Cheating Death In The NBA Playoffs

Portrait of the Western Conference starting lineup for the 51st All-Star Game (back row L-R) Kevin Garnett #21, Chris Webber #4, Dirk Nowitzki #41, Tim Duncan #21 and (front) Kobe Bryant #8 at First Union Center on February 10, 2002 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice: Copyright 2002 NBAE (Photo by: Andy Hayt/NBAE/Getty Images)

Aging isn't fun, and in sports, it usually isn't pretty. But then you have this year's NBA Playoffs, a reminder that the story isn't always that simple.

Whenever any athlete gets old, you usually realize it all at once, and it becomes a disturbing reminder of how quickly time passes. This happens with superstars in any sport. Did you know Tom Brady is 34 years-old? Whether you were 14 when you first watched him or 24, that probably makes you feel old.

It reminds me of this essay from The Awl, where Shaq wasn't just a retiring Hall-of-Famer last year, but a "THIRTY-NINE YEAR-OLD REMINDER OF DEATH." As Ben Dolnick wrote:

...what I find myself thinking, most of the time, is: I’m not as young as I used to be. Twenty-eight, to my surprise, is turning out to be one of those pivot-point ages, a time for stocktaking and distance-measuring. Slumped on my couch, shaking my head at missed three-second calls, I find myself feeling like Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused: I keep getting older, and they keep staying the same age. The youngest players on the court, coltish and uncertain, are always eighteen; the oldest, hobbled and embarrassed-looking, are always thirty-something. And now, like a slowly cruising Chevelle, I find myself passing from the first category into the second.

Again, this is true of athletes in any sport. Tom Brady, Roger Federer, Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter, whatever. But it's worse in basketball.

Basketball's the sport where you can see aging in all its gory detail; guys who used to explode off the floor and look superhuman suddenly drag themselves around the court and ice their knees on the baseline during timeouts. Skinny, backboard-shattering Shaq becomes 400-pound Shaq. The psychotically-athletic Shawn Kemp from your memory is replaced with a bloated, earthbound knockoff. Jordan on the Bulls becomes Jordan on the Wizards. It happens.

But fate's been particularly unkind to the superstars of the 2000s. "Everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn't end" is a quote from Cocktail, but also a good way to describe what's happened to most of the biggest NBA superstars from the past 15 years.

RELATED: Paul Pierce, And The Mastery Of The Moment

Everything has ended really badly. You can go right down the list. Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis, and Allen Iverson were supposed to bring the point guard revolution to the NBA. Now, one's playing basketball in China, one's recording low-budget rap videos, and Iverson's perpetually considering a return to basketball in places like Puerto Rico. Even typing that out makes me wince.

There was also Chris Webber, the one-time freak of nature who was dragging himself around on one leg just a few years after the peak of his Kings prime. There was Yao Ming, who repeated Webber's course, only he never really entered his prime. Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter, two guys who are so completely removed from what they once were, it's hard not to avert your eyes whenever they pop up on TV.

Guys fade away in any sport, but NBA stars of the past decade or so have fallen off a cliff. To the point where you can't even remember the good days without getting sad about where it went wrong.

But it doesn't have to end that way. Tuesday night, Kobe Bryant scored 38 points to carry the Lakers, Paul Pierce scored 36 to carry his Celtics, and we all had an excuse to remember just how great they really are. Pierce and Kobe both show their age in different ways, and it'll get more pronounced over the next few years. But it doesn't really matter. As the years pass and they refuse to disappear, guys I used to hate have become some of my favorite players.

Next to a generation of would-be icons who flamed out for a variety of reasons, in this year's playoffs we have Pierce and Kobe still going ballistic, Dirk outplaying Durant for the second year in a row, Kevin Garnett anchoring Boston's defense for one more year, and Tim Duncan, still quietly in first place. All of them are exceptions to the rule.

They haven't gotten better with age, no. Kobe's less efficient and less consistent than ever, Pierce, Garnett, and Duncan are all hobbled by age and limited by athleticism, and Dirk... Well, maybe Dirk's better than ever. But either way. What's most important is that they're all still here, prouder than ever, succeeding long after we all prepared ourselves for them to disappear.

It's not inspirational or moving or any other stupid cliche we might be tempted with. But watching these guys fade away is fun. That alone is a welcome departure from the story my generation's gotten used to. And if Shaq is our reminder that death comes to everyone and life just gets more sobering as you get older, it's nice to remember that if you told that to Kobe, he'd probably say "fuck that" and go drop 40.

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