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THE YEAR was 2000, and the next Next Generation had arrived. Or so we were told. A collection of young guns arrived at the Arena in Oakland for the All-Star Game that February led by Kobe Bryant, 21, Vince Carter, 23, Tim Duncan, 23, Kevin Garnett, 23, and Allen Iverson, 24. Conspicuously absent were the giants of the previous generation: no Hakeem Olajuwon, no Charles Barkley and, of course, no Michael Jordan. "They've had their chance," Carter said then. "They put in great years, so of course there's going to come a time for a new generation. We're the guys of the future."
But were they? That group of All-Stars, and peers such as Stephon Marbury, Tracy McGrady, Jermaine O'Neal, Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker, should now be in their prime, ruling the league and the marketplace. However, aside from Duncan (and if you want to be generous, Carter), none is the centerpiece of a team that can be considered a title contender this year. (Indeed, of these 10 players only Duncan and Bryant have led their teams to titles, and Kobe had plenty of help from Shaquille O'Neal.) They represent a lost generation: Sandwiched between the golden age of '80s icons Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan and the impending reign of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, they're tied in the public consciousness to an era of shoot-first scorers, courtside brawls and, for better or worse, Shaq and Kobe.
Sponsors and the league's image-makers have passed them by. "If I'm a marketer, I'm looking at the guy who's younger, has more promise, is a little more of a team player," says Bob Dorfman, an ad exec at Pickett Advertising and author of Sports Marketers' Scouting Report. "I would rather spend my money on a Wade, on a LeBron, even a Chris Paul, a Tony Parker, maybe a Dwight Howard. The McGradys are recognizable, but if I'm thinking about who has a chance to get postseason exposure and win a ring, I'm probably going to turn away from guys like that. I'll focus on the ones who don't remind me of the old days, when things maybe weren't that pretty."
Companies proved that point this summer with Team USA. According to Mark Tatum, senior vice president of marketing partnerships at the NBA, the advertising interest was "tremendous" (even though TV ratings were miniscule) and that wasn't because Brad Miller was on the roster. "A lot of the partners who signed up for USA Basketball also sponsor LeBron, Dwyane and Carmelo," says Tatum. "For example, Coca-Cola and Gatorade are both USA Basketball sponsors, and each one has a relationship with Wade, Carmelo and James." Their comportment in Japan repaired the damage done at the worlds in 2002, when the national team not only finished sixth in Indianapolis but also engaged in ugly finger-pointing.
Off-the-court incidents have loomed large in this generation's demise. For many years Bryant was the golden boy. But following his 2004 legal trouble in Colorado, he has one of the six highest "negative" Q ratings in all of sports, at 44%. The only athletes who leave more people with a negative impression? Barry Bonds (46%), Ron Artest (48%), Terrell Owens (49%), Latrell Sprewell (51%) and Bode Miller (53%).
Fans have already spoken. Last season Wade's and James's replica jerseys ranked one-two in sales. ( Anthony's was eighth, though his ran second to James's in their rookie year of 2003--04.) Bryant, whose jersey topped sales for the '02--03 season, professes to have no problem ceding the spotlight. "I think it's great for those guys," he says. "I think it's really good for the NBA, I really do." Same goes for Carter. "I don't care," he says. "I'm not here for that, the endorsements, the spotlight. I'm here to win. If you win basketball games, all the other stuff takes care of itself. The NBA, the media, they're going to push who they want to push. LeBron is a talent. Dwyane is a talent. Carmelo is a talent. Each guy is a helluva player and a superstar. You should push them."
Sponsors certainly seem inclined to, judging by the roster of big businesses-- Microsoft, T-Mobile, EA Sports, Lincoln, Bubblicious--that have lined up behind James, Wade or Anthony. They are the next next big things, and the shadow they cast is wide.