The NBA I Grew Up Watching: The Quiet Superstar Versus The Showman

I don’t quite know how my brother got hold of those VHS tapes of Michael Jordan films and documentaries about the Chicago Bulls’ title-winning seasons… It’s not as if they were readily available in Blockbusters in the UK.

The country was mad about soccer then, and where I grew up, in Wales, the dominant sport was rugby.

The only regular updates about the NBA we had on this side of the Atlantic were on Channel 4 every Sunday morning. The free highlights packages that David Stern sent around the world landed, and it was up to Mark Webster to package them into a presentable format:

But it was my brother’s Michael Jordan videos that first intrigued me. 

Not only was the first three-peat documentary – Unstop-a-Bulls – narrated like a movie by the epic vocal tones of Hal Douglas, it had drama. 

The presentation through the regular season in the first few minutes bobbed and weaved just enough to show how it was a tough road to finish third in the Eastern Conference. The early-90s motivational soundtrack flowed into the first round against the Atlanta Hawks, and then into the second round against a familiar foe.

But this time, there was a sense of drama to the Bulls’ series against the Cleveland Cavaliers because they had acquired “The Jordan Stopper” Gerald Wilkins that season:

Needless to say, Chicago advanced—it was a documentary about the Bulls, after all—and faced off against the New York Knicks. Some guy named John Starks “contained” Jordan, and got out to a 2-0 series lead.

But in game four, number 23 “would be shackled no more” and the Bulls surged back to win the conference and face the Phoenix Suns in the Finals. But neither Charles Barkley nor God were able to slow Michael Jordan and the Bulls down.

Between these season reviews and other Jordan VHS tapes like Air Time, Playground, Above & Beyond, as well as The Dream Team journey to winning gold in Barcelona 1992, I learned about the game of basketball. But all of these videos belonged to my brother.

I was still young, and while my formative years had ingrained the game in my mind, the flames of my passion were yet to be lit.

Whereas my friends were getting on the rugby pitch, taking chunks out of each other, when I was old enough, I started attending my local club at the turn of the millennium. With no Michael Jordan, and the Chicago Bulls looking like a herd of calves on wobbly legs, I was falling in love with the game nonetheless but wanted an identity of my own.

I didn’t just want to take my brother’s. 

My coaches were keen for me to learn the basics. Learn to dribble with both hands, step into the chest pass, box out, work hard on defense and use the backboard when you shoot. While my memories of Michael Jordan certainly showed an elite ability to dribble with either hand, the highlights of his passes were often wrapped around a defender to dump off to a teammate for an easy bucket. And his successful shots—often fadeaways or crossover stepbacks—were usually swished rather than off the glass.

There was one player in the NBA who perfected these basics so much that he was known as The Big Fundamental.

Tim Duncan had defense—boy, did he have defense—and he was unstoppable on offense. But he wasn’t flashy with it.

My kind of guy.

His San Antonio Spurs had already won a championship in a down period for the NBA in the UK. Jordan had retired and the lockout left an unclear path of the league being broadcast outside the United States in 1999.

Even with some half-arsed internet research, I couldn’t find any clips or coverage of the NBA during the latest stages of the decade. It wasn’t until the NBA started pushing the fact that a premier franchise was winning championships again that the international community perked up.

The early 2000s saw the rise of the internet, which made following the Los Angeles Lakers so much easier than my brother had when he used to trawl through megastores for even the smallest hint of a basketball VHS. But that was another thing that stuck with me from his teachings—perhaps from his dislike of the Lakers during the Bulls’ first three-peat—only one thing truly matters…

Beat LA. 

So, between my basketball coach telling me to perfect my fundamentals, my brother making sure I knew which teams to not cheer for, and my innate Britishness for supporting an underdog, my heart swayed towards Tim Duncan and the small-market-but-talented San Antonio Spurs.

I was rewarded for my choice. It was frustrating for the first few years, but after besting the 2005 Detroit Pistons in a defensive battle (my favorite kind) the Spurs picked up three titles in the five seasons and Duncan was heaped with praise despite never seeking it out.

In my career and life, I’ve often been told I don’t ‘sell’ myself enough. I’m generally pretty good at what I do, but I admittedly struggle to blow my own trumpet when seeking recognition. Sometimes, I think it’s cost me opportunities.

But it’s because of Duncan that I don’t feel it is necessary. I have seen his greatness recognized.

There was the showmanship of Jordan, as he pumped his fist after big baskets during those championship season VHS tapes and was the star of self-promoting documentaries. But I’ve also seen equal greatness in the unassuming nature of Duncan, as he unassumingly led the Spurs to a championship in three different decades, then walked off the court for the last time with nothing more than a wave.

Basketball has a place for everybody, even the slow, undersized white Welsh guy who couldn’t shoot. I could focus on the fundamentals, and earn playing time by being the best defender on the court—I still do today.

I’m also using the passion and knowledge to build a career covering the sport, and while I won’t necessarily shout about how good I am at what I do, I think, slowly, it’s being recognized.

Thanks for showing the way, Timmy.