Understanding generational eras in America, through the prism of the NBA
7) Kevin Durant actually is "The Poster-Child" for the professional millennial athlete <43rd OP>
We as people often downplay generational attitudes, while also amplifying them as well. They are actually quite important to our society in making sense of our world and the needs each of us need to fulfill to continue to thrive as a civilization or merely just exist. Similar to how millions of people read their horoscopes daily, the studying of generations and the effects each generation has on another, is quite significant.
GENERATIONS IN AMERICA TODAY
WWII: 1922-27 → (ages 95-100)
Postwar: 1928-1945 → (ages 77- 94)
Boomers I : 1946-54 → (ages 68- 76)
Boomers II: 1955-1964 → (ages 58-67)
Generation X: 1965-1980 → (ages 42-57)
Millennials/Gen Y: 1981- 1996 → (ages 26-41)
Generation Z/ Popularly called “Zoomers”: 1997-2012 → (ages 10-25)
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Much like generational attitudes might follow general patterns on a macro-level, on a micro-level we all have our own individual quirks and habits, and sometimes we don’t always fit neatly into one generation or another. I for one, fall right in the very beginning of the Millennial Generation, but I also had an older sister and older cousins that were solidly Generation Xers. So there is certainly a lot of overlap with me and my overall generational attitudes about things.
What better way to understand generational attitudes and eras, then look at it through the prism of popular culture. To me, the one institution in America that is deeply immersed in popular culture, that I pay close attention to, is none other than the National Basketball Association. Right now the dominant generation of players in the NBA are the Millennials. And if there is any super-star NBA Player that captures the spirit of the angst of millennials in my lifetime, it is Kevin Durant.
In this piece, there are nine former and current basketball players that will be discussed at length, through a generational lens. In a lot of ways I only scratched the surface of understanding these players from their respective eras. This bodes especially true for the “Boomer II” generation. While the players profiled among the “Boomer II’s” are wildly famous, they also are born at the tail-end of that era. Generation X players will be the most abundant in this piece, compared to the two generations they are sandwiched between.
For the sake of keeping this piece under 3600 words, some very prominent NBA names are inevitably left off this list. Two players I did not profile from the millennial generation who still at the very least deserve passing mention, are Wardell Curry (born in 1988) and Kyrie the Bartleby Irving (born in 1992). Obviously Steph is just beloved, and Kyrie is just, Kyrie.
MY WORKING INTERPRETATION OF TRAITS & CHARACTERISTICS OF EACH GENERATION:
Boomers II - The outgrowth of the original boomer era. This group started to see fabulous wealth and opportunities in ways no generation saw before. I think when we think of boomers, we forget how wide of an era the boomer generation was. Hence why it has been broken off into two.
Generation X - A generation that probably was the first to recognize how serious mental health is, yet also is (low key) too proud to be really open about it. Some would argue this is the most cynical and disaffected generation in relation to boomers and millennials. Even if this is a wide generalization, it’s still an interesting premise to work from. It also casts a wide enough net for me to make more sense of generational breakdowns without having done a dissertation on this topic.
Millennials - A very diverse demographic group, that has grown up on the internet, and is plagued by anxiety and a “look at me and what I’m doing” phenomenon that only makes people feel more insecure and worse about themselves. Amazingly, every generation alive today is afflicted with millennial traits, yet those that have only come of age in this era, are clearly the most affected.
When it comes to understanding these athletes I’m profiling, what occurs on the playing field/on the court is awesome, and entertaining and memorable in really fun ways. But, what were the events that really shaped the generation these players grew up in? Also, apologies for not profiling anyone from the Zoomer Generation, with the exception of including this one amazing highlight from Ja Morant (born in 1999).
MILLENNIAL OUT OF CENTRAL CASTING: (*next to the number indicates that this profile will be revisited later on in the piece.)
PROFILE #1*: Kevin Durant (September 29th, 1988- Present)
What is it about Kevin Durant that makes him so misunderstood? Is it more so that he is a victim of the era he was born into? Or is it something else? These are the central questions driving me in my quest to unpack the significance and cultural impact of the torch passing between one generation of players to the next, as well as the passing of the torch from one generation of people to the next.
Ethan Strauss, a new favorite literary giant of mine, has written at length about boomer attitudes from the perspective of NBA coaches like Greg Popovich and former coaches/ current-talking heads like Stan Van Gundy. Strauss also wrote an excellent book called The Victory Machine, about the rise and fall of the Golden State Warriors basketball dynasty.
In his book Strauss covers juicy details, such as Kevin Durant signing with the Warriors in the summer of 2016, and how that signified the beginning of something new and seemingly inevitable. It also signified the end of Kevin Durant as a happy-go-lucky super star carrying a small-market franchise in the Oklahoma City Thunder to the brink of a championship.
When Durant left OKC, he took a great deal of criticism for going to a ready-made championship team, and the fact that he has rabbit ears, it ultimately drove him off that team a few short years after that infamous signing.
If you look at the timeline of Kevin Durant’s NBA Career, he literally evolved from a happy warrior on the Thunder to a surly warrior on the Warriors, to now a broken down warrior on the dysfunctional Brooklyn Nets team. L Graeme Smith so brilliantly captures the lasting impact of Kevin Durant’s HUGE free-agency signing in his review of Ethan Strauss’s The Victory Machine.
“From this perspective, the move of Durant to the Warriors was an emblematic one, just another symptom hastening the decline of a faltering league, a totemic outgrowth of decadence in our broader world. The Golden State Warriors, the most important team of their era, encapsulate the dynastic rise and fall of empires themselves. In this manner, they are a warning for our own society at large. If the 2014-2016 Warriors were the height of American ingenuity, the 2017-2019 team was the manifestation of American greed”. - L Graeme Smith https://www.athwart.org/the-decadence-machine/
“A totemic outgrowth of decadence in our broader world”! “A warning for our own society at large”. WOW!!! That is some powerful stuff.
Sometimes I wonder if I even read the same book as L. Graeme Smith! I mean I enjoyed it. I thought it was a nice capstone on a Golden State Warriors era that I found maddeningly frustrating, as that team had such an unfair advantage over every other team. Apparently Kevin Durant found that era maddeningly frustrating too, as he felt like he never got his just due. But, what L Graeme Smith unpacked in his review, makes me drool with envy as I write this piece on a disgruntled millennial basketball super-star who is way too addicted to his iPhone.
In another era, I’m convinced Kevin Durant would have stayed with OKC and delivered at least one Championship to that city. It’s quite a sliding doors theory, given the fact that Durant’s leaving re-wrote the history of two franchises, as well as one enigmatic player in Russell Westbrook.
BABY BOOMER II PROFILES:
PROFILE #2: Michael Jordan (February 16th 1963 - Present)
MJ resonated with the boomer crowd in a way no other basketball player ever did. For all the wonderful things the late great David Stern did to make basketball a global sport, for better or worse he made it his mission to market the NBA to white people. Michael Jordan played for one team, with the exception of his 2001-2003 post-retirement stint on the Wizards three years after his iconic shot against the Jazz to win his 6th and final championship.
MJ ultimately played the hand he was given and played it excellently. Without a doubt, Michael Jordan was a man of his era, if not THE MAN! He was actually incredibly fortunate to be the transcendent guy to take the league by storm after Magic and Bird literally saved the league from ruin. But Michael Jordan still answered the bell in a huge way!
PROFILE #3: Charles Barkley - (Feb 20th 1963 - Present)
There are some real elements of Generation X in Charles Barkley. The dude has always said and done whatever he wanted, from “I am not a role model”.
He also threw a guy through a bar window. Some of these controversies seem atypical of a boomer athlete who would bend over backwards not to step on anyone’s toes. Yet, I also find it quite endearing how allergic Sir Charles is to social media.
That alone makes Charles Barkley a boomer through and through. Charles Barkley did move around the league chasing rings. Although he came up short, his career was memorable. But, it probably wouldn’t be as memorable as he makes it out to be, given the fact Barkley has such a large platform to always discuss it on. Charles Barkley nonetheless is living this great life by any standards, especially those of the second wave of boomers. Few former athletes in America are as beloved as him, and few people are as comfortable being famous as him. So even though the team hopping is very Generation X like, Barkley is too loveable to be in such a cynical generation.
GENERATION X PROFILES:
PROFILE #4: Shaquille O'Neal (March 06, 1972 - Present)
Raised by his mother and his no-nonsense step-father, steeped in military values, Shaq has elements of Boomer II, but also was at times a selfish jerk much like many Generation Xers. I mean the guy did play for six separate teams over his NBA career. That movement is a total Xer trait. But, there is also a certain GENUINE JOY to Shaq that I feel like is totally lost in Generation X.
If anything, the angst of Generation X is captured most beautifully by the late great rock-star Kurt Kobain of Nirvana. There still has been nothing quite like “Teen Spirit”!
I think this song is the exact opposite of what Shaq would rock out to.
Shaq did play for a lot of teams, but it might as well should only be considered three teams, since his career was largely forgettable after he won his 4th chip in Miami. But, ultimately Shaq is a Happy Generation Xer. In this era there were definite winners and losers. Shaq is the ultimate winner, with a net worth of somewhere around $400 million dollars. Making him by any metric you want to use, or any search engine you want to look up, one of the wealthiest American athletes, ever!
PROFILE #5*: Chris Webber (March 01, 1973 - Present)
Out of the nine players profiled for this piece, Chris Webber is almost certainly the least recognizable name on this list (especially to non-basketball and/or super casual fans). Yet, he’s still a fascinating character study. Unfortunately for C-Webb, and maybe fortunately for my writing ideas, Chris Webber is kind of the poster-child for Generation X in the NBA. (More on C-Webb later).
PROFILE #6: Allen Iverson - (June 07, 1975 - Present)
I almost didn’t include AI in this piece, as a largely misunderstood Gen-Xer. I mostly think of Allen Iverson as not only a trail-blazer for the game of basketball, but also as a misunderstood cultural phenomena in general. I think his influence speaks more to our interpretations of race and racism in America and how it intersects in our popular and every day culture. I mean the malice at the palace, definitely was considered a seismic moment that many thought forced David Stern’s hand. But others thought Stern’s desire to implement a dress code was largely considered as a way to target Iverson. AI actually now has his own thoughts on the NBA players sense of style. I guess it goes to show that every generation of people eventually “gets old”. (Allen Iverson might actually need to be a central character of mine in a future piece).
PROFILE #7: Kobe Bryant (August 23rd 1978 - January 20th 2020) RIP Bean!
I look at Kobe as a generational talent and a basketball genius that in many ways transcended generations. I still think of him as the second greatest shooting guard to Michael Jordan. I also think his untimely death has elevated his status in NBA lore in some ways. But, when writing this, I realize his impact on the game of basketball in some ways is underrated to people like me who get tired of putting Kobe in their Top-3 or Top-5 even. (BTW - in my view, he still is one of the greatest 10-12 players ever).
Despite a complicated past, with a number of notable transgressions (be-it self inflicted or brought upon by familial pressures) Kobe accomplished so much, and his legacy will live on and on. Mamba Mentality was an image and brand he cultivated masterfully, where his influence is still being felt to this day by millennials and zoomers. If anything, Kobe is like the Professor of Millennials! High praise from anyone (especially a teacher like me).
THE MILLENNIAL PROFILES:
PROFILE #8: Dwyane Wade (born January 17th 1982)
DWade is approximately six months younger than me, as I was born July 06, 1981. I don’t necessarily think of people born on the cusp of Generation X and the Millennial Generation as millennials. I think of Dwyane Wade, much like myself^ as somewhere in-between both generations. He’s the only super-star of his generation to be doing a commercial exclusively with a former boomer player.
That’s right, it's the old man “get off my lawn” Charles Barkley.
As I mentioned, Wade has many elements of an Xer to me. He played only 2 years in college, although he was in college for 3 years, which seems more common for Gen Xers to stay that long than it was for the millennial generation. DWade also seems happy and fulfilled in ways that are not all that typical for millennials, even highly successful ones. (^Keep in mind, this will probably be the last time I will ever compare myself to the immortal DWade!)
<SIDE NOTE> I know people born in 1985 & 1986, who swear up and down they aren’t millennials. Although I honestly think people born in 1985 is where you really saw the millennial generation take hold. For example, when I was in college from 2000-2004, cell phones were not that prevalent. By 2005, it seemed as if everyone I knew had a cell phone, and it was by this time, the millennials had full domain over pretty much every college campus across the country.
PROFILE #9: LeBron James (December 30th, 1984 - Present)
If anything, I would say LeBron Raymone James Sr., is one of the most influential people our society has ever known. It’s as if he was born a child actor, where we can’t exactly place him in any specific generation, since he in a sense has crossed all of them in such an impactful way. When you really stop to think about it, it’s remarkable that LeBron James can simultaneously be the most popular player in basketball and the least popular one at the same time. Granted the story I just hyperlinked is from 2015, but the narrative of LeBron James’ story and the duality of his popularity in reality has hardly changed. Just look at how he was covered in high school, at 16-17 years old.
PROFILE #5* (REVISITED): Gen Xer → Chris Webber
When I think of Chris Webber and how his career unfolded, it makes me actually think that maybe every generation of basketball players has at least one tragic figure. Maybe Kevin Durant just so happened to have to play that role in this era of basketball, because this is his destiny. In all honesty, all people/players get to make choices based on the circumstances they are involved in. As for Chris Webber, there are many fork-in-the road moments in his career.
For starters’ there is his infamous timeout in the national college championship game. There’s the beef he had with his former Coach Don Nelson, and then later on his beef with his former Fab-Five teammate Jalen Rose. That and some argue that Chris Webber was the best/worst example of a player in his generation that got rich too soon, without actually fulfilling all of his prodigious gifts. Sure he was a hall of fame player. But, he could have been an all-time great player and he wasn’t. Hence why I say that, even if Chris Webber wasn’t the most misunderstood basketball player among all Gen-Xers, he certainly was one of the most complicated ones.
Keep in mind that there was some pretty stiff competition when it came to complicated legacies among Gen-X athletes in all the professional sports. How can we forget the Diva Wide Receivers of the NFL who took the oxygen out of any room they were in. (T.O. and Ochocinco were born in 1973 & 1978 respectively). This was also an era where Americans still dominated Tennis with Andre Agassi (born in 1970).
And let us not forget about the only Golf star people ever cared about on a massive level; Tiger Woods (born in 1975). Somehow the The Home Run King, Barry Bonds (born in 1964) is technically a boomer! He seems to fit right in with the complicated legacies of the Gen-Xer athletes mentioned in the aforementioned paragraphs.
PROFILE #1* (REVISITED): “The Poster-Child for Millennials” → Kevin Durant
For all the personalities in Generation X who have such complicated legacies, and among all his peers in the millennial generation, why does Kevin Durant stand out to me so much? Well for one thing, KD is supremely talented, fabulously famous, and incredibly tall. He plays more like a shooting guard than a big man, which makes his game truly unique. And despite KD’s prodigious skills, and outsized fame, he still somehow is only famous within a bubble (albeit a very large bubble).
According to USA Today, the Top 50 athletes of the past decade (2010-2020), Lebron James topped the list at #1 overall, and the next basketball player on the list was Steph Curry at #7, and Kevin Durant was the 3rd basketball player on the list at #12. https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/2019/12/19/decade-best-ranking-top-50-athletes-over-last-10-years/4399929002/. KD would hate being shown this list (especially being behind Steph Curry). He simultaneously carries himself as if he is the world’s most famous man, and at the same time is like a sullen-child, deeply wounded for not being as well-known or as popular.
Truthfully, America has a ton of celebrities. Most people are too caught up in their own lives and own bull-sh*t to worry about Kevin Durant or even know about what he’s up to. This is especially true for people that have zero interest in basketball. People are living out their own drama in life and on social media, although the two worlds are intertwined more than ever. Just as Kevin Durant is living out his dual life too.
The great tragedy of Kevin Durant the man, is that for such a supremely talented basketball player, he unfortunately has been partially undone by the addictive nature of social-media. It’s often very glaringly obvious (for those of us paying attention) that KD doesn’t fully know who he is. I know that’s a damning thing to say about KD, and if he ever read this, he’d probably go after me the way he went after people on his burner accounts.
Hence why, if KD does actually happen to come across this piece; I have one request of him. KD, I invite you to call me out and share this story! After-all we live in this era together, and you are still a tremendous influencer on a level that is stratospheres higher than any other living person playing professional basketball today, not named LeBron or Steph. So, if you do call me out, I will only be oh so lucky to be aggregated by you!
Peace and blessings
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PS - For the KD exclusive piece (generously borrowed from this one) check out this story that dropped the day he requested a trade from the Nets on 06/30/22.
Great article, Josh! But what about some players of the WWII generation? Guys like Bill Russell. Jerry West, Pistol Pete, and Wilt the Stilt? We Boomers grew up worshiping those guys. Would have been great to see some profiles on them! Perhaps a second piece?