'He just made me want to play basketball': How the NBA's next generation fell in love with the league

LOS ANGELES — Hours before he’d turn back the clock with a nod to Vince Carter that wound up winning him the Verizon Slam Dunk contest, Donovan Mitchell took another look into the past, thinking back on his earliest NBA memory, the first time the league he’d one day join actually became real to him.

“Man, that’s a tough one,” the Utah Jazz rookie told Yahoo Sports during Saturday’s media session. “The first one that comes to mind, I would say, is probably ‘The Decision’, with LeBron.”

Makes sense. Mitchell was 13 years old when LeBron James went on ESPN to tell Jim Gray that he’d chosen to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and join the Miami Heat in free agency. It was a huge deal — “That really changed the league, from that point on,” Mitchell said — that had nearly 10 million sets of eyeballs glued to television sets all over the United States.

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Not Mitchell’s, though.

“I was there, when he had The Decision,” Mitchell explained. “So that would probably be the biggest one.”

Like, there there?

Watching Vince Carter fly helped inspire a generation of kids to pick up a basketball and start trying to soar. (Getty)
Watching Vince Carter fly helped inspire a generation of kids to pick up a basketball and start trying to soar. (Getty)

“It was in Greenwich, Conn., and I went to school in Greenwich [at Greenwich Country Day School],” he said. “So, as a big LeBron fan in the sixth grade, I forced my mom to let me go. I wanted him to go to Miami. I wanted him to get his first ring.”

Young Donovan was glad to see one of his favorite players chart a course for a more successful future. Not everybody at the Greenwich Boys & Girls Club shared his enthusiasm.

“The people there who were Knicks fans … they weren’t too happy about it,” Mitchell said. “I almost got hit in the head with a Snapple bottle because they were just throwing stuff around outside. It was cool. I was just celebrating, so it was pretty cool.”

The specifics likely differ quite a bit, but you might have a story at least spiritually similar to Mitchell’s: a moment trapped in amber in your memory when the NBA and the stars who populate it crossed over from theoretical to tangible. In talking to more than a dozen of the first- and second-year players who suited up for Friday’s Rising Stars Challenge — a collection of domestic and international talents who could come to comprise the next generation of NBA stars — it became clear that they all did … even if none of Mitchell’s peers’ stories included “ducking Snapple bottles outside a Boys & Girls Club.” (Thank heaven for small mercies.)

One popular touchstone for the 19-to-22-year-old cohort? The legendary dunker who inspired Mitchell’s final-round throwdown on Saturday night.

“I mean, I was always into the game — I didn’t have TV or cable or Internet, so I didn’t really watch anybody for a while,” said Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, who grew up in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. “But watching Vince in the Dunk Contest, and watching him play, he was my favorite player.”

“You know, I watched Vince Carter,” added Murray’s countryman and Memphis Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks, from Mississauga, Ontario. “With the lobs, he just had Toronto … everybody was wearing a purple Toronto jersey. He just made me want to play basketball, and want to dunk, and want to be a part of all that.”

While that feeling certainly resonated with a generation of kids coming up in Canada, it also stretched far, far beyond the borders of the Great White North.

“Dunk Contest!” exclaimed Bogdan Bogdanovic. The Sacramento Kings guard — a comparative elder statesman at 25, who starred in the EuroLeague for several years before coming to the U.S. this season — beamed and laughed as he recalled what it was like to marvel at his new teammate’s handiwork in his native Belgrade.

“I remember we had Sony Ericsson phones. They were only able to play the videos on them,” Bogdanovic said. “One of our friends had the short clip of a couple of dunks of his, so we just watch them over and over. It was most popular at that time.”

Like Bogdanovic, Finnish forward Lauri Markkanen grew up experiencing the NBA across the gulf of a time difference that rendered him largely unable to watch live games as a kid. Around age 12, though, he started pushing back against bedtime to catch what he could.

“The Lakers-Magic [2009 Finals] series is probably the first that I can remember,” said the Chicago Bulls rookie, a stretch big man out of Arizona who reached 100 career 3-pointers faster than any other player in NBA history. “Of course, I knew certain single plays and stuff, but that’s when I really started watching it.”

Today, the 7-foot Markkanen stands eye-to-eye with Dwight Howard, the All-Star center who fueled that Orlando team’s run to the Finals. Back then, though, Lauri only had eyes for his competition.

“Definitely a Kobe guy,” Markkanen said. “I was a guard growing up.” (No wonder he did so well in the Skills Challenge.)

That ’09 Finals series also inspired another multifaceted big man, one of the standouts of All-Star Weekend: Philadelphia 76ers phenom Joel Embiid.

“Well, I started when I was about 14 years old, 14 or 15 — that was when I first watched the NBA Finals,” said the native of Cameroon. “It was the Lakers against Orlando, and that’s how Kobe [Bryant] became my favorite player, and that’s how I wanted to get into basketball. I started playing a year later.”

This is where you remember that Embiid is 23, and that he’s only been at this for seven or eight years, and that he’s already this good. Suddenly, all that confidence starts to make an awful lot of sense.

Markkanen and Embiid are not alone on that score. For several members of this new generation, Kobe Bryant represented a magnetic, charismatic purple-and-gold standard of excellence.

“I mean, he was always my favorite,” said Jayson Tatum, tendering an opinion that might not play too well if he shared it with the fans of his Boston Celtics. “So many different reasons — I loved his personality, his work ethic, his drive, his dedication. And I loved his game. He was a true competitor, and a winner, and he wanted to be the best.”

That competitive drive, as much as the flash and polish of his game, is what piqued Buddy Hield’s interest when he was growing up in the Bahamas.

“That Laker-76ers Finals, when Allen Iverson and the Lakers were playing,” said the self-described “Kobe guy” and Sacramento Kings guard. “That really got me into the NBA. Just the competition they had. Allen Iverson, how he was competing with Kobe Bryant and Shaq and them. The first game he won, and he had that big epic game, and then Kobe came back and responded with like four in a row. But he still competed.”

Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant stand out to many younger players as the template for the sort of competitive fire you need to star in the NBA. (Getty)
Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant stand out to many younger players as the template for the sort of competitive fire you need to star in the NBA. (Getty)

All the way across the Gulf of Mexico, Iverson’s fire and individuality was also striking a chord with Taurean Prince as he grew into the game in San Antonio, Texas.

“He really was influential, in my opinion,” said the Atlanta Hawks forward. “Just how he carried himself, didn’t really care what people thought, and always was himself, regardless of any situation he was in. I think A.I. really made me gravitate toward the game of basketball. Like, even getting his hair braided on the bench. Things like that just makes you feel like, ‘OK, he’s his own person, regardless of anybody’s thoughts.'”

For Los Angeles Lakers forward Brandon Ingram, the NBA snapped into focus when, a few months shy of his sixth birthday, he saw a high school kid go No. 1 overall.

“Seeing LeBron James getting drafted out of high school,” Ingram said. (Was it the suit that did it for him? “It definitely wasn’t the suit,” he said with a laugh.) “Just to see him make it out of high school and just see some of his highlights, and how crazy it was just to make that jump from high school was inspiring for me and motivational for me.”

As impressive and inspiring as players like Bryant, Iverson and James could be on and off the court, Dennis Smith Jr. remembers that watching the sheer talent on display on the court during an NBA game sort of spooked him.

“My earliest NBA moment — and I ain’t sure if it was this game or not — but the Lakers were playing the Wizards,” said the Dallas Mavericks point guard and alleged “highway robbery” victim. “I was just watching, and it might have been the game Gilbert [Arenas] had 60.”

Fans of a certain age might fondly remember that, after that game, Kobe chastised Arenas’ shot selection — which, pot, kettle, black, etc. — by saying, “He doesn’t seem to have much of a conscience. I really don’t think he does. Some of the shots he took tonight, you miss those, and they’re just terrible shots. Awful.” That, wonderfully, led to Arenas saying, “Quality shots!” while his jumper was in flight rather than his customary, “Hibachi!” (Man, the mid-2000s were weird.)

To a 9-year-old Smith, though, the cavalcade of buckets was actually kind of daunting.

“I was looking like, ‘Bro, it ain’t no way that a kid is supposed to make it to the NBA, because they don’t miss any shots,’ you know what I’m saying?” he said. “So I was just, like, blown away when I seen that. That was unbelievable.”

What seems like the stuff of fiction on TV can get grounded in reality, though, when you get the chance to see it up close and in person.

Jaylen Brown’s path to All-Star Weekend started with an assist from his mom and aunt on his 7th birthday. (Getty)
Jaylen Brown’s path to All-Star Weekend started with an assist from his mom and aunt on his 7th birthday. (Getty)

“I was 7 years old the first time I got to go to an NBA game,” recalled Celtics swingman Jaylen Brown before he showed out with 35 points and 10 rebounds in Friday’s Rising Stars game. “I was in Atlanta. The Hawks were playing … I’m not even sure who they were playing. The Grizzlies? I just know that the Hawks were playing.”

These were not high times for the Hawks, who were in the midst of a run of nine straight losing seasons between 1999 and 2008 despite employing some talented pros like Jason Terry and Shareef Abdur-Rahim. That didn’t really matter, though. The game itself was what mattered.

“It was my 7th birthday, and I’d been asking them all year: ‘The only thing I want is to go to an NBA game,'” Brown remembered with a smile. “And they made it happen for me, my mom and my auntie. Shout out to Auntie Lisa. She made it happen.”

Thanks to a thousand acts of kindness from Auntie Lisas and Sony Ericsson phone owners and Boys & Girls Clubs staffers around the world, a generation of kids started to believe that maybe one day it could be them out there, grinding it out like A.I., gunning like Kobe, or soaring like Vince. You remember that stuff — the things that erase the boundary between fantasy and reality, and inspire you to start on the kind of journey that can land you under the bright lights of All-Star Weekend.

“One time, I got to go to one of the Raptors’ games, and I called out [Vince’s] name from the stands,” Murray said. “He looked back and gave me a wave, and that was … that was probably one of my favorite memories.”

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Dan Devine is a writer and editor for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@oath.com or follow him on Twitter!

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