With the championship at stake Sunday in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, take a moment to savor what is on display as the San Antonio Spurs attempt to win their fifth title in 16 years and the Heat, trailing 3-1, attempt to extend the series with hopes of winning a fourth title in nine years.
Step back, as if standing before a masterpiece in an art museum, and consider that at least nine people in the game are future NBA Hall of Famers, including coaches Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra, Heat players LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen, and Spurs players Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
One of the announcers, ESPN Radio analyst Hubie Brown, is already in the Hall of Fame. Even after playing in, coaching and broadcasting thousands of games, Brown has not lost his sense of wonder for basketball greatness.
One could feel his love for Jack Ramsay when he gave a tribute to the late coach and commentator at AmericanAirlines Arena on Wednesday. They were fellow connoisseurs of the game, basketball lifers who traveled the globe spreading the gospel or stayed up until the wee hours debating the finer points of trapping defense.
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Ramsay would have enjoyed every minute of these Finals, Brown said.
And Brown is still breaking it down at age 80. He prepares his detailed “Hubie Sheet” for each game, then explains what’s happening and why better than anybody.
The proof of his credibility is in the number of players who approach him during warmups to shake his hand or pick up a piece of advice.
With that Julius Caesar hairdo, Brown is the Socrates of the hardwood, engaging in dialectical discussions.
He says he doesn’t like to play the comparison game, but then he will jump right in because he can’t resist, not in a Finals featuring Heat and Spurs, James and Duncan.
He has seen too many legends and near-legends in half a century not to offer his perspective.
“Well, I’m not into dynasties,” Brown said. “You could say the Minnesota Lakers were the best, but that was when the lane was six-feet wide.”
Do comparisons take into account rules changes? The width of the lane today is 16 feet. The NBA expanded it to 12 in 1951 and to 16 in 1964 to blunt the effect of dominating centers such as George Mikan and Wilt Chamberlain.
Brown, speaking animatedly in his New Jersey accent, suddenly took a defensive stance. He crouched, stuck out his forearm, braced it, jabbed. Then he withdrew it and delicately inserted hand in pocket.
“What about hand checking?” he said. “Today, we’ve got a green light for these guards and small forwards. A green light! You have to defend them perfectly without the hand or forearm.”
Was Brown rightly insinuating that today’s players are wimps, protected from the black and blue of yesteryear?
“Watch the film on the Detroit Bad Boys,” he said. “Nobody got thrown out of those games. Today, you’d be suspended for a month if you made one of those fouls. [Michael] Jordan and Magic [Johnson] and [Larry] Bird had to take all of those hits. If a player today had to absorb one of those hits, he’d never get up.”
He laughed. He was just getting started. History poured out of him. He recalled a comparison argument during a Hall of Fame induction weekend. Where does Duncan rate among forwards?
“Hold it!” was one of the responses. “There is only one No. 1 forward in basketball, small forward or power forward, and that is Elgin Baylor. He did Dr. J. [Julius Erving] stuff before anybody else. He went to college on a football scholarship.”
Can’t forget Bob Petit, first winner of the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award in 1956 and a 10-time All-NBA selection. He averaged 26.4 points and his 16.2 career rebound average ranks third to Chamberlain and Bill Russell.
“But he was playing against the Celtics every year,” Brown said.
“Then there’s Karl Malone, still the second-leading scorer of all time. Is Bird a small or power forward? When I coached the Knicks, he played power forward. He’s one of the game’s greatest rebounders, people forget that.
“Was Magic the best? Should he be backed up by Jerry West? But who is coming along now? Kobe [Bryant] is about to pass Jordan.”
Brown was at full throttle, pulling names and images and stats out of the air. He could argue his case, or any case, before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“You’ve got Baylor and Dr. J. and Rick Barry, but along comes Kevin Durant and LeBron. Here they come.”
Add up all the impressive numbers and awards and titles and what separates one great player from the next? Defense, said Brown.
“That’s what LeBron is showing now,” he said. “That’s what Duncan has shown for 17 years. That’s what separates Jordan and Kobe. You’ve got to have the total package.”
Brown, the fountain, kept flowing, mentioning John Stockton and John Havlicek, Kevin Garnett and Scottie Pippen, Bob Cousy and Elvin Hayes. He could have gone on for hours.
“Stop getting into arguments that LeBron is better than Michael because old guys will tell you Oscar Robertson was better than both!” Brown said.
“You need to pick two centers? Is it Russell and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]? What, are you going to leave Wilt off?”
For Brown, it’s impossible to rank the memories, to place one above the other.
“How many could Chicago have won if Jordan doesn’t try baseball?” he said. “Miami has a Big 3? Hey, the Lakers had a pretty good Big 3.”
Too many variables, too many evolutionary changes, too many questions about context.
“I have great respect for all those players and teams from all those eras,” he said, still talking and extracting recollections as he walked to the parking garage.
His philosophy? Enjoy the moment. Enjoy now. The 2014 Finals will find its proper place in basketball history.
The greatest of all time? The clock is still running.
“The nice thing about opinions,” Brown said, “is that everyone has one, and they’re all free.”