With Jerry Sloan, Phil Jackson, Shaquille O'Neal and now Donnie Walsh all (presumably) calling it quits during this past NBA season, it's more clear than ever that the NBA is a young man's league. What a shame.
I'm not that old, but I vividly remember the 1987 NBA Draft when Indiana Pacers general manager Donnie Walsh had the guts to draft Reggie Miller 11th overall instead of succumbing to pressure to draft Indiana University (and state) legend Steve Alford. I also clearly remember Jerry Sloan taking over the coaching duties from the great Frank Layden in 1988 and wondering if Sloan could excel in that role as his predecessor had. And I certainly remember an obscure, quirky assistant coach named Phil Jackson being promoted to the head coaching spot in Chicago after the reasonably successful Doug Collins was abruptly fired in 1989.
And, of course, I'll never forget the 1992 NBA Draft Lottery during which our Nuggets - who finished with the NBA's fourth-worst record a season removed from having the league's worst record - missed out on either of the top-two picks, meaning no Alonzo Mourning and no Shaquille O'Neal in Denver. O'Neal, of course, would immediately transform the center position for two decades to come.
I'm not that old, am I?
Walsh building the Pacers into a contender. Sloan marching the Jazz into the playoffs year after year. Jackson convincing Michael Jordan to take less shots in exchange for six championship rings. O'Neal's infectious smile, first rap album and controversial exit from Orlando. I lived through it all. I closely followed it all. It's as if we all grew up together in the same era.
And now those eras appear to be over for good.
The first to exit the NBA scene in 2011 was Sloan, who resigned in February with 1,221 wins under his belt (third highest of all time among NBA head coaches) and his place in Springfield secured. The once longest tenured coach in professional sports with 23 consecutive seasons running the show in Utah, led the Jazz to back-to-back NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998 and then led a completely remade Jazz squad back to the conference finals after missing the playoffs from 2003-2006. Regardless of who wore a Jazz uniform during Sloan's tenure, Sloan was the ultimate symbol of authority. A throwback to the way coaching used to be. To the way coaching should be.
Many have theorized on what prompted Sloan's sudden departure. Was it his rumored contentious relationship with star point guard Deron Williams? Was it a lack of support from upper management that Sloan had previously become accustomed to under the late Jazz owner Larry Miller? Was it age (Sloan was almost 69 when he resigned)? Or a combination of all the above? Regardless of the exact reason, the professional game has likely passed by coaches of Sloan's ilk and temperament.
Jackson, conversely, had the temperament to handle the modern NBA athlete. Rather than scream from the sidelines, "The Zen Master" did most of his coaching behind the scenes and between the ears of his players. Inarguably the greatest NBA coach of all time, Jackson admittedly had great timing and made the most of it. Sure, he routinely had the NBA's best players on his rosters, but he did what you're supposed to do when you have the best players on your roster: win championships.
And yet even the uber successful Jackson finally had enough with the players and the game of today. Not yet 66 years old, the magic that netted Jackson an NBA best 11 championship rings (in 13 NBA Finals appearances) ran out a month ago when his Lakers were shockingly swept by a lesser talented and older Dallas Mavericks squad. While Jackson usually found great success in the postseason, when his teams went down they went down hard and fast, like his 2003 Lakers that imploded against the Spurs in the playoffs' second round, his 2004 Lakers that imploded in the Finals against the Pistons, his 2008 Lakers that imploded against the Celtics in the Finals and now his 2011 Lakers that cut-and-run against the Mavericks in an embarrassing sweep. Jackson's Bulls teams would never have exited a postseason in such a manner, hence why any talk of Kobe Bryant being better than Michael Jordan borders on the ludicrous and hence why Jackson has probably had enough of these players today.
The great O'Neal, an athlete blessed with so many natural gifts that he should have been the best center of all time, finishes his career ranked either fourth or fifth among the NBA's five best centers of all time (assuming Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain are in the top-three with O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and Moses Malone rounding out the top-six). Unable to stay consistently healthy, consistently in shape or consistently with the same franchise, Shaq nevertheless got himself into six NBA Finals, won four, won three NBA Finals MVPs (tied for the second most of all time) and was selected to an NBA second-best 14 All-Star Games. That's how good O'Neal was. In fact, O'Neal showed enough prowess at 38 years old this past season that the Celtics traded their young center Kendrick Perkins at the trade deadline, counting on O'Neal to anchor the position through the 2011 playoffs. Oops.
What made Shaq a wonderful and unforgettable addition to NBA history - his boyish charm, his refusal to take himself seriously, his exceptionally charitable nature - also cost him "best ever" status. For O'Neal to finish his remarkable NBA career with just one MVP award says it all. It wasn't that he should have won more MVPs in the eyes of the voters, it's just that he rarely played in enough games to quality, thanks mostly for refusing to stay in shape or work on his game because he didn't take himself or the game seriously enough.
And finally, the NBA lost Walsh last week after the longtime NBA executive (and former Nuggets head coach) "mutually parted ways" with the New York Knicks and their overbearing owner James Dolan. While with the small market Pacers, Walsh built a Pacers franchise that routinely made the playoffs and appeared in their lone NBA Finals in 2000, where they lost to Jackson and O'Neal's dominating Lakers. After being unceremoniously pushed out of Indiana by Larry Bird, Walsh was hired by the Knicks to do one thing and one thing only: land LeBron James in the summer of 2010.
In recent years I had criticized Walsh for gambling away the Knicks' future for a (long)shot at LeBron, but rebuilding a franchise after Isiah Thomas has run it into the ground is akin to rebuilding a country after George W. Bush is your president: there's no room for error. To give Walsh some credit in his final act, he at least made the Knicks relevant again by acquiring Amar'e Stoudemire and by having the pieces in place to then acquire Carmelo Anthony, even if many thought he was forced into overpaying for Melo by Dolan. And it's assumed by most that Dolan's meddling is what ultimately did the 70-year-old Walsh in. After all, everyone gets to a point in their life where they say: "Do I really need to put up with this shit anymore?" I suspect that's a place where Sloan, Jackson and Walsh all arrived in the last few months.
With owners becoming increasingly meddlesome and players becoming increasingly assertive with off-the-court decisions, the era of the stern NBA bosses among the coaching and management ranks are becoming few and far between. Frankly, they're becoming extinct.
We as ticket paying fans now live in an era with "player friendly" coaches and wiz-kid general managers who base their decisions as much (if not more) on statistical analysis as they do with on-the-court instinct. The era(s) where Sloan and Jackson ruled their respective sidelines, Walsh ruled his franchise and Shaq ruled the paint has come to an end.
And I'm old enough to know that we as basketball fans are worse off for it.