Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Stern Judgement

I was reading A People’s History of Sports in the United States by Dave Zirin the other day, and in the ninth chapter there is a section entitled “The NBA Rises to a Beat”. This section explains how the rise of hip-hop (and obviously Michael Jordan) was directly related to the emergence of the NBA as a widely and intensely popular entity during the 1980’s. He explains how the rise of hip-hop “came at a time when the NBA was on its deathbed. Basketball was played inside half-empty arenas, the finals were shown on tape-delay, and most people associated the game with drugs, violence and decrepitude.” This was also how the general public viewed the hip-hop culture, and with the NBA now being predominantly black players these two public perceptions became intertwined.

Then along came a young new commissioner named David Stern to save the day. Stern was the opposite of that perception of the NBA player. He was short, somewhat pudgy and quite obviously Jewish, but he somehow understood the relationship between hip-hop culture and his league and realized he needed to embrace it. And so the NBA did. Hip-hop music was injected into promotions and in arenas, and not the angry, violent rhymes that basketball’s white audience was so afraid of. Easy going raps about basketball became a symbol of the NBA and it didn’t hurt that they accompanied images of a young man who defied the laws of physics with his exciting play, Michael Jordan. Stern took a wildly popular superstar who provided a good image for his league and an element of his employees’ culture and made them and the league rise to the acceptance of black and white fans alike. The NBA has become a national powerhouse.

Reading that section got me to thinking about the popularity of the NBA during David Stern’s tenure as commissioner, and how things have fluctuated for better and worse several times over during his regime. This popularity established in the 80’s did not last forever. Things changed with the start of what I like to call the “Allen Iverson Era” starting around 1996, his rookie year. Iverson was a supremely popular superstar who possessed quickness and one-on-one scoring potential like nothing the NBA had ever seen, especially from a player his size. After Iverson froze Jordan with one of his patented crossovers and shook the NBA world, team basketball became an afterthought. Players like Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, and I’ll say it, Paul Pierce, emerged as fan favorites for their one-on-one scoring ability which translated into a “me-first” mentality throughout a lot the league. This act got old quick, and fans of the team basketball of previous years that were not just looking for the next highlight on Sportscenter lost interest in the game. Sooner or later this turned into a disconnect between the players and the fans as Iverson’s image began to spread throughout the league, and seemingly half of the players in the NBA were sporting “corn-row” hair styles, a bevy of intimidating tattoos and baggy clothing that turned many fans off from these stars due to the same perceptions as we saw in the 80’s. The NBA’s popularity dropped significantly due to this combined with the ’98-’99 lockout that completely deterred basketball fans from the NBA.

But just like in the 1980’s, Stern was able to turn things around. He didn’t do this without any luck though. Teams like Tim Duncan’s Spurs, Shaq’s Lakers and the well-balanced Pistons became the symbols for success in the league. Teams that played together, were unselfish, and had the role-players that it takes to succeed in the league were what fans saw. Then when Steve Nash, the ultimate sign of unselfish play, was traded to the Suns and won two consecutive MVP awards, fans could see the selfish image of the NBA game decline. Then Stern made another great move for the league’s image. In 2005, he installed a dress code that outlawed the Iverson-like get-ups and gave the NBA’s players a more professional image with their clothing, which led to a change in their overall attitude and image. Young players like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard emerged at superstars who were incredibly exciting, but also conducted themselves professionally on and off the court. The “gangsta” image was gone from the NBA, and its popularity was as high as ever.

Today, we face a new set of problems. The NBA players have become selfish again, but not on the court. Stars are worried more about their image and making as much money as they can than what actually happens on the court at times. Free agency has been exploited and selfishness has reared its ugly head worse than ever. This idea, of course, culminated with the 2010 free agency period and James’ “The Decision” broadcast. James, the face of the NBA was exposed as a self-absorbed, image obsessed, greed machine as he completely decimated the Cleveland Cavaliers franchise and did it in a way that showed that he only cared about himself. Much like the other players in the league did with Iverson, more and more NBA players have begun to emulate James’ image. They want endorsements, admiration and are obsessed with the business end of things rather than what is actually happening on the court. And now due to the greed not only from the players, but the team’s owners as well, the NBA once again cannot come to a Collective Bargaining Agreement, and we as the fans are losing out as the season continues to be postponed with the potential of cancellation looming.

This lockout reflects very poorly on David Stern and a league that was already developing strong notions of selfishness and greed. It is clear that Stern, the players and the owners care more about their own profits than the fans that provide them. When play finally does resume again do they expect fans to simply forgive and forget and continue to sink our hard earned money into their product and their deep and greedy pockets? For the second season in a row, if there is a season, I, a former Celtics season ticket holder, will make it a point to not attend one game at the TD Garden or any other NBA arena this year. I am sure I speak of many fans when I say I want to see some changes before I invest in the NBA product again. What will you do this time, David Stern? Can you save the NBA again?

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