Whatever ultimately happens to Royce White's career, he will remain a fascinating player in NBA history. Either as a landmark first, someone who changed how the league handles mental illness, or as weird trivia that will be the focus of a pretty good magazine article in 40 years. Until his recent interview on Grantland, there hasn't been a lot of clarity on what the Houston Rockets & Royce White were fighting about. There was heresay about the Rockets being generous to accomodate him, and then counterclaims that they weren't as compromising as their public face would seem. It was hard to really pick a side, although that didn't seem to stop the majority of sports fans. Now picture is a little clearer, with record of White's demands and, even more importantly, his reasons behind them. Yet somehow things aren't any easier.
I've gotten into basketball again in the last couple of years, mostly thanks to a lot of great sports journalism on Grantland and elsewhere that captured my imagination. The problem is, the last time I was a huge NBA fan, Michael Jordan was the king of the world and Charles Barkley was not TNT comic relief, but a terrifying rebounding force that once took on Godzilla and told you to SHUT UP AND JAM.
My favorite team back then was the Orland Magic. They were new, had a cool brand, and were an exciting title contender. Shaquille O'Neal was the obvious hero of the team, but as I was the slightly counter cultural kid that always liked the secondary hero, I marked for Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway. It helped that he had kid friendly commercials: a hilarious puppet voiced by Chris Rock, dubbed Li'l Penny, sold his shoes and made him a constant All-Star Game presence even when he didn't deserve it. (The flip side of that is that now the guy behind the puppet is more famous that Penny Hardaway ever was.)
These days, all my heroes are gone (except for Grant Hill, what the hell?) and while the new cast of characters is great, I don't know how to pick a favorite team. Back in the day, teams had a long term identity and the way contracts worked allowed for a static cast of characters. Today, I don't know how to pick a team when they can be irrevocably changed every year. In today's NBA, picking a favorite team feels like having loyalty to a logo and a mascot; ultimately superfluous characteristics. I like players, not teams.
I've been told that it's not about repping a team, but a city. It's about hometown civic pride. While I love Los Angeles, I can't translate that into love for the Lakers. What does a recent transplant like Dwight Howard have to do with my love of LA culture? What does Steve Nash know about planning your life around freeway routes? Then there are old habits. Laker hating, even when I try and fight it, is something tucked into every corner of my mind. I came into basketball with the Showtime roster of Van Exel/Ceballos/Campbell. My entire family loved them, from my old grandmother to my young cousins, and so I decided to root against them. It made games more fun when there was competition in the living room.
It's hard to tell now, but basketball used to be a defining part of my life. When I was a child, it was more than just a hobby and sport of choice, but my goal in life. Back when Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls defined the league, when Dennis Rodman was more than just obscure pop culture trivia, when Nick Van Exel was the coolest guy on the Lakers. Today, it's a faint lingering taste. It's a source of brief nostalgia.
Charles Barkley, Dennis Scott, Shawn Kemp, Grant Hill, Tony Kukoc, David Robinson: these guys were my NBA. They was my cast of characters that I had grown to know from stats on the back of Upper Deck trading cards and blurbs in SLAM magazine. Now, these guys are either all retired as color commentators or analysts. A few are still playing, but as backups to backups, veterans with limited minutes in free agent limbo whose sole purpose is provide mentorship or act as maturing influences on the locker room.
The prime example of this fall was Penny Hardaway, who could be described as my basketball idol. I had the shoes, jersey, even sent him a letter (all I got back was an application for his fan club.) It's not uncommon: Penny Hardaway's work with Nike & Chris Rock on the Li'l Penny shoe commercials made him a household name and a piece of 90's pop culture. It endeared him as the cool new star that young kids could latch onto, many of which still latch onto today. It's a rare quality for sports stars: not just a following, but a cult following.