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He wasn't packaged and promoted the way many of the league's other top players were. He draws attention, but not because he plays in a large media market or signed with the right sneaker company. He simply played his way toward stardom, averaging 19.5 points for the Bucks last year. Allen, 23, has struck the right balance between fame and professionalism. He had a starring role in Spike Lee's film He Got Game, yet he hasn't gone Hollywood. In fact, he says that he wants to sign a long-term extension with the small-market Bucks and plans to negotiate without an agent. That's the land of old-fashioned approach that can restore fans' faith in the league and its players.
On the other hand the starting-over five doesn't exist in a vacuum. Some real-world truths have to be acknowledged. One of them is that the resurgence of the NBA, in which four fifths of the players are black, will happen sooner with the presence of a bona fide Caucasian star. Our small forward, Keith Van Horn of the Nets, is the player best suited to fill that role. This is sensitive territory, because Van Horn, 23, has made it clear that he doesn't want his race to draw as much attention "as his game, and many fans are offended by the implication that they choose their favorites on the basis of skin color.
Both objections are understandable. It does Van Horn, who averaged 19.7 points a game as a rookie last season, a disservice to suggest that his attractiveness to any team has as much to do with his complexion as with his talent, which is considerable. In fact, he gives the lie to many basketball stereotypes. White players are supposed to be rooted to the ground, but Van Horn seems to have springs in his legs. White players are supposed to be good shooters but nothing else. Van Horn can hit the three-pointer, but he can also slash to the basket for nasty dunks that would draw high fives in any 'hood.
Still, there is no denying that fans look for players to identify with. They make those connections for a variety of reasons, and race is one of them. Detroit Pistons center Bison Dele (formerly Brian Williams) overstated it when he suggested that Van Horn carries "the weight of every guy who plays with four knee guards and glasses," but it is true that he brings more than just his skills to the league.
Van Horn is often compared to the league's last white superstar, Larry Bird, but Van Horn's style better suits the way the NBA has sold itself, as a sanitized version of inner-city street ball, with players who have been taken out of the play ground but haven't had the playground taken out of them. This has been a stroke of marketing genius, giving the league credibility among young fans while allowing older ones to feel connected to something cool and cutting edge.
The player who best represents that hip, slightly dangerous sensibility might be Stephon Marbury of the Minnesota Timberwolves, the point guard on our starting-over five. He's all tattoos and talent, a New Yorker who plays with a sneer and a street style developed on the Coney Island blacktop. He has the showmanship that brings fans out of their seats and makes the $: nightly highlight shows, but there is a polish to his game that separates him from most of his young counterparts. The 21-year-old Marbury, who averaged 17.7 points and 8.6 assists last season, is proof that players can be entertaining without being selfish, that they can maintain their individuality and still put the team's needs first. It is not a coincidence that the Timberwolves, who had never reached the playoffs before Marbury's arrival in 1996-97, have qualified the last two seasons.
No pistol has been found under the seat of Marbury's car, no nickel bag in his glove compartment. That's not to say he can't be prickly. He has grumbled a bit about playing in Minnesota, away from the bright lights and big city he craves. He has also shown a touch of paycheck envy now that the league's new salary scale will keep him from coming close to teammate Kevin Garnett's six-year, $125 million contract.
But the starting-over five doesn't have to be made up of saints. In fact the league needs players who have a swagger, an edge. There's nothing wrong with having a little attitude, as long as there's some maturity to go with it. Some players have alienated fans because they don't understand that. Marbury gets the final spot on the team because he does.
It's hard to root for a team that exists only in theory, but if you track these five players this season, they may help you sort out your conflicting feelings about the NBA. They may not make you forget the damage the players and owners did to their league, to your league, but maybe they can help you forgive—and that's a start. ?