In Association with
The View From the Cheap Seats

The State of the NBA

By Dave Lind

I can still remember hearing about Magic Johnson's contract on that new all-sports network that probably wouldn't last, ESPN. Twenty-five million dollars over twenty-five years. A staggering contract, both for its amount and its length, and one that made me wonder about what it was that the Lakers could possibly be thinking. A million dollars a year? Madness!

It is the early 1980' s and baseball is still the king of the American sporting landscape. The NFL is mired in a temporary lull as the dynasty teams of the Seventies (Steelers, Cowboys, Dolphins) have gone dormant and the Niners, Giants, and Bears have yet to establish their dominance in the coming decade. Boxing is thriving on the super bouts of Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler, and Tommy Hearns. Hockey remains in its comfortable little niche and somewhere out there in North Carolina a skinny kid with his tongue hanging out is getting ready to take the sports world by storm.

Fast-forward two decades and million-dollar contracts are still every bit as rare as ever, but for a different reason. The contracts players now sign are worth tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars. NBA players make movies, sell rap albums, choke their coaches, and have their own line of clothes.

Oh, and did I mention, David Stearn was wondering what's wrong with the NBA?

It seems the NBA is having a little bit of a hangover. After two solid decades of financial growth, the bubble seems to have burst. Attendance is down, TV ratings are lagging, fan interest is plummeting, and things in general just don't seem right in Hoop Land. What's wrong?

Here are five theories, in no particular order:

Jordanitis: This appears to be the most popular theory out there now. It's no coincidence that the NBA's surge in popularity coincided with Jordan's appearance on the scene. He soared, he scored, he dunked and, in time, he won title after title after title. He was everything the American sports fan craves: A winner who was likeable, a likeable guy who won.

Unfortunately, short of cloning, there is not much of a remedy. You can't replace Michael Jordan anymore than you can replace Babe Ruth. All you can do is move on and wait for Joe DiMaggio.

However, when the next NBA messiah appears, you have to be able to take advantage of his particular gifts, whatever they may be. The NBA success story is nothing if not a clinic on how to exploit your assets to your maximum benefit. The three- point line was perfectly timed to take advantage of Larry Bird's long-range sharp shooting skills. The All-Star Slam Dunk Contest showcased the leaping athleticism of Jordan and fellow dunk artist Dominique Wilkins. The twenty-four second shot clock speeded up the game and paved the way for Magic's Show Time offense. Identify those players who the fans are really connecting with and find ways to make effective use of their particular talents and gifts.

Quality of Play: This is something that current players and fans certainly don't want to hear, but it is nonetheless true. Fifteen years ago, to make the playoffs you not only needed quality at every position on the floor; you also needed it on your bench. Most of the better teams ran seven or eight deep in honest-to-God, ready-for-the-NBA players, and some went as far as nine or even ten. Nowadays, if you can fill out your starting five you're a shoo-in for the playoffs and even if you can't you still have a shot.

Don't get me wrong, there is every bit as much talent in the NBA as ever, possibly even more. The problem is it's so much younger than it was twenty years ago. Back then if a player left school early for the NBA it was a player like Magic, Jordan, or Moses Malone. Absolute, can't miss, sure thing, once-in-a-decade talents. Even then most of them spent at least a year or two in college refining their games. Now, every glassy-eyed eighteen-year-old with a dream is declaring for the draft as soon as his agent blows out the last candle on his birthday cake. They come into the game with less experience, less education, less training, less maturity, less sophistication, less patience, less of a concept of "team play" and less willingness to learn from those who've been around and know. The only things they have more of are money and ego. All of which has translated itself over the years into a markedly lower level of play.

Image: In a way, this is tied in with the previous issue in that; as the maturity level has dropped so too have the standards of behavior. Young people, ungoverned, will behave like young people or, to put it simply, boys will be boys. Where once the game was played at its highest level in all facets of the game, today's stars are content to focus on that aspect that will generate the most attention: scoring, in general, but more specifically the dunk.

Yesterday' s game was one of ball movement, help side defense, and blocking out. Rebounding and assists were valued stats, and players actually followed their own shots! Today's game is one of clearing out so Vince Carter can swoop in for a dunk or Allen Iverson can drive the lane, not to dish off to a big man inside, but to throw up some impossible dream of a shot that somehow goes in. Players race up and down the court throwing down monster dunk after monster (yawn) dunk and posing for the cameras. If any defense is played at all it is geared toward blocking a shot so as to set up a fast break.

Aging of Society: This is a reach, perhaps, but not as much as you might think. What fueled the NBA' s meteoric rise in the mid-eighties was its popularity among the younger demographic. The NBA marketed itself as a hip, flashy, fast-paced alternative to the older, plodding sports like baseball and football, and it worked. Gen X'ers flocked to the games in record numbers, and business boomed. On playgrounds across the country teenagers proudly wore numbers like 23, 33, and 32 on their backs as they imitated Jordan's tongue wagging dunks, Bird's arcing three-pointers, and Magic's no-look passes.

But now those Gen X' ers are thirty-somethings and, as is the normal course of such things, their sporting interests have shifted from the playground to the golf course. Think I'm mistaken ? Come on, you don't think all those people just like Tiger because he's black, do you?

Which brings us to the issue that everyone is aware of but no one wants to talk about:

The Race Card: It is no secret that ninety percent of the players in the NBA are of African-American descent. Without going into all of the socio-economic reasons behind this or evoking memories of Jimmy The Greek, let us just accept this fact as a statistical quirk and focus more on the effect than the cause.

The simple fact is, rightly or wrongly, basketball has become a "black sport". African-Americans dominate the rosters of every NBA team and a large and increasing share of college teams. It is growing increasingly rare to see two white guys on the floor at the same time, or even one. The Caucasian-American is a rapidly vanishing creature on the NBA landscape.

So is all of this just sour grapes? Ethno-paranoia? I don't think so. I think white people are losing interest in basketball for the same reason that black people show little interest in hockey. It's the same thing we've heard from the NAACP for years regarding the dearth of African-Americans on network TV. And you know what? They're right. People are drawn to other people like themselves. They identify with them more easily, and thus share more easily in their success and their failure. When given a choice between watching a program with, versus a program without, persons of their own race, most people, black and white, will choose the former.

Now, we can bog ourselves down in an endless debate over race in America and what we should do about it, but that's not the point of this article. At issue is what the NBA can do to re-ignite fan interest in their sport. And regardless of how uncomfortable we are around issues of race, there can be no disputing that it is a factor in the NBA' s declining popularity. Michael Jordan appealed to fans across racial lines, so it can be done. The NBA needs to ask itself how it can make the entire game, not just it's marquee player, do the same.