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Do We Still 'Love This Game'?
[Opinion] One fan's reflections and concerns about the future of the NBA
David S. Elliott (de2797)     Print Article 
Published 2006-12-03 14:08 (KST)   
Sporting an official slogan that boldly declares, "We Love This Game!" the National Basketball Association (NBA) has a lot to live up to. While the league apparently presumes its fans' undying affection for the sport, the question remains, do "we" still love the game?

Official turnout numbers answer in the affirmative. By most measures, the 2005-06 season was a rousing success. The league finished the regular season with the highest average attendance in history, as well as the highest total attendance. Overall, NBA arenas were filled to 91.4 percent capacity.

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NBA Commissioner David Stern, when asked about the league's growth in popularity, said "Our attendance record is further evidence of the extraordinary connection that exists between players and fans, and we are thankful for our fans continued support and passion for the game." Stern was quoted on InsideHoops.com, a popular Internet messageboard that caters to die-hard fans.

Pronounced the most powerful commissioner of any major U.S. sport, Stern garnered the #1 spot in the 2006 Sporting News "Power 100" survey that rated the country's most influential sports figures.

Basketball has exploded in popularity around the globe in the last decade and a half. The NBA now has 11 offices in cities outside the United States, and during the 2005-06 season distributed programming to 215 countries and territories in 43 languages, according to Wikipedia and NBA.com. League games currently reach 3.1 billion viewers worldwide, and merchandise is sold in more than 100 countries on six continents. China is the NBA's second-largest market after the U.S.

In addition, opening night team rosters for the 2006-07 season featured a record 83 international players from 37 countries and territories, surpassing last season's 82. Twenty-eight of the 30 teams feature at least one international player. With a total league roster of 440, foreign-born players account for a full 19 percent.

So, it turns out that a multitude of fans all around the globe do indeed "love this game." But are there problems lurking beneath the veneer of success?

Early on, the media ratings are a bit off, as reported in Variety entertainment magazine. Specifically, TNT and ESPN are down in total viewers for the first three weeks of the new season. However, both networks are optimistic that the downward trend will reverse itself as the season progresses.

Many hard-core fans of the game, though, have much more serious concerns than slightly lower TV ratings. As someone who spent many a delightful hour watching the New York Knicks play in Madison Square Garden, I'm much more worried about a series of moves by Stern that seem designed to "corporatize" the league and remove much of its spontaneity.

My feeling is that this recent change in league direction came about as a direct result of the fallout from an admittedly ugly brawl involving NBA players and fans at a game between the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers on Nov. 19, 2004. The incident featured graphic scenes of senseless violence with players, most notably then-Pacer Ron Artest, rushing into the stands to attack fans. The images of large black males beating up white fans were broadcast ad nauseam on newsreels throughout the world. Not an image-builder for the league, to be sure.

The brawl, I believe, triggered a serious clampdown by Stern to "clean up" the game's tattered image. It started with a dress code requirement, established before the 2005-06 season, which forbad players not in uniform from dressing in casual clothes. Sport coats and/or suits became mandatory, doubtless causing owners of "Big & Tall" clothing shops to jump for joy. Many observers, myself included, took the new clothing rule to mean that Stern was deliberately reversing his previous embrace of the league's "hip-hop" culture that coalesced around popular players like Allan Iverson. It looked to many like a not-so-veiled attempt to make the league appear to be "less black."

As was feared then, the clothing rule has been taken to ridiculous extremes. On Nov. 11 the Indianapolis Star newspaper reported that Pacers star forward Jermaine O'Neal was fined $5,000 by the NBA for wearing his wristband too high up his arm! According to O'Neal, the offending band was a mere inch too high.

Witness also the new "zero-tolerance" policy enacted for the 2006-07 season, in which the referees have been given much greater latitude to issue technical fouls to players who complain too vociferously about calls made during the course of a game. I freely admit that perhaps a few players, most notably Detroit Pistons forward Rasheed Wallace, frequently went overboard with complaints, but the rule goes way too far, and amounts to collective punishment for the actions of a few.

Other mind-numbingly idiotic rules include forbidding players to remove their warm-ups at the scorers' table just before entering a game. Who knows what's coming next? Is smiling while on the court soon to become illegal?

Stern is quickly turning the NBA into a "no-fun zone." If players can't show their passion for the game then a major component of what makes the sport so great will have been obliterated.

Moves like these cause long-time fans to wonder what direction the league is heading in. Is David Stern unwise enough to legislate all of the fun and spontaneity out of the game? The players have joined in this concern, with the NBA Players' Association filing two unfair labor practice charges Friday, Dec. 1, against the NBA over issues with the new and highly unpopular "microfiber composite" ball and the league's crackdown on player complaints.

In my view, the most egregious overreaction to the aforementioned brawl was the extremely questionable selection of Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash for two consecutive Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards (in 2004-05 and 2005-06). Historically, the MVP has been awarded to a dominant "top-five" player, though there have been a few exceptions. Nash, however, is clearly the worst multiple winner in the history of the game -- by far.

Arguably, he isn't the best player on his own team, or perhaps even the second best. So why did the South African-born guard, very improbably, win an award -- twice -- that is usually reserved for the very best of the best? Could it be that Stern was seeking to project a "new face" for the league in order to appeal to those who still had memories of marauding black players punching out fans? Inquiring minds want to know.

Enough about the MVP. The next major area of concern is a marked lack of recent success against international competition. In the quadrennial World Championship (WC) tournament, a U.S. team has failed to win the gold medal since 1994, and in the Olympics since 2000. In the 2006 WC competition held in Saitama, Japan, the team came in third place, winning a bronze medal. The 2004 Olympics in Athens produced the same result. The 2002 WC tournament held in Indianapolis, IN, was disastrous, as a team beset by internal dissension stumbled to a sixth-place finish, the worst showing in history by a U.S. squad in iternational competition.

This turn of events has engendered an orgy of hand wringing and harsh criticism as fans and commentators have taken turns lambasting the "lazy" players for not dominating foreign competition. Suffice it to say that there is no dearth of proposed "solutions" to address the problem. The 2007 WC tournament to qualify for the 2008 Olympics is scheduled to be held in Las Vegas, NV, Aug. 22 through Sept. 2. We'll see what happens then.

There is a consistent theme here -- the world has caught up. Long gone are the days when a group of NBA players could just show up and easily pummel international opponents. That era passed after the first Dream Team, led by Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, performed in the 1992 Olympics -- perhaps the greatest collection of talent on one team in any sport in history. Now, the international teams, who feature a more pass-oriented, free-flowing version of the game, smell weakness and are more than eager to heap more indignities on the heads of the American players.

I've been saying for years that a U.S. national team of unheralded non-NBA players, who played together on the international circuit all year long, would be a much better solution than an over-hyped group of superstars who only have a month or so to practice together. But who listens to me?

All of this leads to a boatload of speculation as to whether the finest basketball is actually played in the NBA. Many media commentators have indicated their preference for the European-style game. Given the fact that American teams have been soundly beaten in international competition for the better part of a decade, one would have to be very foolish to dismiss this notion.

Making it all the more awkward is the fact that the NBA championship team is referred to as the "World Champion." How appropriate is that title? Shouldn't an NBA champion have to prove that it's the best team in the world?

To that end, I -- and many others -- would love to see a true World Championship series between the NBA and Euroleague champions. The 'PR' value, along with international interest in such a match would be enormous, and the games themselves would serve to settle all of the aforementioned questions regarding which side of the Atlantic the best basketball is played on.

This could certainly happen if the "powers that be" in the global basketball world wanted it to. The Euroleague holds its Final Four championship competition in late April -- this season to be held in Athens from April 28-30. The NBA Finals is scheduled to commence on June 7, 2007. Why not coordinate the schedules so that both championships occur at around the same time? Then afterward, the winners in both leagues would play the real World Championship.

NBA and Euroleague teams have already squared off many times in head-to-head competition. The 2006-07 exhibition season kicked off with the NBA Europe Live Tour, which featured four NBA teams playing against Euroleague teams in Germany, Russia, France, Italy, and Spain. Four standalone games were played, along with two tournaments in Moscow and Cologne. The tour took place Oct. 5 - 11.

Back in 1987 the Milwaukee Bucks defeated Tracer Milan of Italy, 123-111, in the first McDonald's Open tournament, held at the Milwaukee Arena. The Bucks then defeated the Soviet National Team, 127-100, in the championship game.

The first official exhibition game outside North America took place in 1988 when the Atlanta Hawks became the first NBA team to play in the Soviet Union. The Hawks defeated the Soviet Georgia All-Stars 85-84 in the opening exhibition game of their July 21 - 30 tour. However, the Soviet National Team defeated the Hawks, 132 - 123, on July 30 in a game played in Moscow.

The first McDonald's Open in Europe took place on Oct. 21, 1988 at the Palacio de Deportes in Madrid, Spain which saw the Boston Celtics defeat Real Madrid 111-96.

Summing it all up, to this long-time fan, the future of the league is filled with more questions than answers. The new rules on dressing and assessing technical fouls seem to me to be emblematic of David Stern's control-freak tendencies. Why is he really so intent on eliminating all vestiges of player passion and individuality? Is it to bring about a more corporate-appropriate public image? The commissioner has to be very careful that in seeking to attract more casual fans, he succeeds in alienating die-hard enthusiasts of the sport.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter David S. Elliott

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