NEW YORK CITY -- The 83-year-old man may have been surrounded by five men representing a total of nearly 35 feet in height, but the octogenarian clearly wasn’t intimidated.
After pointing to each member of the group, the smiling 11-time champ Bill Russell raised a conspiratorial hand alongside his mouth and announced, “I would kick your ass.”
The assembled group of NBA legends -- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Shaquille O’Neal and David Robinson -- on hand to present Russell with a lifetime achievement award roared with delight, along with the crowd inside Pier 36 in New York City, where the inaugural NBA Awards were taking place.
If the NBA had a graduation ceremony, it might feel a little like the NBA Awards. Everyone dressed to impress and came out to put a bow on the 2016-17 NBA season. There was prime people watching before the show began, as retired players mingled with current players, who shook hands with entertainers and athletes from other sports. And so it was cool to see Chris Tucker excited to meet Wanda Durant, to see Dominique Wilkins chatting with Hill Harper, to see Allen Iverson greeting French Montana, to see James Harden playfully muss the hair of his coach, Mike D’Antoni.
As the evening went along and awards started to be doled out, multiple sentiments were invoked. There was raw emotion, courtesy of former New Orleans Pelicans coach Monty Williams, who was given the Sager Strong Award, named after Craig Sager, honoring Williams’ resolve following the tragic death of his wife, Ingrid.
“I would text [Sager] when he was going through a lot of chemotherapy and other treatments, and he would text me right back, and it was such an encouragement to me,” recalled Williams. “When I was with the USA Basketball team, we had an exhibition game in Houston, and he was there, and he went out of his way to seek me out. I just thought that was the coolest thing. He's just a really, really cool person, he was, and I know he and Ingrid are smiling on us in Heaven right now, and it's a blessing to be able to receive this award in his name.”
There was youthful determination, like from Bucks rookie Malcolm Brogdon, who went from being the 36th pick in the draft to being named the Kia Rookie of the Year.
“I want to say, this is a testament to guys that are underestimated,” Brogdon said, “guys that are second-round picks, guys that are undrafted every year that get looked over regardless of the work they put in, regardless of what they do. You can always achieve your dreams if you have faith.”
There were jokes from host Drake, and a star-powered musical performance from Nicki Minaj and 2 Chainz. And at the end of the night, there was drama, as the Kia Most Valuable Player was announced. After a season-long debate, we knew the final three would include Harden, the San Antonio Spurs' Kawhi Leonard and the Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook. Leonard was conspicuous by his absence, but with offensive powerhouses Harden and Westbrook in the audience, the final announcement of the evening came from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who presented the 2016-17 Kia Most Valuable Player award to Russell Westbrook.
“I remember growing up just being home, playing the video games and stuff with my Pops, and my mom sitting there and my brother and just talking about maybe one day I could be the MVP,” said Westbrook, who this season was the first player to average a triple-double for a season since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62. “Obviously I was joking at the time. But now to be standing here with this trophy next to me is a true blessing, man, and it's an unbelievable feeling, something that I can never imagine. So I'm just very, very thankful.”
When asked how he could possibly top this season, Westbrook said he had no idea. “I don't know. I don't know. I get asked that question every year and I never know the answer. I just go out and play to the best of my ability, and then whatever comes from it, that's what it is.”
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