Swamped by Success


When something goes right/It’s likely to lose me/It’s apt to confuse me/It’s such an unusual sight. —Paul Simon

I have rarely been so wrong about anything. During the 2001 World Series, I was seated next to the sports columnist for a reasonably great not-quite-metropolitan newspaper. During one of the interminable delays that are as a much a part of these events as quasi-edible box lunches, we started talking about the Nets, who had just started training camp.

“Rod Thorn, what was he thinking?”

“Got me.”

“Doesn’t he understand that they need someone who can shoot the ball?”

“They might not even win 20 next year.”

The first move that we were referring to, of course, was the trade of Stephon Marbury for a certain aging, wife-beating, no-shoot point guard. And then on draft day, dealing Tim Duncan-clone Eddie Griffin for a soft West Coast tweener forward who could hardly break the starting lineup on his college team and a nondescript center who was Evan Eschmeyer with a Stanford degree.

This, of course, was not the first time I had criticized Thorn. A year or so before, the Nets held the number one pick in the NBA draft. Did he choose Kevin Garnett-clone Darius Miles? Noooo. The Man Who Drafted Michael took the safe route, picking a senior power forward from an overrated program with an if-he-was-a-horse-they’d-have-shot-him leg injury.

Make me the GM, I thought. Of the Los Angeles Clippers, I’m willing to add now. I freely admit—after a second fiftyish-win season and a second trip to the NBA Finals—that I was wrong. Jason Kidd is better than Stephon Marbury (but Stephon Marbury is better than Tony Parker, which is another story). Richard Jefferson and Jason Collins are, at this point, far more valuable commodities than Griffin. And, of course, Kenyon Martin has turned out all right in the end, while Darius Miles has remained an enigma wrapped in an injury problem.

And just as I was wrong then, I hope I am wrong now. As the Nets prepare to take on the San Antonio Spurs in the Finals, I am hopeful, but I am not bullish. I look at the Spurs and I remember what they did to the Knicks a couple of years ago. I remember last year’s Finals. I smell sweep.

After all, I have been a Net fan since the days when Dr. J was a Virginia Squire, and every true Net fan looks at opportunity with a jaundiced eye because we’ve been burned so many times. Every time this franchise showed real promise, the proverbial rug was snatched away. Dr. J. was traded away. Bernard King became a star—for the Golden State Warriors. Micheal Ray Richardson looked like the second coming of Walt Frazier, but his post-game indulgences didn’t stop with Rolls-Royces and floor-length minks. Drazen Petrovic didn’t have ABS brakes. Marbury shattered Jayson Williams’s leg. There is significant overlap between the roster of Nets alumni and the NBA’s Unofficial All-Time All-Underachiever team. Otis Birdsong. Albert King. Darryl Dawkins. Sam Bowie. Benoit Benjamin. Derrick Coleman. Kenny Anderson. Shawn Bradley. Dennis Hopson. Chris Morris. Keith Van Horn.

And for all their success, these turn-of-the-millennium Nets haven’t been easy on the nerves. Orthopedically speaking, Kerry Kittles is a walking time bomb. Martin went through a period in which he was the league’s Public Enemy Number One, drawing flagrant fouls for merely looking at his man the wrong way. Byron Scott was seen openly pining for the Laker job (and Detroit’s inexplicable firing of Rick Carlisle this week certainly didn’t make him reseed his lawn). Dikembe Mutombo has become the Invisible Man, slipping behind fan-favorite Brian “Veal” Scalabrine. (“C’mon, Net fans, get out of your seats and cheer for the white guy!”) And Kidd will be a free agent at the end of the season and still could depart for San Antonio or Denver or Utah. (“Jason, let’s talk frankly. There are real advantages to polygamy.”)

So what’s this Finals fortnight about? From a distance, this is a far better Net team than the one that was swept by the Lakers last year. Kidd is still Kidd, but now he doesn’t need to take every big shot. In classic overachiever style, Jefferson has built an ugly but effective jumper to add to his preternatural hops and energetic defense. Collins is much more athletic than Todd MacCulloch (but then again, so am I). And Manu Ginobili doesn’t strike the same fear in the heart that Kobe Bryant did.

But this series is going to come down to one question: Can Kenyon Martin shut down Tim Duncan? I have no doubt that on a night or two, K-Mart will hold Mr. Duncan to 22 on 9 for 20 shooting from the floor. And I fear that there will be other nights when Martin spends most of the game writhing on the bench, having picked up his third foul midway through the second quarter, watching helplessly as Duncan schools Aaron Williams.

But mostly it’s about the contrast in styles. Duncan is fascinating because he’s so boring. In an era defined by hype, he is almost an anti-star, a guy who doesn’t make sneaker commercials, doesn’t soar above the rim. His post moves have a Zen-like economy, and even his incomparable defense is more about positioning than personal confrontation. After the game, Mr. Detachment says all the right things in the most boring way possible, foregoing even the ear-to-ear grin of nice-guy teammate David Robinson. Duncan glides through life wearing his Spur singlet the way Joe D. wore the pinstripes. The only thing gaudy is his stat line.

Stylewise, Martin is his polar opposite, overdecorated with tattoos, a ten o’clock shadow, and a Marathon Man scowl. Martin is all sweat and effort, grunting, leaping, elbows flailing, diving after loose balls. He is Charles Oakley on steroids, a Buck Williams of the 21st century. There’s nothing subtle about his moments of triumph on the floor, whether they’re blocked shots swatted into the 17th row or thundering Sir Slamalot dunks that threaten to rip the rim right off its moorings. Grandly, Kenyon wears his heart on his sleeve, grimacing, glowering, calling out teammates who don’t want it as badly as he does. His face displays the inner torment of a man who hopes more fervently than he believes. No, nothing comes easy for Kenyon Martin, not even a post-game interview. And as a long-suffering Nets fan, I think it’s only appropriate that our hopes rest with him.