At last, a breath offresh air in NBA

May 31, 2005 4:50 AM

I blinked, and there is a whole new breed of basketball player on the courts.

Well, actually, I did more than blink. I yawned and fell asleep, intentionally, for years, bored with the big man’s game.

I was there at the creation, with the very first, and I have a picture on my office wall to prove it: Me and towering over me, George Mikan, who played his college basketball for DePaul under the great coach Ray Meyer. After graduation, Mikan opened the era of the big man, playing for the Minneapolis Lakers. I got to know George well, from his DePaul days and later from his Lakers days when they played the Harlem Globetrotters, no kidding, no clowning, all serious basketball.

He soon was joined in the big man ranks by Bob Kurland of Oklahoma A & M, who played for the old Phillips Oilers.

From there everything went downhill, or uphill, depending on how you look at it.

Mikan was 6-10, and exceptional, but that quickly became the norm. There followed the era of freaks, creating stares in airports and hotel lobbies, and the little guy was overshadowed.

Well, not entirely. There was Bob Cousy of the Boston Celtics, doing all the tricks in white that I had watched for years in black as the voice of the Harlem Globetrotters.

As the big men grew dominant, I — and a lot of others — lost interest.

Until, of course, Michael Jordan, who was no little man at 6-6, but so fantastic that he picked up pro basketball like Tiger Woods later picked up golf. Watching Jordan break games open with his heroics became worthwhile, but with his departure from the scene the stage dimmed.

I woke up briefly to watch two small heroes — Allen Iverson at 6 feet and John Stockton at 6-1 — and they rekindled my interest in the game.

Then Jason Kidd showed up. I had trouble liking him at first, because he reminded me of any number of tough guys I had known in Chicago who would break your leg if the price was right.

So I took another nap, and this time I awoke to a herd of guys who looked like friends you went to school with, except they moved faster and shot better than anyone you ever saw before them.

Steve Nash and Dwyane Wade and Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are inspiring figures on the basketball court. They look like regular good old human beings, and the fact that Nash is from British Columbia and Ginobili from Argentina and Parker from France and Wade a guy who left my old home stomping grounds in Chicago to go to Marquette adds to their appeal for me.

I have gone back to watching the game because of the artistry of these guys. This is basketball as I remembered it from my youth, before George and Bob and Shaq and Yao Ming came along to mess things up. As Philadelphia sportswriter Jack Kiser used to say when he lost a bet and blasted racing, "But don’t get me wrong. I love the sport."

One thing I don’t love is that whining noise from Atlantic City these days, where the hometown rag, the Atlantic City Press, is bleeding for the boardwalk casinos and bleating about the possibility that the Meadowlands race track may get 2,000 slots one of these days.

The casino crowd is tough and strong in New Jersey, but at least for the moment they are facing an equally tough and strong racing guy named Richard Codey, who happens to be governor of the state. The Gov wants the Meadowlands to have slots, and the Press is warning the casinos to be vigilant. Their reps snickered the other day when a fellow from Pennsylvania warned them at a conference that they will face strong competition from slots in Philadelphia, but despite that smugness they’re afraid of the Meadowlands. You can’t have it both ways, boys.

New Jersey, contrary to what you might think landing at the Newark airport, is a green state, and the racing industry helps preserve much of that green space. Atlantic City still reminds me of a Hollywood western set — a façade with nothing behind it. AC could stand a little competition.