NBA's link to 1990s continues to fade with Elton Brand's retirement

This is usually the way time passes, one quiet tick at a time until we glance back and notice all the doors that closed when nobody was watching.

Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett left the NBA over the summer to various levels of fanfare and will eventually come back together for a Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2021 that will tip the all-time heavyweight scales of grandiosity, noise and accomplishment.

Elton Brand slips quietly out a side door on the cusp of another season opener and it’s like the monthly meeting of vets at the American Legion Hall, where the attendance numbers grow small enough for everybody to sit at the same table.

Wasn’t it just yesterday that we were getting ready to celebrate the arrival of the new millennium and fretting the Y2K bug?

Now another entire basketball generation has all but come and gone. Perhaps fitting, too, in the year of Prince’s passing, merely a crowded handful left to party like it’s 1999.

Vince Carter, Manu Ginobili, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and Metta World Peace are the only remaining players left in the NBA who were drafted in the 1990s, an assemblage of championship resumes, high-flying images and colorful, stranger-than-life characters that could fill the highlight reels and a storybook.

But that story is not complete without a moment to recognize the resolute professionalism, the gentlemanly grace and the workmanlike effort that Brand brought to the NBA year in and year out on a nightly basis.

If that generation had a ground floor under its feet, Brand was there pouring concrete. The 6-8 power forward/center played for 17 seasons in the league and in that time his five different teams had a combined record of 572-806 (.415). His teams finished with a winning mark only twice (Clippers 2005-06 and Hawks 2014-15). He made the playoffs just five times. He won just two playoff series. He never stopped toiling and doing his part, right down to that final season when he was brought back to Philadelphia to demonstrate to the young, raw talent plain and simply what it means to be a professional.

You don’t judge a player or a man entirely by his win/loss record or only by the company he keeps. What if Shaquille O’Neal never made the jump to the Lakers to give Bryant a superstar teammate? What if Ginobili landed on a San Antonio team that didn’t already have Duncan as the tentpole? Would we have thought any less of Garnett if he never got the chance to team up in Boston with Pierce and Ray Allen?

Brand was drafted as the No. 1 overall pick out of Duke by the post-Michael Jordan Bulls in 1999 and averaged a double-double for two seasons. He was traded to the lowly Clippers and was stuck in that purgatory for seven long seasons, even after he thought he would be set free by an $84 million free agent offer sheet from Miami. But unexpectedly, inexplicably, the tight-fisted Clippers of Donald Sterling chose that as the time to open the wallet and matched, keeping him trapped in their web.

His two times named as an All-Star came with the Clippers as he steadily lifted them out of mediocrity with a game that was more Rock of Gibraltar than the Hollywood glitz of the Lakers. A more chiseled physique added quickness and a pick-and-roll game to his moves in the low post. His mid-range shooting touch and diligence to the task produced a season of 24.7 points, 10 rebounds, 2.5 blocked shots per game and a 52.7 shooting percentage in the 2005-06 season when the Clippers finally reached the playoffs. That was the season when Brand’s name was suddenly in the MVP conversation with the likes of Garnett, Duncan and Nowitzki.

“He’s up there with Kevin, Tim and Dirk,” veteran guard Sam Cassell said then. “And from here, I think he’ll be a six- or seven-time All-Star. In my eyes, he’s first-team All-NBA.”

For guard Cuttino Mobley, Brand wasn’t just one of the reasons he chose to join the Clippers as a free agent. “He was the reason,” Mobley said. “No disrespect, but it’s human that a lot of people are suddenly jumping on Elton’s bandwagon because they see something they like.”

What was not to like? He was affable and unfailingly polite, greeting security guards at arenas and every reporter with a notepad or microphone by name. He held open doors for assistant coaches and strangers, chatted with ushers and concession vendors and rarely let anyone see him without a smile on his face.

Even a torn Achilles’ tendon two years later that kept him on the shelf for all but eight games in 2007-08 didn’t stop Brand from going forward. He moved to Philly as a free agent for four seasons, a year in Dallas, then finally to Atlanta, where the 2014-15 season gave the Hawks and him their best season ever at 60-22. But by then he was just a bit player, with career low averages of 13.5 minutes, 2.7 points and 2.8 rebounds.

All the while around him, they were collecting rings and headlines and glory. Five championships for Kobe and Tim, four for Ginobili one each for Garnett, Dirk, Pierce, Terry and World Peace. Carter ruled the dunk world, became an eight-time All-Star and a playoff regular.

Now theirs is an era of receding hairlines, skills and memories, six left as Elton Brand quietly walks off the stage, fading fast in twilight.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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