On Saturday night, we as Denver Nuggets fans were treated to a brief glimpse into what now seems like the very distant past. Around three minutes into the second period, Memphis Grizzlies reserve guard Vince Carter - who will be 38 years old on January 25th - crossed over the Nuggets' 27 year old Wilson Chandler and emphatically dunked on the Nuggets' 20 year old rookie center Jusuf Nurkic ...
It was so thrilling to watch the former "Half-Man / Half-Amazing" Carter doing what he used to do routinely in the late 1990s and early 2000s that I actually jumped out of my Pepsi Center seat and applauded Carter, forgetting momentarily that I'm supposed to root against the Grizzlies. In fact, it was Carter who prompted my biggest-ever vocal outburst while watching television as the Nuggets stupidly passed on drafting him in the 1998 NBA Draft in favor of Raef LaFrentz, who has been out of the NBA for seven years after 10 unremarkable seasons.
Soon after the Carter dunk during that second quarter on Saturday evening, I thought back to Tuesday night's game against the Los Angeles Lakers. A game during which the Lakers' own "geriatric" shooting guard, the 36 year old Kobe Bryant, rope-a-doped our Nuggets with an impressive 23 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists and two steals performance that helped lead his ailing Lakers to a 111-103 victory at Denver. Bryant, despite having played over 55,000 combined regular season and playoff minutes since he entered the NBA in 1996, looked physically great. Just as the 38 year old Tim Duncan and the 37 year old Manu Ginobili looked when their San Antonio Spurs visited Pepsi Center in mid-December.
I'd have to do some serious digging to compare the simultaneously impactful performances of Carter, Bryant, Duncan, Ginobili and their late 30s peers like Dirk Nowitzki (36), Paul Pierce (37), Kevin Garnett (38), Shawn Marion (36) and Andre Miller (38) to aging NBA stars of yesteryear, but in my lifetime I can't remember a time when more "old guys" (meaning 36-plus years old) were having a more substantive impact on the teams they play for at the same time. Sure, former star players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Michael Jordan, John Havlicek, Dominique Wilkins, Elvin Hayes, Patrick Ewing, Robert Parish, Grant Hill, Jason Kidd, Shaquille O'Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon played productively into their very late 30s (and in the case of Abdul-Jabbar, into his early 40s), but most star players were done being productive by the time they were 35ish. All-time great players like Larry Bird, Julius Erving, Bernard King, Kevin McHale, Charles Barkley, Chris Mullin, Joe Dumars, Alex English, David Robinson, Chauncey Billups, Tim Hardaway, Scottie Pippen, Clyde Drexler, Walt Frazier, Mitch Richmond, Gary Payton, Antawn Jamison, Allen Iverson, Jack Sikma, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Dikembe Mutombo, Dan Issel and Moses Malone never played effectively (or retired altogether) beyond 36. And equally dynamic and memorable stars like Isiah Thomas, Willis Reed, James Worthy, George Gervin, Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, Sidney Moncrief, Kevin Johnson and Pete Maravich didn't even make it past the age of 33 as NBA players.
Interestingly, several of the names listed above retired with much higher productivity than the aging stars of today seem to want to. Probably because the money is so much greater today. For example, Erving averaged 16.8 ppg as a 36 year old and West (20.3 ppg), Bird (20.2 ppg) and Drexler (18.4 ppg) all turned in admirable performances as soon-to-be retired 35 year olds. And "His Airness" Michael Jordan averaged a respectable 20.0 ppg as a 40 year old, but his Washington Wizards (and his shooting percentage) were anything but respectable at the time.
But I've never been one to blame an athlete for retiring "too late". These world class basketball players only get one career with which to max out whatever dollars they can command and however many big games they can still compete in. Thus I have no problem with NBA players retiring when they want to, not when the fans want them to.
As someone who just turned 39 years old myself, I can't help but root for these "old guys" given that I'm on the verge of not having a single player to root for in the entire NBA who is near my own age. In fact, I remember being gravely disappointed when the "old" Celtics of Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen didn't get the opportunity to face off against the "old" Spurs of Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker for the 2012 NBA Finals. Each squad was in the NBA's "Final Four", but lost out to the younger Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder (the Spurs, of course, have competed in two NBA Finals since, winning two, while the Celtics have been completely dismantled).
In just the last few seasons, we've said goodbye to O'Neal, Hill, Kidd, Billups and Jamison. And we could be two seasons away from no longer having the likes of Bryant, Nowitzki, Garnett, Carter, Duncan and Ginobili in the NBA. That's going to be a weird day, but I'm sure my parents and older friends felt the same way when the stars of their respective eras retired and faded into NBA history.
So with that said, I'm hoping to catch a few more in-person glimpses of Carter, Garnett, Bryant, Duncan, Ginobili, Pierce and even two-time former NBA MVP Steve Nash (who at 40 is unlikely to play again but is technically still "active" to do so next season) before their incredible careers come to a final close. And seeing the positive impact that these aging stars are having on their respective teams, I can't help but question why the Nuggets don't have a true veteran on their roster to mentor a young squad starving for on-court leadership.