THE YEAR was 2000,and the next Next Generation had arrived. Or so we were told. A collection ofyoung guns arrived at the Arena in Oakland for the All-Star Game that Februaryled by Kobe Bryant, 21, Vince Carter, 23, Tim Duncan, 23, Kevin Garnett, 23,and Allen Iverson, 24. Conspicuously absent were the giants of the previousgeneration: no Hakeem Olajuwon, no Charles Barkley and, of course, no MichaelJordan. "They've had their chance," Carter said then. "They put ingreat 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 youwant to be generous, Carter), none is the centerpiece of a team that can beconsidered a title contender this year. (Indeed, of these 10 players onlyDuncan and Bryant have led their teams to titles, and Kobe had plenty of helpfrom Shaquille O'Neal.) They represent a lost generation: Sandwiched betweenthe golden age of '80s icons Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan andthe impending reign of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, they'retied in the public consciousness to an era of shoot-first scorers, courtsidebrawls and, for better or worse, Shaq and Kobe.
Sponsors and theleague's image-makers have passed them by. "If I'm a marketer, I'm lookingat the guy who's younger, has more promise, is a little more of a teamplayer," says Bob Dorfman, an ad exec at Pickett Advertising and author ofSports Marketers' Scouting Report. "I would rather spend my money on aWade, on a LeBron, even a Chris Paul, a Tony Parker, maybe a Dwight Howard. TheMcGradys are recognizable, but if I'm thinking about who has a chance to getpostseason exposure and win a ring, I'm probably going to turn away from guyslike that. I'll focus on the ones who don't remind me of the old days, whenthings maybe weren't that pretty."
Companies provedthat point this summer with Team USA. According to Mark Tatum, senior vicepresident of marketing partnerships at the NBA, the advertising interest was"tremendous" (even though TV ratings were miniscule) and that wasn'tbecause Brad Miller was on the roster. "A lot of the partners who signed upfor USA Basketball also sponsor LeBron, Dwyane and Carmelo," says Tatum."For example, Coca-Cola and Gatorade are both USA Basketball sponsors, andeach one has a relationship with Wade, Carmelo and James." Theircomportment in Japan repaired the damage done at the worlds in 2002, when thenational team not only finished sixth in Indianapolis but also engaged in uglyfinger-pointing.
Off-the-courtincidents have loomed large in this generation's demise. For many years Bryantwas the golden boy. But following his 2004 legal trouble in Colorado, he hasone 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 BodeMiller (53%).
Fans have alreadyspoken. 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 of2003--04.) Bryant, whose jersey topped sales for the '02--03 season, professesto have no problem ceding the spotlight. "I think it's great for thoseguys," he says. "I think it's really good for the NBA, I reallydo." Same goes for Carter. "I don't care," he says. "I'm nothere for that, the endorsements, the spotlight. I'm here to win. If you winbasketball 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 atalent. Carmelo is a talent. Each guy is a helluva player and a superstar. Youshould push them."
Sponsors certainlyseem inclined to, judging by the roster of big businesses--Microsoft, T-Mobile,EA Sports, Lincoln, Bubblicious--that have lined up behind James, Wade orAnthony. They are the next next big things, and the shadow they cast iswide.