By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
Before electronic devices overwhelmed good old-fashioned horsing around, my cousins and I used Nerf basketball rims to play a hybrid basketball/football game. It was brutal. Being the oldest and biggest, I played the role of rim defender. My younger kin were, essentially, willing and persistent crash test dummies. In ridiculously confined spaces and with breakables all around, they would fake dribble (Nerf balls never bounced well), burst down “the lane”, leap and meet the full force of their older cousin. There were no referees, only our honor and pride. In other words, there was no griping or complaining and absolutely no tears. The rules were simple: if they scored, I’d increase the brutality; if they failed and took more than three seconds to get up, I’d lighten up…theoretically.
The game/wrestling match was inspired by the late-80’s, early 90’s NBA basketball we grew up watching. As the last line of defense, I thought of myself not as the rail thin, physically unimposing kid I was, but as Bill Laimbeer or Alonzo Mourning. Score on me at the cup? Without pain? I think not. My cousins were Michael Jordan or Dominique Wilkins, ferociously attacking the rim with no regard for life or limb. The absence of broken bones I can only attribute to the rubber skeletal systems of our youth. Needless to say, those epic battles are only talked about these days; they aren’t reproduced.
A recent ESPN 30 for 30 piece on the similar-vintage Bad Boy Detroit Pistons reminded me of our epic family clashes. Those Pistons, featuring the likes of Rick Mahorn and the aforementioned Laimbeer, thugs among NBA thugs, and Isiah Thomas, a phenomenal player whose basketball skill is often overshadowed by his adeptness as an antagonist, were perhaps the first NBA team to embrace being the league’s big, bad bully. They weren’t as interested in beating elegant high-flyers like Jordan or Clyde Drexler as they were in breaking their will through constant physical abuse. Compromise an opponent’s nerve, make him shy about going to the hole, and the scoreboard will take care of itself. It worked, to the tune of back-to-back NBA Championships and it spawned several copycats – Pat Riley’s New York Knicks and Miami Heat, most notably – around the league.
I hated those Pistons teams, but I respected their style of play. The game now is, well, much softer. Elegance and rhythmic flow sell better than a street fight - allegedly. My cousins and I often scoff at what is considered a flagrant foul in today’s game and what today’s stars - LeBron James in particular - complain is excessive contact. Our reply to James’ whoa-is-me facial contortions is usually something like, “LeBron is a pansy…he wouldn’t have survived back in the day.” The truth: James could’ve dominated in any era. Confession: I’ve warmed to James’ approach.
Shaquille O’Neal possessed many fine qualities – size, athleticism and a sense of humor – but his ability to absorb hit after malicious hit and resist the temptation to respond with violent force is what I admired most. Shaq would have been justified inflicting harm on opponents in nearly every game…but refrained. LeBron James is a giant with a similar disposition – and I have tremendous respect for his temperance. Yesterday’s “soft” is today’s “wise and mature.”
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