NBA now stands for ‘No Basketball Anymore’
Next June, I’ll find something else to do with my time.
Maybe it’ll just be a simple shift in my TV sports viewing, where I concentrate instead on the Stanley Cup finals, golf or — shudder — even baseball. Or perhaps the free time will be put to more constructive use, such as my reconnecting with the family, tackling home-repair projects or extending sleep hours.
One thing’s for sure, though: The NBA is off the radar. For me, those letters now stand for “No Basketball Anymore.”
What caused me to give up on a league I’ve been following pretty much with regularity for more than four decades? Truthfully, my disenchantment with the NBA has been building for a while, but it reached its zenith during the just-completed finals.
By now, you know, of course, that the Miami Heat won their second straight championship, doing so largely because of a Game 6 rally that was both mind-boggling and, at least to anyone housing conspiracy theories, somewhat suspicious.
The San Antonio Spurs, long thought of as pro sports’ model franchise for their ongoing success and their players’ shortage of off-the-court drama, collapsed in a manner that just didn’t seem plausible. We’re talking about squandering a five-point lead in the last half-minute of regulation, which resulted in part from a couple of head-scratching personnel decisions by Spurs coach Greg Popovich, one of the all-time greats in his profession.
Sure, strange things happen in athletics, but what this occurrence did was assure the need for a Game 7 and, in the process, validate the opinions of countless basketball fans. From the very beginning of the NBA Finals, predictions of a seven-game series were rampant, as were forecasts that the Heat — the unquestioned darlings of both media members and NBA officials — would triumph in the end.
Right now, you might be saying, “So what?” Lots of best-of-seven series have gone the distance, in basketball, hockey and baseball, so why is this one any different?
In a way, it’s not, at least in comparison to some other NBA Finals. But therein lies the problem.
Basketball, by its very nature, is the most easily controlled sport. Whistle-happy officials can influence a contest to a far greater degree than their brethren in other team sports — awarding free throws, for example, can immediately break one team’s momentum and give the other one a big boost without taking precious seconds off the clock.
Free throws can also keep games close. In Game 7, Miami outshot San Antonio from the field — most notably from 3-point territory — and probably should have cruised in as an easy winner, but numerous trips to the foul line enabled the Spurs to remain in the hunt until the very end.
That’s an excellent way to maintain viewer interest. After all, what good is a Game 7 if it quickly turns into a rout and people change the channel?
And by winning another title, the Heat reinforced the idea that stockpiling talent through free-agent signings is the quickest way to the top. Teams in other sports have tried to do the same, but the New York Yankees have only claimed one baseball championship in the past 13 years and the Washington Redskins haven’t been to a Super Bowl since the days of the Reagan administration.
I also don’t believe the NBA has helped itself with its continued focus on a handful of big-market teams and big-name stars whenever it’s devising broadcast schedules for a given season. Heaven help the hoops fan who doesn’t have a rooting interest in the Heat, Los Angeles Lakers or New York Knicks, or whose favorite player isn’t included among LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Carmelo Anthony.
Outgoing NBA commissioner David Stern believes the league is wholly dependent on its star power, but that’s selling real basketball fans — not to mention the sport itself — short. Real fans do not turn off a game just because guys like James, Bryant or Anthony may have fouled out or are MIA for some other reason.
Leagues should market all of their teams and players, not just a chosen few. That has long been an NBA shortcoming — a year ago, for example, the finals were promoted more as LeBron-versus-Kevin Durant than the Heat-versus-Oklahoma City.
Think for a moment about the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and all the hoopla that annually surrounds its arrival. What is one of the tourney’s biggest selling points? The unexpected.
Interest in March Madness is always high, but the longer an unknown school can remain alive, the more excitement that builds. It’s the George Masons, Butlers and Florida Gulf Coasts that pique curiosity and encourage marginal fans to jump on the underdog bandwagon and start following the action more intently.
And isn’t it funny how that so often happens without an individual superstar to promote.
The NBA could learn something from the NCAA, but it won’t. Stern has always struck me as an imperious sort, someone who will gladly take a bow for the NBA’s growth in the past 30 years while failing to fully acknowledge the roles guys like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan played in marketing the league to a broader audience.
And let’s not forget some of the “unusual” things that have happened under Stern’s watch: the New York Knicks, based in the nation’s biggest media hub, wound up with can’t-miss prospect Patrick Ewing in 1985, the first year of the NBA’s draft lottery; the New Orleans Hornets, a franchise being operated by the NBA, gained the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft; San Antonio got fined $250,000 for not suiting up some of its players when the Spurs played in Miami during the 2012-13 regular season while the Heat suffered no punishment for basically returning the favor later on; and a former NBA referee once did prison time.
That referee, Tim Donaghy, long ago claimed the NBA encourages its officials to do what they can to ensure stars don’t foul out or certain teams don’t lose, an accusation the league has vehemently denied. Regardless of whether Donaghy was on-target or off-base, the NBA seems to have developed a World Wrestling Entertainment type of reputation among a great many fans, something Major League Baseball, the NFL and NHL have all managed to avoid.
Consider this — no road team has won an NBA Finals Game 7 in 35 years. Preplanned or not, that’s a string of home-cooked successes even Hulk Hogan never had scripted for him.
Thankfully, Stern is finally on his way out the door, but don’t expect his replacement to be much different from him. Hopefully, I’ll be wrong about that and the NBA will again be something I deem worthwhile to follow, but if I’m correct about Adam Silver, it’ll mean only one thing.
Basketball season will officially end for me on the first Monday in April.