In 1984, the first five picks of the NBA draft yielded Hakeem, Jordan, and Barkley. Stir in the selection of John Stockton at No. 16 and this installment of geekdom’s annual rite passes into the province of folk legend. Sam Bowie, picked over Jordan, became a pop-culture punchline; Sam Perkins, who went before Sir Charles but somehow never mutated into comedy, glowed for all of his relatively distinguished career like a figure etched into the back of ruby Mt. Rushmore. While this draft did not technically usher in the NBA’s era of seismic sweetness—Magic and Bird had already settled in nicely, Isiah and ‘Nique belonged for sure, and Ewing, Pippen, and Reggie Miller had yet to thunder forth—the ’84 draft has come to signify the silt-filled flow of the NBA’s proudest years.
By contrast, 2003’s eager disbursement of young prospects was awash in end-of-days apprehension. Against the backdrop of a troubled, crippled half-decade, all the Association eagerly awaited the otherworldly arrival of LeBron the messiah and sensible sure thing Carmelo. But while James was hyped as being capable of an MJ-like takeover, the league itself was banking on a Magic/Bird redux to lay the optimistic groundwork for a future revolution. What they certainly hadn’t bargained for was an ‘84-like watershed that delivered no fewer than four superstars and somehow rallied the entire league to organize itself into a second thousand years of majesty. Above all, they hadn’t anticipated the breathtaking rise of Dwyane Wade, the Marquette guard who in under three years would go from mid-major fireball to prepaid Hall of Famer. While James grappled with his Beyonder-like burden and Melo the tension between having and getting respect, Wade presented a clear-cut case for the storming ranks of ’03 and the revived league that they symbolized.
Yet Wade’s steadying hand brought with it the stinging slap of the regrettably familiar—which, truth be told, might account for his rapid appointment and rocklike reliability as a lodestar of stardom. Nineteen eighty-four introduced to the sports-gobbling world three of the most unique, and irreproducible, players the game has ever produced: Jordan, the Babe Ruth of basketball; Hakeem, a big man whose vast palette of skills defied comprehension; and Barkley, whose folk antiheroism seemed directly responsible for his improbable, willful dominance on the court. Nineteen years later, the heavens opened up and down tumbled Wade, one of the two or three most versatile, complete players in the history of basketball, an ingenious melding of classic game and contemporary tone, and Tim Duncan, the NBA’s great conservationist, made over for the post-Garnett generation. Even Darko Milicic, the black sheep picked over all but James, was supposed to usher in a new era of tough-minded internationalism, defying the shackles of stereotype that had thus far questioned the international players’ potency.
Wade, however, has turned out to be what one might rightly deem a “next Jordan” traditionalist—a corrective effort that defies Melo and Bosh’s storied syntheses, as well as LeBron’s ability to encapsulate NBA infinity in a single man. If much of the ‘90s had been marred by high-flying, abrasively fantastic guards seeking to imitate His Airness’s on-court aura (substance be damned), Wade redirected Jordan’s legacy toward execution, results, and victory. Jordan may have brought out the game’s most deadly demons of exhibitionism, but this was always sublimated into the drive to succeed—whether as tactical flourish or well-placed mindfuck. A large part of the NBA and its observers spent the mid to late ’90s fixated on a sloppy, aimless version of the latter approach. While his draftmates made their peace with those dark days, Wade sought to forcibly set things right by following Jordan the right way. By proving that Jordan was a workable model for a serious disciple, he once and for all drew MJ into the fold of tradition.
Wade doesn’t so much redeem Steve Francis and Harold Miner as prove they were by no means a historical necessity. In this sense, he’s nothing less than the grouchy, pro-Spurs rewrite of how the hyperathletic, unspeakably dangerous guard should’ve rolled in the NBA’s heyday—a vector directed back at the past, not one bearing the message that will guide the future. While Melo, Bosh, and, to some degree, LeBron seem like the dialectic resolution of old and recent, Wade is straight-up revisionism, right down to the relative joylessness with which he pulls off some of the most freakishly unattainable moves this side of the Carter.
That’s not to deny what a remarkable experience beholding his play can be, even if this appreciation is often more technical than visceral. Nor is it to dispute the righteousness of doin’ it real big in the context of real competition. Wade, however, commits the unfathomable sin of allowing professionalism and utility to downplay explosive superhumanity. This tidy inversion of the post-Jordan era ignores the complexity of MJ’s legacy: that, almost paradoxically, it is possible to achieve ultimate teamsmanship only through the most blessed of individual virtuosities. Wade, then, is very nearly an antidote to Jordan himself; if placed in the wrong hands, his example could eventually erase all memory of the G.O.A.T.’s real meaning.
The rebirth of Kobe Bryant has been nothing short of strategic. Say what you will about the Dark Prince of Newport, but his evolution from ball-hogging gunner driven by egoism to historic scoring machine whose will equals victory has served to prove that a Jordan “worse” in terms of both competitive and aesthetic know-how could effectively succeed 23 without shedding the wretched baggage of the past decade. Watching Kobe these days is like seeing what would have happened if pre-Scottie MJ had been influenced by world-champ Jordan, a vision that both encapsulates and ultimately confounds the ‘80s/’90s dichotomy in a manner consistent with Jordan’s lasting precedent.
The fully realized Kobe hardly resolves it, or obliterates it the way the Class of 2003 does. But in thriving off the inherent tension of this identity, he pays his respects to both the maverick that Jordan was and the muddle that followed in his wake—the swarm of pretenders to the throne whose failed missions Kobe learned from and cannibalized in his tortured scurry to rarefied ground. If the NBA wants to reconcile with one of the dingiest chapters in its storied past, Kobe’s eternal flame of semiotic convolution holds the key. Canonizing Wade as the off-guard of the coming paradise is akin to denying history and the beauty of its hard-won process. And that, my friends, is hardly the sign of a future at peace with its past.