SALISBURY — The NBA Finals between Magic Johnsons Showtime Los Angeles Lakers and Larry Birds Boston Celtics were as good as basketball gets. Magic is the greatest point guard of all time and Bird is one of the great small forwards.
They were unquestioned but selfless leaders. They made passes most players dont even choose to see. They knew they couldnt win without assistance and they made sure that if a teammate had a better shot than they did, they gave him the opportunity to take it.
The 2011-12 NBA Finals begin Tuesday night in Oklahoma City, and I wont compare Miami star LeBron James and Thunder star Kevin Durant with Magic and Bird.
LeBron and Durant are more athletic and larger. Magic and Bird have far better resumes.
Magics Lakers won five championships, Birds Celtics three. LeBrons Miami Heat and Durants Oklahoma City Thunder have yet to win one.
But there are unmistakable similarities between the great players from the 1980s and the two greatest players in the NBA today. One is that they compel you to watch them.
When the Showtime Lakers, the greatest team Ive ever seen, and Celtics were taking turns winning the championship, the question was never would you watch; the question was where.
Games were spectacular and rough and featured so many stunning plays you couldnt remember them all. And you tried because thats what you talked about the next day.
You were either for Los Angeles or Boston, and if you liked one you couldnt stand the other.
I grudgingly respected the Celtics (more now than then) but thought they were so dirty that Kevin Garnett could have played for them.
I still cant pull for Boston because, despite Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo and Doc Rivers, Garnett is a Celtic. Garnett is one of the great complementary players of all time, but he has long been the dirtiest player in the NBA. Hes subtle dirty, white-collar dirty. Hell hit you from behind and, when you check your 401 (k), its drained.
Garnett made it easy for me to pull for LeBron and the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. I always pull for Durant and teammate James Harden and usually pull for their team. I rooted for them against San Antonio in the Western Conference finals.
Despite The Decision, LeBron is the least selfish superstar to enter the league since Magic and Bird. Michael Jordan learned to pass. Kobe Bryant learned, although it took him a decade. LeBron is a more complete player than Kobe ever was. But Kobe once would win close games by himself. LeBron has yet to.
While criticism of LeBrons late-game fades is legitimate, I wonder if his selflessness contributes. When giving up the ball is as integral a part of what you do as scoring, how difficult is it, as the clock ticks down, to go one against the world?
Durant is similarly unselfish. His willingness to give up the ball has helped him advance from great scorer to great player.
I dont know yet who Ill pull for Tuesday night. I wont know who the good guys are until the games begin.
Heres what I know: No matter how late the games run, and no matter how early I have to get up the next morning, I am not going to miss it. There will be drama and plot twists, last-second excellence and two selfless leaders trying to win a title.
It will be like old times.