The 2015-16 NBA season is long gone, but it gave us some special moments that will never leave.
The NBA Finals wrapped on a Sunday night in Oakland with a Game 7, just the eighth penultimate game in the championship round for the league since 1978. When the final buzzer sounded, a new champion was crowned and it put a cap on one hell of a season.
LeBron James played the greatest basketball of his career and Steph Curry did the same, though they did it for different stretches of the season. One dominated the Finals unlike any player since Michael Jordan, the other connected on over 400 3-pointers and was selected as the first ever unanimous league MVP.
Ultimately, LeBron delivered the greatest prize in the most dramatic fashion imaginable. His Herculean effort defied all odds, the history of basketball and the history of Cleveland.
Elsewhere, Karl-Anthony Towns showed out for the Minnesota Timberwolves like no rookie since James. His performance was so outstanding that he drew comparisons to the greatest forward to ever play the game, Tim Duncan. And it was only fair, as this was the final season for the legendary Duncan.
The San Antonio Spurs were the best second place team in league history. They spent the entire year chasing the Golden State Warriors who happened to have the single greatest regular season in history, going 73-9.
The world of professional basketball is evolving. The game is played in a radically different way when juxtaposed with traditionalism and history. Whereas baseball has become a science and can be understood in completely different metrics, everything about how it is played looks like a mirror image of what I saw when I was 8-years-old, watching Kirby Puckett snag pop-flies and smash home runs. Basketball is experiencing a complete revolution in how it is played and uses that metamorphosis to change everything about how the game is viewed and reported.
The most social media-friendly sport in the United States defies the Draconian approach of their fellow professional leagues when it comes to fan and media access to content. You can readily find Vines and GIFs all over Twitter, Facebook, and any other platform where people can connect.
Writing about the sport is perhaps similar to the approach of baseball writers who fight against the traditionalism of the game by reporting and commentating in a more modern way. But the emergent world of basketball reporting and blogging has exploded like no other sport.
Basketball in 2015-16 moved forward in an unprecedented way across the board and it was beautiful. The lingering memory of the Portland Trail Blazers run into the playoffs, the possible swan song of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobli, the Toronto Raptors winning a Game 7 and advancing in the playoffs, the winning and advancing again. The records, the highlights, the memories kept flowing.
The Philadelphia 76ers and Sam Hinkie ended The Process, Kobe Bryant ended his career in the most perfect way possible by scoring a ton of points on a ton of shots, and the Charlotte Hornets played like the old Charlotte Hornets for the first time since they used to be the Charlotte Hornets.
In all of this ephemera, all of the platitudes and magnificence, I searched my memory for the one moment that would define the 2015-16 season. There had to be single point in time that I had stowed away in my memory that I will be able to reference as long as I may live, a moment to stand the test of time like a carbon-frozen Han Solo for my Jaba the Hut-like brain to admire and parade as a trophy for the hundreds and hundreds of hours of basketball I consumed, wrote about and marveled at.
The moment was easier to find than you might think.
The Sacramento Kings have made a lot of noise over the past few seasons. They were some lackluster ownership, then almost lost their team to Seattle – and make no mistake, Seattle deserves an NBA team and that should be fixed as soon as possible. Then, former NBA player and current Mayor of Sacramento Kevin Johnson saves the team, keeps them in their California home. The team is taken over by an eccentric new owner, Vivek Ranadive, and the storm surrounding the Kings only intensifies.
DeMarcus Cousins is one of the most talented players in the entire league and I love to watch him play basketball. He is filled with so much fire and passion, the fire often burns so intense that it consumes him and burns not only Boogie, but everyone around him. Often, it is his own team and organization that suffers because of it.
For all the amazing ability he has, there is something very mythological about Cousins. He stands like a giant, capable of amazing feats. Yet, he is prone to misfortune that is often self-inflicted. No one carried the work load for their team the way Cousins did in 2015-16. And no one else received nearly as many technical fouls as Cousins, either. Boogie is also the only player to famously call for his own coach’s head and curse out said coach and almost uncontrollably defy and fight authority. The one time he found a coach that was able to help him balance his fiery countenance, team ownership inexplicably terminated that coach, sending Cousins into another rage-filled spiral.
Then, they added another malcontent fresh off a banishment from his former team despite being their best point guard option – in the middle of a playoff series. Rajon Rondo was brought in on a one-year deal. An opportunity for the player to show that he still has the ability to start in the league and repair his damaged reputation after the ugly end to his time with the Dallas Mavericks.
Fast-forward through the season to March 30, 2016. The Washington Wizards, fresh off a loss to the world-beating Warriors, were in town to visit the Kings. Washington entered the game at 36-38 with essentially no possibility of making the playoffs, looking over the shoulder of the Chicago Bulls in front of them who were trailing the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons for the bottom of playoff bracket in the Eastern Conference.
Sacramento was also coming into the game off a loss and also were in the midst of packing it in and getting ready for the off-season. However, they were more than eager to get there. It was already known that the Kings were going to fire the George Karl approximately four minutes after Game 82 of the regular season ended and they actively wanted to avoid slipping out of the top 10 spots in the lottery. Should they have performed too well, they would have forfeited their first-round pick to the Bulls.
The game itself was unremarkable. Two teams playing out the string in a stadium that could be described as many things, though “packed” or “intense” or “piled with frenetic fans who hung on every shot, cheered every dunk and cringed at every rebound.” No, this was just another game where dads had a chance be the hero their children believed they were without having to break the bank, grabbing as many tickets as they needed for as close to face value as you can imagine for a secondary market could be regarding a sporting event.
The Kings lead was double-digits, the defense was half-hearted at best, the clock read 0:06.7 seconds, the score was 120-106 in favor of Sacramento.
Following a meaningless basket in one of the most nihilistic moments of professional sports in 2016, Sacramento failed to properly inbound the basketball and the referee blew the whistle. And this is the moment that I will remember most about the 2015-16 NBA season.
Sports are fleeting.
Supremacy is temporary and the pursuit of excellence is insatiable. There are few individuals who have summited the sports world and stayed there. The process of sport and the pursuit of a championship is much like reaching the summit of Mount Everest. It is an astonishing feat. You may even be able to name a few people who have done it, perhaps you have met one of them in real life or are one of them yourself. It is admirable and awesome, to stand at the highest-known point on the entire planet. It is a perilous journey that claims many, but few are remembered for what they achieved.
I can’t tell you the name of the individual who just summited Everest this year, though I followed along on Snapchat, filled with awe and jealousy. I can tell you, however, a little about Green Boots. You see, Green Boots was an Indian climber who never made it back down the mountain. He died on Everest and still lies there along the route up the mountain. Some have even reported having to step over the frozen corpse of Green Boots.
Only a handful of athletes can be remembered for their achievements. I can’t tell you all of the bench players on the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen title teams, but I’ll never forget my adoration of Jordan and Pippen.
The matchup between the Wizards and Kings was a footnote on the ascent of other teams on their way to the summit, they weren’t the ones who made the epic journey. They stayed at base camp. They weren’t frozen in lore and they aren’t the people you read about or take pictures with or bring up in casual conversation because you rubbed elbows with them and have been there or you saw in a restaurant or airport.
So, when the Kings, with an insurmountable lead with just a few seconds left failed to successfully complete an unguarded inbound after a made basket, it was nothing more than the most beautiful moment of the Sacramento season when both Rondo and Cousins stuck true to the personalities that define their very essence.
Rondo is whistled for the inbound infraction. He protests. Rondo has already run afoul of the league and public perception thanks to some ill-advised utterances to Billy Kennedy, an openly gay referee, that directly struck at his sexual orientation. That Rondo would have something to say about this isn’t surprising.
Then Boogie starts clapping. At the referee, emphatically. Cousins is whistled for his league-leading 16th technical foul, which is four more such infractions than Chris Paul who is nearest player in technical fouls. Boogie is locking up that tech title and it isn’t even close, he could do this with his eyes closed.
Unfortunately, the referee’s ears aren’t closed. Nor is Rondo’s offensive mouth. The combination of the two leads to another amazing event. A technical on Rondo.
If you’re keeping score, the Kings currently lead 120-106. There is 6.7 seconds left in the game. Since the last action in the game Sacramento has: a Rondo inbound violation/turnover, a Cousins technical foul, a Rondo technical foul.
What happens next is the pinnacle of nihilistic, sports-induced comedy: Rondo earns, yes earns, a second technical and a game ejection.
John Wall hits two of his three free throw attempts. Cousins stands with a futile smile, head shaking as if marveling at the unparalleled ability he and Rondo possess to sabotage even the most minor high note in a season that looks more like a landfill than the view from Mount Everest at dawn. The Wizards hit a three on the ensuing inbound. Sacramento successfully inbounds the ball this time and the clock runs out.
The Kings win. Cousins and Wall embrace. The world moves on and nothing changes. Everest still stands. People still live and die. This is the moment of the 2015-16 NBA season that captures the true essence of sports futility and magnificence, the audacity of entertainment and emotional involvement.
by Daniel Coughlin (@xvanwilderx)