Lebron?? Kobe?? Jordan?? Bird?? Magic?? All good choices I suppose.
I have this thing about me which people don’t seem to understand. I like to think it’s a sharp combination of originality and loyalty. You might prefer to think a lack of insight mixed with stubbornness. My favourite basketball player of all time is Stacey Augmon. Who???
My love affair with basketball started in the 80s when it was rarely on TV where I lived. At that time most casual observers were either Celtics fans or Lakers fans. If your favourite player wasn’t Larry Bird or Magic Johnson, then you were more than just a casual fan. I liked Danny Ainge. Mainly because he used to play baseball for the Toronto Blue Jays, and I was far more into baseball at the time.
By the time the 90s rolled around, things had changed. Michael Jordan had become the most exciting athlete in professional sports. Somehow the NBA had now become huge! Was it Jordan? Nike? David Stern? Cable TV? I don’t know, but even though I lived in a city/country that didn’t yet have an NBA franchise (and some would argue that we still don’t…… zing…. friggin Raptors….. get it together!!!), I was all into basketball when I was in high school. To give partial credit to the above factors, and add in fashion trends inspired by Hip Hop, in 1990 NCAA basketball reached a new level of popularity in Toronto. This is even more interesting because we had no regional loyalties due to being in Canada, so we were able to pick any team to follow that we liked. My father who used to travel for business from time to time had previously purchased me a UNLV t-shirt when he had been in Vegas. I did a little background to see if it made sense to get on board with this team. I mean I needed to have an NCAA basketball hat, and everybody had already jumped on the Duke, Georgetown, Syracuse and Michigan bandwagons. I needed something a bit different, but a bit the same, and that seemed like a good formula. After researching college ball a bit, I learned that UNLV was a pretty good team already, and had a new Junior College transfer named Larry Johnson (GRANDMAAAAAA!!!!!!) who was supposed to put them over the top and make them awesome in the coming year. That’s it!!! This is my team!! I bought a red UNLV hat from Champs Sports, and I was off to school to represent! Now I have to find out something about these players. One of their games finally came on TV. I would check out LJ and their top returning player Stacey Augmon. I didn’t want to get caught not knowing my shit in case some locker room debates heated up.
This Augmon kid was crazy!!! Left-handed, wiry, could jump out of the gym, had crafty moves, and highlight reel finishing around the basket. Dick Vitale called him the best defensive player in the country!! A country that included Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo playing on the same team……what college team….scratch that….. what NBA team do you remember having 2 defensive centers of that calibre playing at the same time??? Ridiculous!!!
The season moved on, and I was rocking my UNLV hat like everyday to school. The team was amazing too. They were quickly becoming the best team in the country, and I had bragging rights…..(You know I had this hat first, fool!!!!). The better the team played, the more TV coverage they got. I would tape those games on the VCR on Saturdays because I was cooking chicken at KFC at the mall wearing brown polyester bell bottom pants, and the most undesirable shirt in the history of textiles. I’d get home and I’d watch 3 future NBA players (and another that could have were he not a 5’11 shooting guard) tearing up all these other college teams to the point where I got to know their scrubs really well too because the game was usually out of reach by the middle of the second half and coach Tarkanian (who chewed on a towel during the games) would empty the bench and give these other kids some quality minutes. The best part was watching my new favourite basketball player (because let’s face it, the NBA had taken a back seat to this for a while) Stacey Augmon. I don’t ever remember thinking he was the best player in the league or anything, but his odd yet diverse skill set just made him so interesting to watch.
The UNLV Runnin’ Rebels won the NCAA championship that year. I celebrated with a few converted Rebels fans. The entire starting 5 while eligible for the NBA draft (and 3 of them would have gone high) opted to stay in college for their senior year to defend their title (What??? You may never see that again.) They proceeded to go undefeated during the regular season, but lost improbably to the same Duke team (not really the same….they now had Grant Hill) that they embarrassed in the finals the previous year. To this day I still blame the officials for that game. A darker side of me believes that there may have been some ‘Vegas Style’ foul play by some bookies, although I’d like to think not. A pretty successful couple of years to say the least, and due to some NCAA violations that program has never come close to soaring to those heights in the 20 years since. As an adult, Las Vegas is probably my favourite vacation destination for completely unrelated reasons. I’ve been to the Thomas & Mack Center where the Rebels play. It’s nice to see Stacey Augmon’s #32 up there in the rafters. There’s a lot of pictures and memories from that team.
The following year Larry Johnson was the 1st over all pick in the NBA draft. Augmon went 9th, and Greg Anthony (decent point guard, but probably a better TV analyst) went 12th. I followed their entire careers in the NBA, but particularly Augmon’s. He played 16 years in the NBA. the first 5 as a really promising young shooting guard for the Atlanta Hawks. I remember always wanting to watch Hawks games when they were on. Even those Ahmad Rashad Saturday morning top 10 highlights of the week which Augmon was frequently on, but when he moved to the Pistons and later the Trailblazers, Hornets and Magic, he had settled in to an ‘off the bench-roleplayer-defensive specialist’ role. At the end of the day, even though he was one of the most amazing players I had ever laid eyes on, he didn’t have a jump shot. This was a problem because he played a position called ‘shooting guard’. In the NBA, there’s an assumption that shooting guards can shoot. It’s a fair assumption, but an inconvenient truth for Augmon. He had just about everything a coach could want. Great work ethic, athleticism, incredible defensive abilities, and he could even score in a very non-traditional way. So he carved out a niche in the NBA, and was always able to have a job in the NBA until he was pushing 40 and lost his quickness. 16 years is a long time to play in the NBA, but for a guard with no jumper???? It’s an eternity!
So why is Stacey Augmon my favourite basketball player of all time?? I don’t know…. who’s yours? Kobe? Lebron? Does a player have to be an all-star to be my favourite? Does he have to be the best for me to follow his career? When he went from starter to bench player, should I have made the switch and got a new favourite? I like him because he showed up to work every day. I like him because he busted his ass and did the dirty work. I like him because he wasn’t perfect, but he really had his great moments. I like him because when the USA Olympic basketball team that he was on (last team to use college players before the dream team of 92) won the bronze medal, he was so distraught about not winning the gold, that he threw the medal off a bridge into a river (although I never would have done that, and I think he’s regretted it every moment since). I like him because even though his game had a serious deficiency (no jump shot) he carved out a 16 year NBA career (and never played on a bad team). I like him because when he got his minutes, he always brough energy and the team played well when he was on the floor.
Maybe I see a bit of myself in the Stacey Augmon tale. We’ve all had our ups and downs. Every day is not a victory parade. I think I came into this world with a fair bit of talent as well. I think in my life I’ve spent time as a ‘starter’ (in life)and as a ‘bench player’ (in life). I like to think I have an odd yet diverse skill set that makes ME interesting to watch.
Or maybe it was just a random selection who did enough good but not enough bad to earn my loyalty. Maybe it was my way of being an individual instead of some mope who just follows the masses and doesn’t think for himself. At very least I do think that the Lebron James and Kobe Bryants of the world have enough people cheering for them. There are far more Stacey Augmons (actually I don’t really believe that, there is only one), and they could use a cheering section. Imagine what we could all accomplish if we had cheering sections even though at the end of the day we are just a bunch of Stacey Augmons. That wouldn’t be so bad.
Making the world a better place……..one random basketball favourite player selection at a time.