As a kid growing up in the 80s and 90s, you always knew the investment to purchase an NBA player’s jersey was a sound one because you could most likely count on that player being with his current team for years to come. In other words, you knew you would get to wear it to many games over the years before that player retires and it becomes time for another jersey.
With the retirement of Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan’s stepping down from his role as the permanent San Antonio Spurs ambassador this summer, the idea that you can purchase the jersey of your favorite player, knowing that it would be his actual jersey for years to come has pretty much ended. Bryant and Duncan are the last two superstar players that I can remember being with their team for an entire career.
Over the years, we have seen these All-Star players leave from time to time. Karl Malone and Gary Payton left Utah Jazz and Seattle Supersonics respectively and unsuccessfully tried to grab that elusive title with the Lakers. Charles Barkley did the same thing, leaving the Philadelphia 76ers for the Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets before finally calling it a career, without a ring. But for the most part, the stars stayed with their teams.
Magic, Bird, Ewing, Worthy, Jordan (yes, he played a couple of seasons for the Wizards, but that wasn’t about winning a title) all stayed with their teams. Through winning seasons, losing ones and even the ones that saw them come oh so close to that ring and just fall short, they stayed. They didn’t complain, they didn’t call their buddies and try to form a secret pact in the middle of the night to join up with a certain team, dominate the league and steal a ring or two.
So why did these players, along with Bryant and Duncan stay with their teams until the end? One word, loyalty. They were loyal to the organization that gave them their shot and they were loyal to the fans who helped them become the stars that they were. But the 80s and 90s, and what was left in the 2000s, is long gone. Today, players chase rings and money trying to be better than Jordan, Magic and Bird instead of just being the best player they can be.
It started with the Big Three in Miami and has continued since then. Even though LeBron James went back to Cleveland, other stars continue to chase championships with teams who didn’t draft them. Kevin Durant left OKC for the Golden State Warriors and Al Horford decided that the Celtics gave him the best chance of winning and bolted to Atlanta at the same time that Dwight Howard arrived with the hope that his fourth team will be the one he lands a ring with.
While the product may not be diminished, the spirit of the league may be. Fans no longer have “their” guy who sheds blood, sweat and tears with them, goes through the highs and lows they do as they attempt to bring a championship to a city. Arenas still sell out, jerseys still fly off shelves, but Bryant and Duncan not only ended an era, they also took that last bit of emotional connection between team and fans with them.