Every two weeks, the gents at Free Darko will be taking a look at the deranged ecosystem that is the National Basketball Association in their own indelible fashion. Here's this week's entry, from Dr. Lawyer IndianChief.
In my everyday existence, both at work and in my leisure time, amongst friends and amongst enemies, and sometimes on this very Web site, when I express that my favorite sport is NBA basketball, I am often greeted with the same response, "Who still watches the NBA?" Such a question is posed not merely with astonishment such as in asking, "People still watch the NHL?" but rather the question is put forward with a touch of disdain, as in, "What kind of a person would still watch the NBA?" And of course, amongst the small community of Association fanatics that sides with me, we've had no end of discussions about why this response is common. There's the old 'pitching a cornrowed African-American product to a stodgy white audience' argument that Bill Simmons has mastered, there is the 'the league has gone into a post-Michael Jordan malaise' theory, plus the simple absurd argument that the game is simply no longer of a high quality due to the influx of high school players, Europeans, and players who left college to soon. Pick your favorite argument—the fact still remains that the NBA lags heavily in popularity behind Major League Baseball and the National Football League.
I will waste but a paragraph of electronic ink on my all-too-obvious thesis on why this is the case: The MLB, even in its most roided up state, has tradition and Americana on its side. The NFL's reign over the NBA has always been a bit more puzzling to me, as the game, with its plethora of schemes, options and gameplans is not easily comprehensible to children and laymen. Furthermore, given the attire and the sheer size of NFL rosters, most of its players are not easily identifiable. As I have watched more and more football over the past few years (moment of honesty: I went on somewhat of a six-year NFL hiatus after the Vikings lost the NFC Championship game in 1998), the answer has become transparent: the NFL kicks the NBA's ass because its players inflict and endure way more physical pain, often in ways that are totally awesome. Instrumental aggression and violence are curiosities as old as time, and the NFL supplies them endlessly. To a certain degree, the same argument can even be made for baseball, a game chockfull of hit-by-pitches, collisions, diving, and brawls. The NBA, on the other hand, always a finesse game to begin with, has gotten less and less physical over the recent years.
The metaphorical career death of bruiser Alonzo Mourning a couple weeks ago may well be the death of his more physical era: Karl Malone's elbows. Knicks vs. Bulls. The Bad Boys. Rambis vs. McHale. Anthony Mason, Dennis Rodman, and Charles Barkley. Charles Barkley vs. Godzilla. Charles Barkley vs. Shaq. These are icons of a not too far-gone era that could never exist in today's game. The NBA's emblem of physical hardiness for the past decade or so has been Allen Iverson, a tiny guy who now plays as a somewhat muted and confused second option for the Nuggets, a light-as-air flurry of a team. Now the best they throw at us is that Dwayne Wade commercial in which he repeatedly crashes to the floor. Funny thing about Wade is that all that wear and tear has deemed him as injury prone as anyone in the league—hardly the iron man that we've been looking for. During the playoffs, they try to sell us players like Raja Bell and Udonis Haslem as the new millennium "tough guys," but the age of true enforcers is long gone. Now, I don't mean to dredge up nostalgia for things that happened when I was five years old. I simply am pointing out that the decline in NBA popularity is correlated with this decline in physicality and pain.
The last time I witnessed people who clearly didn't care about the NBA become completely transfixed on the events of a hardwood professional basketball floor was three years ago. I was sitting in Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap, a divey University of Chicago bar, which on a Friday night consists more of nerdy, vaguely Bohemian academic types than of neighborhood Chicagoans.
The event shown on the bar TVs, of course, was the infinite replay loop of the Ron Artest melee at the Palace of Auburn Hills. Shoving, punching and then insanity ... what it took to get the NBA back into the public consciousness and at the top of the headlines. "Spurs Win Championship" is a formality; "Malice at the Palace" is real bleeding, leading news. Ironically, it was the fallout from the Artest brawl that led Stern to clamp down on even the slightest intention toward violence in the NBA [Somewhat important non-sequitur: Stern's crackdown on violence coincided with the league's increased emphasis on defensive handchecking rules, which also limited the physicality of play].
Artest received a record-setting penalty, to set a precedent for future brawlers. Carmelo Anthony, early in the season last year, received a ridiculous 15-game suspension for his involvement in a fight at Madison Square Garden. And in a more recent display of Stern's pomposity (that will surely diminish the likelihood of ever another star player raising his fists) he suspended Amare Stoudemire in last year's playoffs for merely leaving the bench in sudden reaction to Robert Horry hipchecking Stoudemire's teammate and floor general, Steve Nash. Of course, Horry—another relic of the gutsier era of decades past—was also suspended for the incident, to which he responded, "I'm from the old school. When I came in the league, during the playoffs, foul hard; no blood, no flagrant foul. It was just a hard foul...Of course, when you've got 150 (pounds) meets 250, 150 is going to go flying. It's all good. You learn from it and move on."
Stern's post-Artest plan to make his game more palatable to his paying customers in a sense backfired, alienating the viewing public that wants to see men bear down and go at it like men. I'm not going to Google-search the numbers right now; I'm sure the NBA is bigger than ever in China, Greece and Brazil. But among the sports-watching people in the United States, the NBA is losing support as the pain, moxie and grit of the game have diminished. Americans watch sports to observe the outer limits of human possibility. The closer to the extremities of human endurance, the closer to near insufferable pain and sensation, the more exciting.
Hockey has had its own recent struggles that have precluded it capitalizing on this fact. Other sports, for example boxing, are sometimes seen as containing a surplus of violence. NBA basketball, however, a lightning fast game of slipping picks and outlet passes, a game that owns "swish" as its signature onomatopoeia and the dunk as its signature move, must regain some degree of true physical hurt, for it to regain its rightful place as the universe's most prominent sport.