Occasionally, people tell me that generational analysis is too philosophical -- that it doesn't translate easily into everyday life. What they're really searching for are concrete examples of how society and culture are significantly influenced by the the G.I.'s (1900-1924), Silent Generation (1925-1942), Baby Boomers (1943-196o), Generation X (1961-1981), and Millennials (1981-2002). These examples are abundant -- they're everywhere -- if we only take the time to think about why things play out the way they do. Allow me to share just one such example that recently captured my attention:
The 2006 National Basketball Association (NBA) Finals.
This year's NBA Finals are now over, and if you watched them, you witnessed something special. Whereas the NBA has lately been dominated by Gen X stars -- Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson are just a few that come to mind -- the Millennials have officially arrived.
This year's series featured the Dallas Mavericks vs. the Miami Heat. The atmosphere was electric; the energy level was sky high, as each game took on the tone and tenor of a Herculean generational battle -- almost like a team of big brothers (with one exception) against a team of their surly siblings. Any family with competitive boys would have loved this series.
The Mavericks -- a team full of Millennials clawing and fighting to dethrone the Heat's veteran group of Gen X warriors -- did not play in a manner indicative of their nickname. They were a true team in every way. There was no lone gunman. The Mavs are a younger, edgier version of the Detroit Pistons of old. They have their "bad boys," but because their clout in the league still unestablished, they were not able to get away with any of the antics that those great Pistons teams used to contain Michael Jordan. The same kind of hard fouls and team-wide rough play led by Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman proved extremely costly to this year's Dallas Mavericks. It cost them in the form of fines and suspensions. (Namely due to the vitriol of their truculent owner, Mark Cuban, that eccentric Generation X billionaire.) This team, the Mavs, perfectly represented Version 2 of the new generational prism that is now sweeping the NBA -- and the nation. These were Millennials working and playing with purpose. They were on the brink of a championship, just as many Millennials in the marketplace and in academia are on the brink of success, but their time has not yet come. The Millennials are the generation of future conquests, just as the Dallas Mavericks are the team of future championships.
Then there is the championship team, the Miami Heat.The Heat proved to be Version 1 of the NBA, and their success portends lessons that extend throughout society. In this team, you have a snapshot of the now -- the reality of why inter-generational collaboration results in winning. This is true in every arena, whether it's a business board of directors or a leadership team at a non-profit; and the Heat demonstrated that it is just as true in the arena of professional sports. Gary Payton, Alonzo Mourning, Shaquille O'Neal, and even Antoine Walker -- these were Gen X-ers whose days in the NBA are numbered. These warriors were all aware of the fact that this championship run could very well be their last and best hope for glory, so they came to grips with their limits (as even the best corporate and organizational Gen X leaders must do) and morphed into vital role players. In addition, you had Pat Riley, the idealist Baby Boomer who stepped down as General Manager to lead his team as coach.
Also on this team, you had one star Millennial, Dwayne Wade. If the Miami Heat were a ragtag group of warriors straight out of the movie "Lord of the Rings," (based on J.R.R. Tolkien's classic books) then Wade was the burden-carrying Hobbit willing to take on the responsibility of "dunking" the ring into Mt. Doom. (Taken a step further, this analogy could easily include Riley as Gandalf and the Gen X veterans as supporting trolls and fairies, not that any NBA player wants to be called a fairy.) Unlike some Millennials who are overeager for stardom, Wade was humble and submissive to a host of Gen X teammates on the Heat, starting with Shaq. Although Wade possesses extreme talent, the thing that stands out about him is his unique ability to defer glory to the previous generation.
For me, this moment of generational magic came to light during a post-game interview. ESPN reporter Steven A. Smith was asking his questions of both Wade and Shaq. Toward the end of the interview, Smith started to run down a list of Wade's accomplishments. His credentials seemed to swell with each sentence, and the list was impressive. Every viewer knew exactly where Smith was headed. He would compare Wade to Jordan. He would laud Wade as a messiah -- the savior of the Miami Heat of the NBA. It had happened before in countless interviews.
But Wade would have none of it. He shook his head, and his eyes were downcast in respect to the teammate at his side. He refused to let the reporter, Smith, compare him to Jordan. Wade seemed to be genuinely uncomfortable. Then the reporter finally popped his telegraphed question: "How do you feel about your accomplishments?" His target, however, had no time to respond. Shaq, the sage Gen X center who already had won three NBA titles, intercepted the question in a manner that gave weight to his generational partnership with the young, high-flying apprentice.
"He doesn't have to answer that question," said Shaq. "I will. I'm his publicist." As Shaq -- with emotion and sincerity -- began to list Wade's many outstanding qualities, I sat in front of my television dumbfounded. I was stunned. Shaq wasn't just naming his athletic accomplishments. He talked about Wade as a family man, about his compassion and his selflessness. Shaq said that Wade didn't have to speak; his game (and life) spoke for him.
"Lord of the Rings" fans might remember the end scene in "Return of the King." The newly crowned king admonishes the Hobbits for bowing down to him. "You bow to no man; it is we who bow to you." I was reminded of this kind of glory deferment when Shaq handed the MVP Award to Wade. Shaq even went as far as to swear his allegiance to him, saying that he would play by Wade's side any time. "And when I do next year," he stated, "we will win another championship."
Welcome to Version 1 of the NBA and of inter-generational magic. Enjoy it while you can. The future is rich, restless and hungry.