares can deal with it.

But, where my questions come in is that this suspension comes about a month after the NSAC handed down a 5 year suspension to Nick Diaz. 5 years?! Holy crap what did he do, kill someone? 5 years is a seriously long suspension.

Nick Diaz got a 5 year suspension for testing positive for marijuana. MARIJUANA, the thing that is now legal where Nick Diaz smoked it.

Diaz is obviously just as confused as the rest of us. Photo by Joshua Hedges
Diaz is obviously just as confused as the rest of us. Photo by Joshua Hedges

I, along with the rest of the MMA community, was absolutely dumbfounded that the NSAC could do this. There was a White House petition made, fighters publicly refusing to fight in Nevada, and even UFC President Dana White called the suspension “so jarring.”

Without going into complete details, smoking weed is virtually harmless. There were no marijuana related deaths in 2014 and I have never in my life heard of marijuana fueled violent acts. Marijuana and MMA just have no connection and aren’t dangerous whatsoever.

Meanwhile, Palhares is deliberately attempting to hurt people, and has in the past. What Palhares is doing in MMA is worthy of a long suspension, and he has gotten his justice.

Palhares held onto an ankle lock on Jake Shields after the referee had told him to stop. Photo by Joshua Hedges
Palhares held onto an ankle lock on Jake Shields after the referee had told him to stop. Photo by Joshua Hedges

But 5 years and a $150,000 fine to Diaz vs 2 years and community service for Palhares just makes absolutely no sense.

Stay tuned tomorrow for my rant on the NSAC, but for now I just ask them to take a long, hard look in the mirror and realize what they’ve done; because it literally makes no sense to anyone and has the look of a vigilante group more than a governing body for sporting events in Nevada.

Thanks for reading…

-Ryan

           

Editor’s note: I apologize for my absence yesterday. At the end of the day I am still a high school student with a lot of other responsibilities, and unfortunately my homework and college applications have to take precedence over my outside writing. So I apologize for my absence yesterday and I will try to be better at balancing my work in the future. Thank you for your unwavering support of me because you are truly the reason that I write. Thank you always for reading me.

Ryan Riffs: The Incredible Longevity of Kobe Bryant