The NBA's Troubles Exposed
After Team USA's failure in Athens, a globalizing NBA must now restore America's place at the top of international basketball
From the Print Edition:
Cigar of the Year, Jan/Feb 2005
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Several owners, like those in Sacramento and Dallas, have already voiced displeasure about their players competing in international events. Dallas owner Mark Cuban has several foreign players—including star Dirk Nowitzki from Germany—and disapproves of his stars playing in other tournaments. "He says, 'I'm paying these guys millions of dollars. I don't want them playing, what do I get in return? This is my business; my fans and my subscribers are affected,'" says Craig Miller.
Beyond the Olympics, the NBA has other concerns. The league is looking at overseas expansion. "We think it will happen down the road, but it won't be anything imminent," says Granik. "We've done some serious analysis of the situation over a year or 18 months. We think the marketplace is really good, but until there are some first-class arenas, it doesn't make sense to do anything. There are plans to build a new building in London and another in Berlin. If you add a few other cities, you might get the critical base that allows us to do it."
The league also wants more offense than the current 93.4 points per game. "We're monitoring it," says Granik. "There are new defensive rules, which allow you to play any defense, subject to the defensive three-second rule, and I think what's happened in the past few years is that teams have finally adapted to that and learned how to do that very well. In the next stage the offenses have to adapt. You're not likely anytime soon to see scores [averaging] over 100, but I think you might see them go up a little bit."
How is this going to happen? "I think we allow a little more contact than we used to on players driving to the basket," Granik says. "So we've addressed that with the officials this year. If you use your forearm to try and slow a player down, then that's a foul. We want as free-
flowing a game as possible. We don't think that will have a huge impact on scoring. There always was contact in the post: just watch a video of Paul Silas and Dave DeBusschere going at it. But there's more contact on the perimeter. So this year we are going to try to clean that up."
But what can a league that had a stratospheric run do for an encore? Starting in 1980, the NBA staged its greatest-ever competition, a rivalry between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers that touched the ether. At the same time it had attractive stars synonymous with that rivalry in Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. By the time that rivalry ebbed, Michael Jordan had established himself as a singular talent learning to mold his mates into six-time champions. What is the follow-up tag to the Johnson-Bird-Jordan era?
During the playoffs last spring, Commissioner David Stern smiled and said, "Michael Who?" suggesting that the league has gotten past the retirement of the game's supernova and forever standard bearer, Michael Jordan. Is it so?
Jordan drew even the casual viewer to the TV set, hoping to get a glimpse of magic. Who fills that role in 2005? Is the commissioner suggesting that anyone in last year's Finals replaced Jordan for sheer "I-just-gotta-see-this-game" magnetism? Listeners were treated to countless Kobe Bryant numbers, especially his "scoring average on nights following days in Colorado," where his rape trial continued. The stats were offered up so frequently that broadcasters managed to pull off the ultimate sleight of hand: no one mentioned that the young "Next Jordan" missed 60 percent of his shots in the Finals. No comparable performance exists in the Jordan annals.
When Bryant beat the rape charges, it hardly mattered to some. In their minds he was a casualty. He had self-exiled himself from the promo lands of Gatorade and McDonald's and entered punkdom, a place from whence he still misses 60 percent of his shots. Then came Ron Artest, who would redefine thug. Not even Latrell Spreewell—who choked his Golden State coach, P. J. Carlesimo, during a practice eight years ago and was suspended for 68 games—served up the kind of water cooler litmus test and crystallized the sensibilities of a nation the way Artest and the brawl would.
Many opinions have come forth since the incident, many as errant as a Shaq free throw. Charles Barkley—who never runs out of incendiary remarks—holds the remarkable view that Artest was "defending himself." In actuality, he was retaliating. Defending himself was required only after he charged into the stands, where all the rules changed. The argument that Artest's fury was motivated by race is also specious. If the cup that landed on him had been thrown by a black Detroit fan, would Artest not have vaulted into the stands? No, this was unchecked rage. Artest is the same guy who had seven prior league suspensions and who, weeks prior to the fight, had the chutzpah to ask for time off from his onerous schedule to promote his rap album. Artest needs help. Until he gets it, basketball talent and adolescent idiocy will be running neck and neck, competing for dominance in his life.
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