Not only the young and the restless chase the dream of a champion. Some have waited all too long.
It’s a tale as old as time –or, at least—a tale as old as basketball. Kevin Durant and Lebron James, two superstars of the sport, are chasing the ultimate destiny: the crowning moment, the ring, the title of champion. It’s the pinnacle of achievements. It’s the dream of every boy that dribbles a ball. It’s more than holding a trophy –it’s holding a piece of undying history.
But it is not just the chosen ones who chase the championships. It’s a dream that belongs to all that play this game at the highest level. Each face and name that constitutes this series’ cast of characters once, upon hearing their name called in the draft or seeing it signed on their first contract, made the same promise to themselves: one day, if nothing else, I’ll raise a banner. I’ll win it all.
At the end of this best-of-seven series, either Lebron James or Kevin Durant will fulfill that promise. One of these superstars, still in their twenties, will no longer bear naked fingers in the eyes of their peers. They’ll be champions. But this chase goes beyond them. For others, it’s a long, oft unfulfilled, pursuit of that promise. It’s a tough road, and as Father Time inches closer to his victims, they become increasingly desperate to enact that now-distant covenant with their younger selves; they want to win—at any cost.
This series has its share of young blood –of players still in their prime chasing this dream. But there are names, largely flying under the radar, that have little time left in their quest for the one ring. Perhaps they aren’t the sexy superstars, the difference makers, or the names that will inspire Jeff Van Gundy freak-outs and Sportscenter Specials. But they, too, were once boys with a ball and a dream. They’re a part of this finals narrative.
It’s only fair to recognize them –the players in, potentially, their last pursuit of a promise.
When Eddy Curry emerged onto the NBA platform, it wasn’t out of the question that he could one day reach the levels of Kevin Durant and Lebron James. He was the MVP of the McDonald’s All-American game. He was a seven-footer with skills. He was the Chicago Bulls’ fourth overall draft choice straight out of high school –the beacon of hope in a post-Michael Jordan world. Simply put, he had the most dreaded nine-letter word in sports: potential. The sky was the limit for Eddy Curry, and people prognosticated that one day, he may be a star in this league.
Things didn’t exactly turn out that way. He wasn’t the kind of player that could single-handedly carry a franchise upon his back and march to the NBA Finals. He would play four seasons with the Bulls, five with the Knicks, and get waived and bought out by the Timberwolves without playing a single game –all without once appearing in a playoff game. His teams finished with records of 21-61, 30-52, 23-59, 47-35, 23-59, 33-49, 23-59, 33-49, 23-59, 32-50, and 29-53. In that lone winning season, when Curry was showing some of his most promising moments, his heart failed him –his actual heart. The Bulls made the playoffs, but Curry was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat and missed the final games of the season. They were swept in the first round, and Curry was swept from the city of Chicago.
In 2006-07, Curry would have the best season of his career. For the Knicks, he played in 81 of 82 games, averaging 19.5 points, seven rebounds, and a 57.6 field-goal percentage. But soon after, his coaches and bosses would once again question his heart. This time, they weren’t worried that his heart was out of rhythm –they were worried his heart was out of the game. He showed up, to put it bluntly, fat and out of shape. His off-seasons appeared to be spent at Golden Corrals rather than Gold’s Gym, and eventually, it led to the disappearing act of Eddy Curry –no small feat for a seven-footer pushing 300 pounds.
Eddy Curry, once upon a dream, was the lottery pick –the player full of promise and potential. He entered the league at 19, with nothing but accolades and jewelry in his future. Once upon that dream, he could have been the star of a series like the one we’re about to witness. Now he’s on the old side of 29, appearing much older in his tireless quest to recapture an old dream.
But dreams change. Eddy Curry knows he isn’t the star, anymore. He just wants to prove he can win. In this pursuit, he stopped swallowing buffet entrees and swallowed his pride. He’s slimmed down, once more, and taken a huge pay cut in order to play for a team that could bring him that coveted ring. In 2010-2011, Curry’s salary was $11.5 million dollars. This year, in an attempt to win, he’s making less than $1.3 million.
Eddy Curry is a man that has fallen nearly as far as a star can fall in this league. But he’s also a man that knows there is only one way to truly rise to the top.
When Juwan Howard heard his name called at the NBA Draft, Kevin Durant was five years old. Today, they are both chasing their first NBA Title. At 39, Howard is easily the elder statesman on the court in the NBA Finals –a dubious distinction for a man who simply wants to win.
Throughout his basketball career, Howard has come close to earning the distinction of champion –only to have it snatched from his fingertips. Twice, as a part of the “Fab Five” at Michigan, he lost heartbreaking defeats in the NCAA Finals. And to make things worse, the Final Four banners were later vacated –erasing accomplishments from Juwan Howard’s basketball history.
In his 18 NBA seasons, Howard has now made the playoffs seven times. Four of those were first-round exits as a member of the Bullets, Rockets, Mavericks, and Trailblazers. One of those was a loss in the second round to the unstoppable San Antonio Spurs. Then he joined Miami. Last season, as game two seemed all but won for the Heat against Howard’s former team in Dallas, it looked as if he had finally been part of a team that would raise banners –and keep them there. Alas, once more, the ring was pried from his outreaching fingers and Howard could still not add champion to a career of distinction.
A year later, the ageless wonder that is Juwan Howard has returned to the NBA Finals. The only member of the Fab Five still wearing a uniform instead of a suit, Howard has outlasted many of his former peers in his quest to find his ring. In his weathered face, the lines carve a path that few ballplayers have ever taken.
Howard was once one of the most promising players in the NBA. He was a former McDonald’s All-American, a lottery pick for the Washington Bullets, a member of the NBA All-Rookie team, and an All-Star in his sophomore season, averaging 22.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 4.4 assists. Howard had all the appearances of a rising star, earning him the first ever $100 million contract. This guy looked like the player you could build championships around –his body and career promising to always be big and promising.
He’d never return to the All-Star Game. He’d never live up to the huge contract. He’d never hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Juwan Howard entered the league a future star. Over 1200 games, 16,000 points, and nine franchises later, he no longer faces the question of where he’ll go in this league, but instead, when he’ll leave it. But, no matter his age, Howard has unfinished business that began in the early 90s when the NCAA tore down the banners of blue and gold.
Howard was once part of arguably one of the greatest college basketball teams assembled, only to be told later that none of it counted. Today, he finds himself on another team assembled of high-talent, high-risk, and potentially, high-reward. On the merits of longevity alone, Howard knows that, this time, if he can join his teammates in raising a banner to the banisters, no one can tell him this one doesn’t count.
At this point, this is the only thing that counts.
Shane Battier rose to national prominence as a member of the most polarizing team in college basketball. In 2000-2001, he took home every trophy (including the Wooden Award) that tells the world you are college basketball’s best player, all while helping Jay Williams lead the Duke Blue Devils to a championship. You can love Duke, and you can hate Duke –thousands of fans fall on each side of the divide. But if you find a way, in your heart of hearts, to hate Shane Battier …you hate the game of basketball.
It isn’t because he was a college MVP, a McDonald’s All-American, or a collegiate champion. It isn’t because he was a lottery pick to the previously hapless (and previously Canadian) Memphis Grizzlies. It isn’t even because he’s an incredibly cerebral, intelligent religion major that rattles off amazingly philosophical quotes while sweating in front of his locker after a game.
The reason you have to love Shane Battier is because of what others say about the way he plays the game. Throughout his career, he’s never sought the accolades, and sadly, he also hasn’t been given many of them since leaving the campus and Cameron Indoor Stadium. But, throughout the NBA, Shane Battier is known as “The Ultimate Glue Guy” –a mediator in an otherwise contentious sport. And further highlighting his status as an incredible teammate, a New York Times article declared him “the No-Stats All-Star”.
That’s all you need to know about Battier. He brings his teammates together, while simultaneously using his aggression and defense to tear the opposing teams apart. The two-time second team all-defensive player (who in this series is often given the impossible task of guarding Kevin Durant) has made a history of making selfless decisions to help his team, often simultaneously hurting his statistics. He once famously asked Jeff Van Gundy, at Houston, to take him out of the starting lineup –not because he didn’t want to play, but because he wanted to be able to guard sixth-man Manu Ginobili whenever he came onto the floor.
Twice, the devoted Battier has played all 82 games in a season, and always with his signature ferocity and skill. That’s why Miami was a perfect fit. For a team facing more pressure than any team in modern sports, constituted of many young pieces with wayfaring demeanors, who better to help form cohesion and stasis in that locker room? Shane Battier answered that call, and in doing so, may finally be in a position to win.
Playing for the oft troubled Grizzlies and the Rockets, who never regained their mid-90s momentum, Battier has fallen short in every attempt to reach the land of the rings. He’s made the playoffs seven times before coming to Miami –he’s never fared better than a second-round exit.
That’s not acceptable for Shane Battier –a tenacious competitor who, at the college level, tasted the sweet taste of raising a banner to the rafters. After making over seven million dollars last season, Battier took a cut (to three million this season) to join the Heat, and hopefully, join a group of champions. Already in this series, he’s proven that he may be the x-factor that gives the Heat the needed depth and defense to earn the coveted title. Defending Durant and launching crunch-time threes, the aging Battier has to be feeling young again.
He has to be feeling the resurrected rhythm in his chest that only belongs to the heart of a champion.
It’s a tale as old as basketball. In the game of basketball, you chase more than loose balls and streaking fast breaks. It’s a sport of chasing dreams –of chasing titles, banners, and rings. All of the greatest players wear them upon their hearts and fingers. But they aren’t alone. It’s a team sport, and because of that, basketball is simultaneously a team story.
This isn’t just Lebron James’ and Kevin Durant’s dueling quests for their first ring. It’s a chase that includes every soul that breathes beneath the jerseys of mesh that don the court in the next several days. It’s a dream that means just as much to Eddy Curry, to Juwan Howard, and to Shane Battier. For it’s not just the love of the game that brings them back, year after year, to the pressure and ferocity of the hardwood.
It’s the lure of the ring.